Defending champion finished ninth after being delayed behind a crash in the final 40 kilometres.

Fabian Cancellara said he did all he could in his unsuccessful attempt to defend his title at this afternoon’s E3 Harelbeke in Belgium.

The Trek Factory Racing rider finished ninth, 80 seconds behind winner Peter Sagan, after being delayed in a crash on the approach to the Paterberg climb with 37 kilometres remaining.

Cancellara managed to rejoin a group which contained long-time rival Tom Boonen after, but was unable to bridge across to the four leaders who contested the sprint for the victory.

“In that moment I did just what had to do: continue the race and not give up,” said Cancellara. “But it was on most important point to be [at the] head [of the peloton], because when you go towards the Paterberg and Kwaremont, you know 100 per cent that there will be big explosion there.

“I could not expect more from the race. I can still be happy how I finished. I did what I could, I had help from the team all day, Stijn [Devolder] did his work until he had no energy left. Sometimes it’s like this, the world won’t go under.”

The 33-year-old Swiss rider has won this WorldTour race three times – last year, and in 2010 and 2011 – and he followed the first and most recent of those successes with victory at the Tour of Flanders.

And ahead of next Sunday’s Ronde, Cancellara insisted that he can learn a lot about how the strengths and weaknesses of his rivals from today’s race.

He said: “It was interesting to see how things went in the race, and [how] the other riders and teams [are faring]. We saw a strong Peter [Sagan], we saw a strong Quick Step who did not get the win.

“It’s good like this, I’m not on the podium but I got good experience. The parcours was new, the race was different, there was warmer weather [than last year], there was no wind…there were lots of things I have to look at when I go over the race.”