A couple of years ago another podium placing in a Spring Classic would have been no good to Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). Since his transition from nearly-man to world beater, however, defeat has become a little easier to stomach.
He was even able to refer to Friday's E3 Harelbeke as "training," presumably with next Sunday's Tour of Flanders – now the one big absentee from his springtime palamrès – in mind.
So there were few regrets for the Belgian as he finished third behind solo winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), whom he felt was worth every ounce of his victory.
"I was super happy with my legs, with my race," said Van Avermaet. "I put a lot of effort in, it was good training also for me, and in the end, I'm also pretty happy with my result – I'm on the podium. OK, it's not a win, but I know how hard it is to win these kind of races, so I'm pretty happy with what I did today."
Van Avermaet rode an aggressive race but admitted he was outmanoeuvred by Quick-Step's strength in depth. After a mid-race crash had slashed the peloton, Terpstra went clear with teammate Yves Lampaert over the Taainberg, and the duo spent most of the race out front together while the chase groups chopped and changed behind.
Initially quiet in the chase, Van Avermaet attacked with just over 50km remaining and settled into a three-man pursuit with Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) – though the latter, of course, was a mere passenger.
"It went very quickly because of that crash. Quick-Step were there with six guys and then it was difficult for the other riders because there was always someone from that team in the wheel. It was difficult to turn the race back into the right fold," he said.
In the end, Terpstra's victory was as much a story of personal strength as collective. After saying thank you and goodbye to the flagging Lampaert with 25km to go, he held his advantage over the final climb of the Tiegemberg and all the way to the line in Harelbeke.
"He was super strong," said Van Avermaet. "On the big road we went pretty fast but didn't get too much closer to him, so in the end probably the strongest guy won.
"If you go from 70km to go, or whatever it was, and finish it off, you can say a lot of things, but I think the smartest thing is to say that Terpstra deserved the win."
If there was a tinge of regret, it surely would have been the fact he had two teammates with him in the finale in Jurgen Roelandts and Stefan Küng, both of whom tried attacks. The trio were singled out for a slight bit of criticism from fifth-placed Benoot, who reckoned that they should have done more to reel Terpstra back in, with the gap as low as 15 seconds in the final few kilometres.
"If we really take the lead with two guys, then also the others can save their legs and then it's hard," Van Avermaet countered. "You have some fast guys like [Matteo] Trentin and those guys in the group, you had Gilbert who never did one pull, Styabr also was not pulling, then it's a big risk. So we tried to do our best but sometimes it's complicated in a race."
Peter Sagan's subpar display with a 26th place finish was added consolation.
"He remains Peter Sagan, of course, you always have to take him into account, although it is good to see that he too can have an off-day."
Van Avermaet returns for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. Once again his status as reigning champion will relieve some of the pressure, but there'll be nowhere to hide at the big one next Sunday.
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