Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) proved he is back to his prime form, winning E3 Prijs-Vlaanderen from a large group sprint. “I’m very happy. It’s my first little record. I was eager to win and now there’s a little bit less pressure on my shoulder. I like a big win ahead of [the Tour of] Flanders,” Boonen said.
The former world champion seemed to start his sprint too early from the final bend, but unlike his finish in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where he went too soon and lost to Sep Vanmarcke, this time Boonen had enough speed to hold off Oscar Freire (Katusha), who made a late lunge for the line.
“Everybody misjudged their sprint I think,” Boonen said. That included Spanish star Oscar Freire, who regretted a great opportunity to add the E3 Harelbeke on his palmares. “I came here to win the race but I made a big mistake in the sprint. I was really good and I saved my legs during the last kilometers as I expected a sprint. We couldn’t see the finish and I started the sprint too late; I sprinted only in the last 30m,” Freire said.
Sky's Bernhard Eisel was third. “You could see everybody was tired,” the Austrain said. “I was fourth at 1km from the finish but nobody was moving over anymore.”
The final escape with Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana) and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) was pulled back by the efforts of Vacansoleil-DCM and Team Sky with 7km to go, and then Sky got to work pulling for the sprint. An attack from Leif Hoste (Accent Jobs-Verandas Willems) with 3km to go never got far, with Saxo Bank, Katusha and Quickstep all vying for the sprint.
There were many talking points to take from a race that featured numerous crashes and a suspected broken collarbone for Garmin-Barracuda’s David Millar.
While tackling the long pavé section of the Paddestraat after 64km of racing a group of nine riders went the distance. The group included
Belgians Gert Dockx (Lotto-Belisol), Nico Sijmens (Cofidis), Sébastien Delfosse (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) and Kevin Hulsmans (Farnese Vini – Selle Italia). The latter had two teammates from his Italian team in the breakaway group, Luca Ascani and Oscar Gatto. Damien Gaudin (Europcar), Gregor Gazvoda (AG2R La Mondiale) and Michael Morkov (Team Saxo Bank) completed the nine-man leading group.
Ten kilometres further in, the peloton had to stop at a railroad crossing and this meant the gap grew up to a maximum of 6:45. That gap dropped back to five minutes when approaching the legendary Muur in Geraardsbergen, thanks to the efforts of the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team. The pace in the peloton remained high during the following 20km and when arriving in La Houppe for the real start of the hill zone the gap was down to two minutes.
In the descent of the Boigneberg there was a major crash in the peloton. Several riders went down at high speed including Millar (Garmin-Barracuda), Koen de Kort (Project 1T4I), Jelle Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator), Jens Mouris (Greenedge), Sébastien Hinault (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Jan Gyselinck (Cofidis).
On the Taaienberg Boonen cranked things up a gear. Vanmarcke struggled to keep his wheel but he was the first to follow. Cancellara, Devolder, Ballan, Leif Hoste, Luca Paolini and Björn Leukemans were the first to bridge up, with John Degenkolb, Alessandro Ballan and Edvald Boasson Hagen joining this group little later. Ian Stannard (Sky), Matteo Tosatto (Team Saxo Bank), Daniel Oss (Liquigas), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Filippo Pozzato , Tony Gallopin, Bernard Eisel (Sky) and Maarten Wynants (Rabobank) followed suit.
There were too many riders in the group to co-operate effectively and Gallopin sneaked away on the twisting roads between the Taaienberg and the Kruisberg. Thanks mainly to the efforts from the Europcar team the favourites were caught back.
In front the three Farnese Vini riders were still present, alongside the likes of Morkov, Dockx and Gaudin. When tackling the Kapelberg at 43km from the finish only six riders were left in the front group, with the peloton led by the Omega Pharma-Quickstep boys at 20s. In the background Philippe Gilbert (BMC) abandoned the race.
The twin climbs of Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont were the next obstacles to face the riders. Gatto hit the Paterberg in first position, with Hulsmans blocking the way for the rest of the leaders. Behind them Boonen led the first part of the peloton over the Paterberg but no big gaps were created. Gatto reached the Oude Kwaremont with 45 seconds on the peloton, where Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) set the pace when hitting the cobbles.
Cancellara took over the command and only Vanmarcke, Boonen, Pozzato and Sagan were able to keep up. But then bad luck struck the Swiss rider, who flatted while still on the Oude Kwaremont. He received a new bike but right after the tough climb Cancellara collided with a spectator and a Rabobank rider for further bad luck.
Forty seconds behind Gatto there was a group of thirteen riders including Boonen, Vanmarcke, Pozzato, Sagan, Chavanel, Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana), Simon Spilak (Katusha), Luca Paolini (Katusha), Van Avermaet, Leukemans, Ballan, Matti Breschel (Rabobank) and Degenkolb.
With 30km to go Chavanel, Spilak and Muravyev chased down Gatto. Spilak dropped back but the two others bridged up with the Italian on top of the Knokteberg. Painfully enough Gatto flatted right after being caught back. In the chase group Vanmarcke blew up on the Knokteberg and only nine men survived the penultimate climb: Boonen, Sagan, Degenkolb, Pozzato, Ballan, Van Avermaet, Iglinsky and Leukemans. Meanwhile, Cancellara worked hard in the peloton of about forty riders at short distance from this group of favorites. The situation at 21km from the finish: Chavanel and Muravyev with 25 seconds on a large group of about 50 riders.
With 15km to go Stijn Devolder accelerated on the Tiegemberg. Pozzato added a counter-attack to that but their efforts were in vain to break away. Meanwhile the two leaders were brought back in sight on the long wide roads towards Harelbeke. Another counter-attack with Vincent Jerôme (Europcar) and Niki Tersptra (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) was marked by Sagan, Leukemans, Vanmarcke and Langeveld. Shortly afterwards their move was neutralized as well and the stage was set for Boonen to prevail in a sprint finish that played to his strengths and delighted the home supporters.