Niki Terpstra became the first Dutchman in fifteen years to win E3 Harelbeke and led a Quick-Step Floors 1-2 as Philippe Gilbert took second.
Terpstra soloed to victory in the prestigious Belgian race, adding to the list of Quick Step Floors wins in this season’s one-day races, after the ones of Le Samyn, Dwars door West-Vlaanderen, Nokere Koerse, Handzame Classic and Driedaagse. It was a well-deserved and hard-earned win, which came on the back of a well executed strategy by his team who had incredible strength in depth.
The first key moment of the race surfaced with 100 kilometres to go, when a big crash in the peloton split the field, leaving 30 riders in the front, including the entire Quick-Step Floors squad. Tim Declercq and Iljo Keisse put down the hammer, trading ferocious pulls as they increased the advantage over the chasers to over a minute and brought the gap to the breakaway down to two minutes. On the iconic Taaienberg, the team put the race in the gutter and forced a massive selection.
Just before the top of the climb, Yves Lampaert and Niki Terpstra powered clear from the group, looked over their shoulders and saw their teammates slowed down the chase of the opponents, which gave them a boost to push on and build a 20-second gap, catching the last two escapees, Damien Gaudin (Direct Energie) and Pim Ligthart (Roompot), in the process.
Lampaert, the reigning Dwars door Vlaanderen champion, buried himself for Terpstra at the front and took the gap to almost a minute, as behind Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar marked the moves of Peter Sagan (bora-hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).
On the narrow and twisty roads of Flanders, Lampaert and Terpstra – both former World TTT Champions – soldiered on over the Stationsberg, the Paterberg or the Oude Kwaremont, the longest hill of the race. It was after the latter that a regrouping took place, when a large group caught the chasers, but the Quick-Step Floors duo continued to fight hard, until with 23 kilometres to go, when Lampaert ran out of steam, just before the slopes of Tiegemberg.
Terpstra – who earlier this season soloed to victory at Le Samyn – still held 30 seconds over the top of the hill as he made use of his time trial skills to pace himself, but the advantage began to drop inside the last ten kilometres, on the long straight roads to Harelbeke, where the chasers made visual contact with him.
As a result, several attacks shaved off half of the deficit, but once again, Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar played their role to perfection, tracking down every single acceleration, hindering the chasers’ effort and ensuring Ter’s gap didn’t dip below 15 seconds and was still a hefty one in the closing kilometres.
Completely drained, but with his arms high in the air, Terpstra arrived at the finish, where he celebrated Quick-Step Floors’ 33rd victory in a cobbled classic and cementing his reputation as one of the best one-day riders of his generation. Philippe Gilbert made it a 1-2 for the team, as he easily sprinted from the ten-man group.
“This is one of the biggest wins of my career and the fact that it came in such an important race gives me even more pleasure. It wouldn’t have been possible without this awesome team, the way they all rode today – from Tim and Iljo who spent a ridiculous amount of energy at the front of the bunch and Philippe, Florian and Zdenek who reeled in every move to Yves’ fantastic effort – this was a perfect display of the Wolfpack spirit”, said Terpstra afterwards.
“I was disappointed after last year, when I came out of the season winless, but the hard work in the winter paid off today and now I’m very happy. The success in Le Samyn gave me a lot of confidence and showed me I’m on the right track. Many thought we were crazy to attack 74 kilometres out, but we knew we could make something special today. The toughest moment came on the highway, inside the last ten kilometres, but I didn’t crack and rode my heart out there, managing to finish off the team’s brilliant effort with this win.”