Britain's Geraint Thomas finished on the podium as Peter Sagan sprinted to his first win of this year’s Classics at E3 Harelbeke in Belgium.
Both riders formed part of a five-man breakaway on the 15th of the day’s 17 climbs and Sagan went on take victory ahead of second-placed Niki Terpstra and Thomas in third.
It was Sagan’s third win of the season and sets him up perfectly for Sunday’s defence of his Gent-Wevelgem title and then a bid for a first Monument triumph at the Tour of Flanders on April 6.
The decisive move was forced by a fierce injection of pace from Team Sky rider Thomas on the famous Oude Kwaremont climb, 32km from the finish.
Thomas drives breakaway
Although Omega Pharma – Quick-Step duo Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh and Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb were able follow straight away, Cannondale rider Sagan was initially distanced and had to fight back to the group with a determined effort.
Degenkolb could not handle the tempo being set by Thomas over the remaining two climbs and fell away, leaving the remaining quartet to battle it out for victory.
Vandenbergh was working to set up Terpstra, the winner of Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, and it was the giant Belgian who led out the sprint.
Thomas was the first man to respond, but when Sagan emerged from his slipstream 200m out, the Olympic track champion had no answer. Sagan eventually won by more than two bike-lengths, with Terpstra pipping Thomas to second.
Thomas told teamsky.com afterwards: "I think I rode it as best I could. Going up the Kwaremont I thought I would just get stuck in, attack and see what happens. Obviously, it forced that group away, but heading into the final with two Quick-Steps and Sagan, it was pretty tough.
“I just felt I didn’t have the punch that Sagan and Terpstra had, so I thought I would just gamble it all in the finish. When Vandenbergh went I wanted to be first to go after him and hopefully get a bit of a run to hold off a couple of the others. Unfortunately, Terpstra got round me on the line but I gave it everything. That is all I had and I’m pretty happy with that."
Behind them, Fabian Cancellara, who had won the race in three of the previous four years, saw his chances of retaining the title all but ended when he was caught behind one of multiple crashes on the day, 40km out.
The Trek Factory Racing rider produced a magnificent performance to make his way back to the second group on the road, where he was also joined by five-time winner Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step), but although they closed to within 35 seconds of the leaders, they were unable to reduce it any further and eventually gave up the chase.
1 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale, 4:56:31
2 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, same time
3 Geraint Thomas (GB) Team Sky, st
4 Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, st
5 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Belkin, +1:16
6 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Belisol, st
7 Borut Bozic (Slo) Astana, +1:19
8 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Sharp, st
9 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing, st
10 Greg van Avermaet (Bel) BMC, st