In years past, this E3 Harelbeke might have been the kind of race where Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) did too much too soon, or too little too late, or otherwise contrived to squander a winning hand.
Over the past 18 months or so, however, Van Avermaet 2.0 has cast off a supposed fear of events – his 2011 Paris-Tours triumph always seemed to be overlooked, as though to fit with the prevailing narrative – and steadily begun compiling a palmarès commensurate with his talent.
The Olympic champion came through this dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders without making any significant errors, and then confidently dispatched Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) in the three-up sprint to take his second cobbled Classic victory of the year after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February.
"It's not a Monument, that's for sure, but it's a nice win," Van Avermaet said afterwards, mindful that his Spring campaign will be judged on how he fares at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix over the next two weekends.
"I know how hard it is to win here. I was only on the podium here once, in 2008, so that says enough. Every year I come back with high expectations, and every year these kinds of races are really hard. I'm happy I've got two in my pocket. At the beginning of the season I said that Flanders is my biggest goal, and that still has to happen. But it will be nice to start Flanders with two nice victories already on my home soil."
The dynamics of the winning break were intriguing, as Van Avermaert had a long-time friend and a one-time foe for company in the finale. He went clear from the decisive selection with his training partner Naesen and his former teammmate Gilbert on the Oude Kwaremont, with almost 40 kilometres still to race.
One wondered whether Van Avermaet and Naesen might combine to work over Gilbert, but if there was an informal understanding, it unravelled over the top of the final climb of the Tiegemberg. When Gilbert's fierce acceleration distanced Naesen on the climb, Van Avermaet put in a turn on the front in a bid to prevent his friend from latching back on. The three eventually rode to Harelbeke together, where Naesen opened the sprint from distance, and Van Avermaet saw off Gilbert for the win.
"Everybody was racing for himself and Ollie is riding for a different team," Van Avermaet said. "It wasn't fun to take a pull after coming off Tiegemberg when Phil attacked, but that's racing. I have to fight with the weapons I have. Getting to the finish with two riders is better than with three. I wouldn't have attacked to get rid of him, but when Phil attacked fiercely, it was man against man. The cooperation between Oliver and me was good, but that was also the case with Phil. We were all happy to be on the podium. In the end, it's a hard fight and not a moment to hand out gifts."
As a young rider, Van Avermaet left Lotto in frustration at Gilbert's preeminence in the team's Classics unit, and when they reunited at BMC in 2012, theirs was a most uneasy alliance. After their first season together, BMC’s management opted for a Solomonic approach and split the Spring campaign between them – the cobbles for Van Avermaet, the Ardennes for Gilbert – and there was something of a détente between the pair as the years rolled by. Now on opposing teams, the old tensions appear to have dissipated, at least if their light-hearted appearance side by side in the Sporza studio at the finish was any indication.
"We're the same type of rider and sometimes it wasn't easy when we were on the same team to take the right decisions," Van Avermaet said. "For me, Phil is a big champion. Like you saw today, he always rides. It's cool to have him with you, because he gives 100 per cent effort. It was a good feeling. When he was in my team, I could not jump after him. Today I could jump after him because he riding for another team."
Sagan and the Ronde
E3 Harelbeke is not an end unto itself, of course, and no winner is allowed much time to linger on his victory. Over the course of the Tom Boonen era – and thanks in no small part to Tommeke's five victories – the race has earned a reputation as the most important dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders. Victory in the 'Kleine Ronde' often marks a man out as the de facto favourite for the following week, but Van Avermaet insisted that world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) remains the man to beat.
Although Sagan was live to the danger when Boonen forced the first major selection on the Taaienberg with 70 kilometres to go, he was wrong-footed when Gilbert ignited the decisive move shortly afterwards and never threatened to get back on terms. A crash ahead of the Paterberg ended Sagan's challenge altogether, and he rolled into Harelbeke almost 11 minutes down.
"Peter crashed, so he remains the top favourite for Flanders. I'm heading to the start with great form, but I'm a level below Peter," said Van Avermaet, who has, however, developed the rather useful habit of out-manoeuvring Sagan in the finale of important races, most recently at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. "Peter is someone who wants to race. I'm not afraid to ride away together with Peter. If the good guys go on the attack, it's more fun to race and slightly better for me."
The Tour of Flanders, however, offers a very different challenge to E3 Harelbeke. "It's longer and the pace tends to drop more often. Today, you know that if you're in front at the Taaienberg and if the race is wide open, then it's possible to keep riding to Harelbeke," he said. "The Tour of Flanders is more difficult, you can't go so early. I have to wait for the Taaienberg, Koppenberg and Kwaremont. I can't cover every move. It's more tactical and it's up to me to take the right decisions."
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