It may not be the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix but chances are millions have heard about this race in recent weeks. Only for forget the Photoshopped poster because the E3 Harelbeke is a real race that’s growing in stature to become one of the finest cobbled classics of the season. Better still there’s a long list of riders and teams who really need a win starting from today.
The Route: 218km across East and West Flanders, the race is an out-and-back loop with 17 bergs back-ended into the route. There’s a familiar but never comforting list of hellingen which really get going in the final 100km. The Taaienberg is orphaned without Tom Boonen but the narrow gutter is an obvious way to line out the peloton and get rid of some rivals.
The Paterberg is the daddy of the all, a 12% climb but with a moment at 20%, hard enough on asphalt but it’s rough cobbles and better or worse, very exposed to the wind. It’s chased by the Oude Kwaremont, a climb of two halves with a tarmac start before the steep part on cobbles and then pause before a drag up rough cobbles, it’s 2.2km long making it the longest berg and the ideal place to split the field to pieces. From here there are 40km to go, a long ride with rhe final two climbs of the Karnemelkbeekstraat is 1.2km at 6.5% peaking at 12% and the Tiegemberg, a regular road of 1km at 6%, nothing fierce but the fatigue can tell.
The Finish: a long headwind section from the final berg all the way to Harelbeke before race spirals anti-clockwise into Harelbeke before the flat finish in town.
The Scenario: eliminate or be eliminated. The weather looks awkward, just enough to allow teams to exploit the wind to their advantage. If they don’t then they’ll risk a bunch sprint and the random result. Even those with competent sprinters will want to shrink the bunch down.
The headwind return to Harelbeke suits a bunch sprint as it could neutralise attacks but this only means others will be keen to go clear on the bergs before. Get a gap here and the bunch behind is also going to be sapped by the wind, a “loser’s curse” applies because which ever team decides to chase risks doing the work only for others to profit.
The Contenders: who needs to win the most? It’s money time for Peter Sagan. A salary of four million Euros, plenty of which are being spent to deliver results in the classics. He won the race last year with ease, dispatching Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vanderbergh and Geraint Thomas with predictable ease in the sprint. Sagan’s got just what it takes to repeat because he can scale the climbs and then win the sprint from a reduced group, he can even afford to lose this race to signal to others that he can play a tight game of poker. But is he on top form? He was strong in Sanremo but not decisive and his Tirreno win “only” came after a strange day’s racing. He needs this to prove he’s at the top of his game. He’s got a stronger team too, hardly the dream team but Maciej Bodnar and Matti Breschel should be there in the final and both could slip away for the win while the others fear the Slovak.
Does Geraint Thomas want to win? Surely yes but he probably needs to today too. He’s often been Team Sky’s Plan B in the classics and this could be his chance before Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins want support, certainly Wiggins’s absence means Thomas moves up in the pecking order. The Welshman is in form, can climb well and has a tidy sprint too. Ian Stannard too will want some reassurance that he didn’t peak too soon in the Omloop; it didn’t seem so because he was following the Etixx-Quickstep trio rather than forcing the pace, his sprint isn’t famous so he’ll look to use his power to escape. Luke Rowe is capable of a result too.
Sep Vanmarcke needs a win. His 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win was great but he has to find winning ways again in the spring classics. He needn’t panic but his team might be, Lotto-Jumbo are still without a win this year. Even if he’s got time on his side and will surely land a big result one day, he has been showing the kind of form in recent years and already this year to suggest the E3 would only be a stepping stone to a win in the Ronde or Roubaix. But for all the talk, the promise and the expectations he has to start delivering in the spring classics. He looked supreme in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad only to be undone by a puncture. If he’s as good now a result this spring is overdue.
Greg Van Avermaet also needs that win to take him from consistent contender to certain bet. BMC’s squad is stronger than ever for the classics with Jempy Drucker seemingly at ease in the red and black, while Silvan Dillier returns after his neo-pro debut and there’s Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato and Marcus Burghardt.
A win for Fabian Cancellara could put his season back on the perfect track. Everything is going right, he won the final time trial in Tirreno, was well-placed on the Poggio but… his impressive stance on the Sanremo podium came to an end last Sunday and he was “only” seventh. His win here in 2013 was doubled up by his win in the Ronde. Stijn Devolder might emerge from hibernation and Gert Steegmans should bolster the team. Cancellara’s been working on his sprint but the tough weather conditions suit him as it’ll provoke more selections.
Etixx-Quickstep need a win too. The Belgian press holds them to standards higher than any other team and now the pressure rises given the team’s leaders Dutch and Czech. They’re missing Tom Boonen in many ways. As well as the local hero he brought a physical presence to the team but his sprint has been an insurance policy for the team, maybe they didn’t claim it but Boonen could always beat others in the finish – he won the race in 2012 taking a 50-strong bunch sprint. The threat of this meant once a move was away with some other Etixx-Quickstep riders nobody would want to chase as it only meant ferrying Boonen to the finish. Instead the team can take turns to fire riders up the road so take your pick from Zdeněk Štybar, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Yves Lampaert. The latter two are promising but GVK’s been diagnosed with oesophagus problems, essentially he gets big acid reflux and there’s not much he can do to fix this; while new hire Lampaert is proving himself already. Collectively they need to win to show they can win without the Boonen sprint card and to make amends for Stannard’s Omloop overwinning. There’s also the matter of office politics, a strong show today means getting support for the Ronde and Roubaix.
Alexander Kristoff is an obvious choice to clean up in the sprint. The Via Roma was just a bit too long for The Bull of Stavanger yet if anything the E3 just isn’t hard enough for him, he’d be a better pick for the Ronde or Roubaix.
Lotto-Soudal collectively need a result. They’re having a good time on Catalonia but the classics campaign isn’t so promising. Many eggs are in the Jurgen Roelandts basket, he’s returning to form and will probably use this as a test before the Ronde. Tiesj Benoot is having a storming debut although a win would be wild while Kris Boeckmans is a sprint option.
FDJ have a strong stage racing cell built around Thibaut Pinot but Marc Madiot’s passion is the classics. Only the team are almost invisible, their misfortune symbolised by Arnaud Démare managing to crash while climbing the Poggio. Démare isn’t riding so Matthieu Ladagnous and Johan Le Bon will have to improvise. Cannondale-Garmin are also sporting the cloak of invisibility in the classics and they too will have to try long range moves to gamble with Jack Bauer, Dylan Van Baarle and Sebastian Langeveld, who made the front group in Milan-Sanremo.
MTN-Qhubeka have been visible but the recruit of strong riders has delivered wildcard invitations a go-go but no results yet, it’s hard to see them winning in the biggest of races but today is just the event where a win is within range. Edvald Boasson Hagen is the best bet while Tyler Farrar brings experience and a fast finish. Lampre-Merida have been easy to ignore in the past but Davide Cimolai, Niccolò Bonifazio and Sacha Modolo are all outside chances for the podium.
One man with almost no need to win is John Degenkolb. It’s mission accomplished already in Sanremo but this only plays to his advantage, he can rely on a strong team to get him in the right place and if a group arrives in Harelbeke we’ll see that headbanging sprint again.
Lastly the one starter for whom a win would mean nothing is Nairo Quintana. The Condor of Tunja rides to experience the cobbles and the twisting roads of Flandes. He won’t win but he is steely when it comes to holding position in the bunch, look to see if Movistar try a drill or two. Meanwhile Costa Rican Andrey Amador is the most flandrien of Latin Americans.
|Sep Vanmarcke, Fabian Cancellara|
|Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff|
|John Degenkolb, Greg Van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra, Ian Stannard|
|Geraint Thomas, Zdeněk Štybar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sebastian Langeveld|
|Oss, Roelandts, Boeckmans, Boom, Bozic, Chavanel, Haussler, Gatto, Leukemans, Gougeard|
Weather: cloudy with a few rays of sunshine and a top temperature of 10°C. Crucially the wind will be blowing in off the coast, a NW wind. The forecast varies with some predictions of 55km/h gusts, others a more modest 30km/h but even this would be enough to chop the peloton into pieces.
TV: the race begins at midday, local TV coverage begins at 2.15pm local time the international feed starts at 2.40pm and the finish forecast for 5.15pm CET. If you can tune in early to catch the bergs because this is where the action will happen.
E3? The race began in the 1950s and took was branded the GP E3 in the 1960s to celebrate the construction of the E3 express road through Harelbeke. The road was renamed the A14 long ago but, such is the sport, the old label lives on. Surely a better name can be found?