Van Avermaet and Sagan braced for Quick-Step menace
Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and world champion Peter Sagan will face a Quick-Step onslaught as the business end of the spring classics gets underway with Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Belgian outfit Quick-Step laid down a marker on Friday in the E3 Harelbeke semi-classic with a dominant team performance that propelled Dutchman Niki Terpstra to a breakaway victory.
His Belgian team-mate Yves Lampaert had buried himself as part of a two-man escape group in the final 70km of the 206km race around Flanders.
Once he was spent, he left Terpstra out alone with a 40-second gap and 25km to ride.
The chase group contained Van Avermaet and several other one-day classic specialists but Quick-Step employed Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar to try and break up the pursuit, which they did successfully, helping Terpstra stay away.
And with the likes of former world champion Gilbert prepared to play the role of foil, Quick-Step will be hard to beat.
"We rode a great team race," the 35-year-old said after finishing second at E3.
"I took on the role of 'stopper'. Maybe I had the legs to win but the important thing is the team won."
With the race run over an almost identical, if shorter by 60km, route to next Sunday's Tour of Flanders, form at E3 Harelbeke can be a useful indicator, whilst also a help to hone tactics for more prestigious appointments.
A week after Gent-Wevelgem is the Tour of Flanders, followed seven days after that by Paris-Roubaix, before the cobbled specialists take a break and the spring season moves into the Ardennes.
As they do every year, Quick-Step look like the team to beat, not least as they boast Terpstra, the 2014 Paris-Roubaix winner, and Gilbert, who won Tour of Flanders last year.
Alongside that, Stybar has twice finished second at Paris-Roubaix, where Lampaert was seventh in 2015.
Such cobbled classics strength in depth is not something either Van Avermaet, Paris-Roubaix winner last year, or 2016 Tour of Flanders laureate Sagan can boast.
Both have proved in the past, though, that team strength, or a lack of it, has not hampered their ability to compete for the biggest prizes, while Quick-Step have previously suffered from the individual ambitions of their biggest stars.
Gent-Wevelgem will certainly be telling as recent winners have gone on to land one of the two 'Monument' cobbled classics later in the year.
Sagan won Flanders a week after his second Gent success in 2016 while last year Van Avermaet had to wait just two weeks to land Paris-Roubaix after crossing the line first in Wevelgem.
Besides those big names, a cluster of Belgian nearly men will certainly aim to animate each race.
Sep Vanmarcke seems to have missed his best chances, having twice finished third in Flanders and three times in the top four at Paris-Roubaix.
He's 29 now and while his history of spring classic near-misses reads much like Van Avermaet's did until last year, Vanmarcke suffers from a total lack of a kick finish, meaning he has to be in a solo breakaway if he wants to win.
Tiesj Benoot, Jasper Stuyven and Oliver Naesen, not to mention Wout Van Aert could also have their say but it would take quite a leap for any of those to find themselves on the top step of the podium.
© 2018 AFP