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.