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On the start line at E3-Harelbeke - Gallery

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John Degenkolb gives out the autographs

John Degenkolb gives out the autographs
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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The roll out

The roll out
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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The start and finish line

The start and finish line
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Tom Boonen was in demand this morning

Tom Boonen was in demand this morning
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Peter Sagan went down well with fans as he was interviewed on stage

Peter Sagan went down well with fans as he was interviewed on stage
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Peter Sagan and his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates

Peter Sagan and his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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The Quick-Step team rolls down the ramp

The Quick-Step team rolls down the ramp
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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A beer tent set up outside the team buses

A beer tent set up outside the team buses
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Edvald Boasson Hagen returns to the bus after signing on

Edvald Boasson Hagen returns to the bus after signing on
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Johan Van Summeren is getting some DS experience in the AG2R team car at the classics

Johan Van Summeren is getting some DS experience in the AG2R team car at the classics
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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E3-Harelbeke makes plenty of room for VIPs

E3-Harelbeke makes plenty of room for VIPs
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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There are only a handful of riders on disc brakes today

There are only a handful of riders on disc brakes today
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Five-time winner Tom Boonen readies himself for his final E3-Harelbeke

Five-time winner Tom Boonen readies himself for his final E3-Harelbeke
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Riders line up for the start of E3-Harelbeke

Riders line up for the start of E3-Harelbeke
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Is Oliver Naesen due a breakthrough victory?

Is Oliver Naesen due a breakthrough victory?
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Peter Sagan with some pre-race stretches

Peter Sagan with some pre-race stretches
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Sep Vanmarcke chats to compatriot Tiesj Benoot

Sep Vanmarcke chats to compatriot Tiesj Benoot
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Greg Van Avermaet looks at a Trek-Segafredo rider's bike and says "It looks like shit"

Greg Van Avermaet looks at a Trek-Segafredo rider's bike and says "It looks like shit"
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Alexander Kristoff on the start line

Alexander Kristoff on the start line
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Tom Boonen's spare custom Tarmac

Tom Boonen's spare custom Tarmac
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Daniel Oss meets the 'Tifossi'

Daniel Oss meets the 'Tifossi'
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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A close-up of Van Avermaet's bike

A close-up of Van Avermaet's bike
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Daniel Oss has a fan club over here in Belgium - the 'Tifossi'

Daniel Oss has a fan club over here in Belgium - the 'Tifossi'
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Course notes were taped onto many stems this morning

Course notes were taped onto many stems this morning
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Lotto Soudal's stem notes

Lotto Soudal's stem notes
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Local support for Sep Vanmarcke

Local support for Sep Vanmarcke
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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The crowds gather outside the Bora bus for a glimpse of Peter Sagan

The crowds gather outside the Bora bus for a glimpse of Peter Sagan
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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The cars are packed full of spare kit

The cars are packed full of spare kit
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Tom Boonen's custom-painted Tarmac. No disc brakes

Tom Boonen's custom-painted Tarmac. No disc brakes
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Alexander Kristoff's fans were out in force

Alexander Kristoff's fans were out in force
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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No disc brakes today for Tony Martin

No disc brakes today for Tony Martin
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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The long straight road where the team buses are parked

The long straight road where the team buses are parked
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Philippe Gilbert is in fine form after finishing runner-up at Dwars

Philippe Gilbert is in fine form after finishing runner-up at Dwars
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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A silver bike with gold accents for Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet

A silver bike with gold accents for Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Boonen is immediately mobbed as he steps of the Quick-Step bus

Boonen is immediately mobbed as he steps of the Quick-Step bus
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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Trek-Segafredo's bikes

Trek-Segafredo's bikes
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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A Fabian Cancellara fan

A Fabian Cancellara fan
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)
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The beer was flowing before the race

The beer was flowing before the race
(Image credit: Patrick Fletcher)

The countdown continues apace. Nine days from the Tour of Flanders and 16 days from the final race of his professional career, Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) received the heartiest acclaim as the peloton gathered for the start of E3 Harelbeke on Friday.

A five-time winner of the race, Boonen's run of victories – 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2012 – helped to establish E3 Harelbeke's place as the essential dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders. As a token of gratitude, the organisation presented Boonen with a composite photograph to commemorate his record haul of victories on the signing-on podium.

"If you start well here, then the whole series of Classics often goes well," Boonen said. "You've got to know when to be in front and when to hang back."

A year ago, his Quick-Step team was wrong-footed by Michal Kwiatkowski and Peter Sagan's winning move on the Karnemelkbeekstraat, and Boonen warned against a repeat. "A scenario like last year should be avoided. We had to chase and we didn't get much support. We must try to anticipate. If riders do manage to get away, then we'll have someone up the road."

Boonen is just one of many potential winners in a Quick-Step Floors line-up that includes Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Matteo Trentin and Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert, who placed second at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. After being side-lined for the cobbles in favour of Greg Van Avermaet at BMC, Gilbert is making a return to a full cobbled Classics programme at Quick-Step.

"They're races I love, but I've never done better than get a few placings. I won Het Nieuwsblad a couple of times but I've never won a big race in Flanders and I'd really like to change that," Gilbert said. "I think the whole team is capable of winning, that's our strength. We need to be on the front foot, on the offensive, and then the best will win."

Van Avermaet arrives at E3 Harelbeke hoping to bounce back from a low-key showing at Milan-San Remo, though the Olympic champion is mindful that his spring will be judged largely on where he finishes in Oudenaarde on the first Sunday in April.

"Harelbeke is always important. I've never had a very good result here, but it's an important test of condition ahead of Flanders," he said. "At San Remo, it's true that I wasn't at the level I'd wanted, but today is another day."

As part of Peter Sagan’s carefully-curated public image as something of a free spirit, his Bora-Hansgrohe squad had the sounds of adolescent favourites Blink 182 blaring over speakers from their team bus, to the bemusement of passing locals swilling beers from plastic glasses, but the world champion was among the most loudly cheered when he arrived to sign on shortly afterwards.

Sagan proceeded to delight his hosts by attempting to pronounce the word 'Karnemelkbeekstraat' at the instruction of speaker Michel Wuyts, but added that his legs could speak for him in the finale.