E3 Harelbeke. The race with the controversial promo posters (maybe to compensate for the dull fact that it’s named after a motorway?) Another 200+km jaunt around Flanders in the second of this week’s Flemish trilogy. Like Dwars door Vlaanderen, the race is packed with bergs and cobbles in the second half of the race.
The bone-shaking starts a little earlier in E3, with the Katteberg coming after 30km, followed by two sectors of cobblestones. Then comes a flattish section for 50kms before the fireworks start – fourteen climbs coming over 90km, with around 5-10kms separating them. Needless to say, this is where the race will be blown to bits. They include, and we’re going data heavy here and linking to their Strava segments, rather than just repeating “and this has a maximum leg popping gradient of 10+%”, La Houpe, the Oude Kruisberg, the Knokteberg, the Hotondberg, the Kortekeer, the Taaienberg, the Boigneberg, the Eikenberg, the Stationberg, the Kapelberg, the Paterberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Karnemelkbeekstraat, and, finally, the Tiegemberg, after which there will be less than 20km left to race and if there is a group with at least 30 seconds advantage the winner will come from there.
The likely places for the race to splinter and with a strong attack by a select group or solo rider to occur are the Taaienberg (via a Boonen special), Paterberg or Oude Kwaremont. However, last year Sagan and Kwiatkowski attacked late, on the unassuming, and unpronounceable, Karnemelkbeekstraat and stayed away for the remaining 30km, and in a prelude to this year’s Milan-Sanremo, it was the Polish rider who won the sprint.
Kwiatkowski isn’t here to defend his title, instead, Sky has Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard leading the team. Rowe was in good form in the opening classic weekend, finishing 3rd at Kuurne and 6th at Omloop. Stannard was 3rd here last year and will be approaching his peak. It’s really a toss-up between these two and will likely be decided on the road and by who makes it into the right moves.
Second to Kwiatkowski was Peter Sagan, a man who is the epicentre of the races he enters at the moment. His move on the Poggio at Milan-Sanremo last week will go down as one of the greats. He won here in 2014 and was second again in 2013. We know he can launch an attack where ever he feels is right, regardless of where it is on the course, and make it stick. The podium is a minimum expectation for him.
Greg Van Avermaet has had a slight dip in form at Tirreno and Milan-Sanremo. Flanders next week is his main goal and he’ll be expected to be contesting the finish here amongst the same climbs and cobbles he’ll face a week on Sunday. BMC are back with their first team here, with Oss and Quinziato, and as such should be well in the mix in the later stages of the race.
Quickstep will hope to continue their winning form this week and add to Yves Lampart’s win at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Five-time winner Tom Boonen is back in the squad for this and he looks in lean, mean shape at Milan-Sanremo as he drove the pace at the front of the peloton. He’s hitting top form for his final three weeks in the pro peloton and perhaps he has agreed to riding in the service of others until Flanders and Roubaix come around. With that in mind Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra will be the likely main options. All three rode brilliantly at Dwars door, so who to pick? Again it will be decided out on the road, but the relentless climbing makes us favour Gilbert or Stybar.
Lotto Soudal has had a disappointing classic season up to now. Tiesj Benoot and Tony Gallopin were left isolated in the chasing group, with Jelle Wallays up the road and unable to keep pace with the leaders. Benoot will be the leader here and expect the team to throw their full weight behind him. He is still riding with something to prove, despite the obvious talent, and a win still eludes him.
Trek-Segefrado brings back the big guns of John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven. It’s the Belgium who is wearing the #1 dossard, with Degenkolb building to his return to Paris-Roubaix. The German also couldn’t stick on Sagan’s Poggio attack, so perhaps the intense short uphill efforts aren’t his strength at the moment, another reason to focus on Roubaix. Stuyven was second at Kuurne and was third on stage 6 at Tirreno behind Gaviria and Sagan, so he’s got great legs. Fabio Felline is also a strong third option, but the constant short, sharp climbs could be his undoing.
We keep saying this, but Cannondale-Drapac still hasn’t had a World Tour win since the Tour of California last year! Sep Vanmarcke came close at Omloop but hasn’t looked great since then. The tide has to turn for both he and his team soon, we know he can cope with the course and compete with the best. We can’t take it much longer, and neither can Johnathon Vaughters. COME ON SEP!
Edvald Boasson Hagen has been fairly quiet of late. Usually, when we notice this about a rider he goes on and takes a win. We’re hoping this to be the case here. He has also promised so much in these races but never taken a big win. With the likes of Eiesel, Farrar, Renshaw, Thwaites and Thompson in support this season surely must be his best chance.
Oliver Naesen has finished a minimum of eighth in the Belgium classics he’s been in. His sixth at Dwars door this week was particularly impressive as he had to recover from a mechanical towards the end of the race. Another great young classic hopeful, if he finds himself in the final group bet on him to take his first classics win.
It feels strange not to say that Alexander Kristoff is a favourite, but we just don’t feel that he’s up there at the moment. He’ll likely go and smash it out the water tomorrow and prove us foolish and wrong, but we’re not betting on it. He’s got time to be back up and fighting for Flanders next week and a good showing here will do wonders for him and the likes of us who aren’t feeling his vibe at the moment.
Outsiders to look at for are Luke Durbridge and Alexy Lutsenko after their respective fourth and third finishes at Dwars door. Lars Boom needs a serious turn of future as he has DNF, DNF, seventy-ninth after his name in the three previous Belgium races. Finally the young dutch rider Floris Gerts is a rider to watch out for. We’ve mentioned him previously as being one for the future, due to his win in the junior Omloop in 2015. He’ll ride in the service of Van Avermaet, but if given a chance he could surprise.
Our Pick: Luke Rowe has looked in the best form he’s been in at this time of year. Sky has a history at this race and is also riding a crest of a wave (away from the media and internal UCI investigations). He is a Flandiran born in Wales and must be close to taking a big cobbled win.