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Greg Van Avermaet pips Philippe Gilbert to the line at E3 Harelbeke

Jack Elton-Walters
24 Mar 2017

Olympic Champion triumphs in sprint finish to head an all-Belgian podium at E3

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) just did enough at the last to win E3 Harelbeke as he out-sprinted breakaway companions Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale).

After some slow motion cat and mouse, in which time the two chasing groups ate into the lead trio's advantage, it was Naesen who attacked first with 200 metres to the line.

Both Van Avermaet and Gilbert reacted, but it was the Olympic Champion who proved strongest, although with perhaps 10 metres more, or had he chosen a slightly smaller gear for the sprint, Gilbert may have got the better of his compatriot.

Gilbert was once again active at the front, after his strong ride at Dwars door Vlaanderen earlier this week, and and he led a strong group up to the original breakaway with 58km left to race.

The lead soon went out to 45 seconds despite a strong push from Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) on a cobbled sector. Martin's teammates came to the front to help with the chase but made little dent into the lead.

With 49km to go the leaders had increased their advantage to over a minute and it was starting to look as though the winner would indeed come from the front group.

World Champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) went down in a crash and then took a long time to get going again due to the damage sustained by his bike in the fall. His absence sapped yet more impetus out of the chase.

Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) tried his luck off the front of the peloton and then took up team duties, setting the pace for John Degenkolb. For all their effort the gap to the leaders still went out to over two minutes.

As he did at Dwars, Gilbert put the hammer down on the Paterberg and shelled most of his companions. The next strong move came on a flat cobbled sector with 38km to go, the result of which was Gilbert, Van Avermaet and Naesen going clear.

Once they were gone they never looked back and it wasn't long until it was clear that they would form an all-Belgian podium.

Naesen looked in trouble first when he was dropped on the final climb, but a huge effort brought him back to the other two leaders. He then sat on the back for a while, pulling faces to demonstrate his – perhaps real, or perhaps exaggerated – fatigue.

All three riders then took their turn and kept the gap to the second group on the road at a safe distance until it was guaranteed they would remain clear, only slacking off in the final kilometre as they prepared to fight for the win.