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E3 Harelbeke Preview

Peter Sagan Harelbeke

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.

Geraint Thomas Poggio

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.

As ever if you can’t find it on TV in your home country steephill.tv and cyclingfans offer schedules and streams galore.

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?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • BC Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:42 am

    I am not going to break the habit of a lifetime by commenting on the lottery that is potential winners, but it’s good to see others have more courage, thanks Inrng .

    E3 – why not ? Bike racing is full of history. The motorway is an important transport link and provides many of us with an easy route when travelling through the ‘flat countries’. I hope the name survives, and is not replaced by some meaningless play on words with little provenance.

  • matt Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:15 am

    The Omloop Harelbeke?

    • BC Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:48 am

      It is hardly a ‘big circuit’ of Harelbeke, a town which sits at the eastern extremity of the main circuits. Best not encourage the modernists too much Matt !

  • Anonymous Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:02 am

    E3 and Het Volk And that’s that.
    Why is the rainbow jersey not racing? Doesn’t seem a good idea to leave him out.

    • The Inner Ring Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:15 am

      No particular news on Kwiatkowski but he’s going to be doing the Ardennes classics too so needs to be used sparingly over the coming weeks.

      • Dr Manhattan Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:30 am

        I think Kwiat took a lesson from over-racing last spring, when he had a collapse of form for Tour de France.

  • benDE Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:27 am

    Thanks for including the photo of the Stannard raid. Has anyone come up with a title for his win? It will surely be a bell-weather example of winning against the odds and losing despite assured advantage.

    It still seems impossible despite the fact that it actually happened…

  • ian Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:52 am

    I’m backing Degenkolb to hang in there this year (almost did so last year) and win the sprint from a small bunch sprint.. the headwind plays in to the hands of the sprinters a bit more this year. Thomas is capable of another podium, he is in superb form, and I agree, he needs to do something here to be supported in RVV and PR..

  • J Evans Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:04 am

    Interesting to see Wiggins dropping/being pulled out of yet another race.
    Surely, if he’s a serious challenger at Paris-Roubaix he should be riding the cobbled classics beforehand – and why not the Ronde (we know he can go up hills, even if he is heavier)?
    If he’s not good enough for E3, etc. then is he really good enough for P-R or is this more about PR?
    (Sorry, that pun was genuinely unintended – and un-thought of until it was written.)

    • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:13 am

      I’ve long since stopped trying to understand the rationales behind anything Wiggins does. His programs have seemed to change daily since he won the Tour. Safe to say he will line up for Paris-Roubaix. Will he make a fist of it in The Hell of the North? Maybe, maybe not. For my money, though, Geraint Thomas is a better bet for Sky than the cycling knight of the realm. Indeed, Thomas beat Wiggins only last year.

    • Sam Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:28 am

      Its interesting comparing the CW vs the CN reports yesterday: CW states their understanding is that he arrives Belgium tonight to join the team, and from Sun onwards he’ll be doing all the Classics races through to P-R. CN is much vaguer.

      Tbh based on the track record of both reporting outlets, I’m inclined to put more faith in the CW report.

      From what I know, its not a Wiggins decision per se – more a decision with Tim Kerrison.

  • J Evans Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:05 am

    Seems like Sky should focus on Stannard and Thomas. Can’t see Wiggins being happy to play support, though.

    • Anonymous Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:20 am

      I am beginning to doubt whether Wiggins will do anything of note this Spring!

    • Sam Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:05 am

      They are focussing on Stannard and Thomas – in every cobbled race they’re riding, until P-R when Stannard and Wiggins will be leaders.

  • André Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:07 am


    picture 3 is the Koppenberg – not in the e3 2015.

  • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:09 am

    It feels good on the eve of this race to know that there are just so many people with the potential to win. Maybe all this wild speculation will be proven foolish and the same old names will come to the front? I must admit that I will mainly be viewing this race as a marker. If Fabs or Vanmarcke power their way to victory this will bode very well for De Ronde and/or Roubaix. There are also a growing number of riders who need to start proving they can win sooner rather than later and they fall back down the pecking order. In fact, there are rather too many to name of these. The weather forecast (and all that wind) suggests to me this will be won by a hard man and not in a sprint finish. So I look forward to the big hitters going blow for blow and tie to toe. That’s what I call bike racing!

    PS Etixx worry me. Their roster strategy has left them with too many cards to play. Hence we get Omloop type scenarios. They need to decide who is the main man.

  • Anonymous Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:24 am

    Leave the name, change for change sake is not really needed. Long may it stay as a Friday fixture too, none of this moving to a Sunday nonsense.

  • adam Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:30 am

    What has happened to FDjs Offedo? Good french classics young gun a couple of seasons ago.

    • The Inner Ring Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:41 am

      Injured earlier this spring but coming back. He’s had a few chances but not got a result and FDJ’s tactics this year involve backing Pinot and Démare so Offredo’s on team duties.

  • Gargatouf Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:37 am

    I’m going for a Vanmarcke win. I believe this year will be his year. He had top 5 finishes in all the main cobbles races last year and as Inner Ring says in his presentation, he was immense in Omloop, even after his puncture. He looked so strong before it that I believe he would have won. With a few more weeks preparation, I think that he will be even stronger.

    • gabriele Friday, 27 March 2015, 12:45 pm

      He was quite impressive in Strade Bianche, too, considering that it’s not his race at all.
      I hope he’ll get a big win, this year.
      I’ve got some ambivalent feelings about his tactics with Cancellara in previous years, on several occasions… on the one hand, it was really good to see a young gun trying to face a legend like Cancellara on a par, apparently with no inferiority complex; on the other hand, it sometimes ended up looking a bit silly, cycling isn’t only about who hits heavier on the pedals.
      Thus, the supposed lack of inferiority complex looked a like a sort of strategic subjection, on a psychological level: all in all, everytime he simply turned out to be doing exactly what his opponent was desiring he would do!
      However, he was still young and has got a lot of time to perfect his skills. Great talent.

  • Ben Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:42 am

    Is an edit needed on the GVK bit, Inrng? “…not much he can go…” i think might be intended to read “…not much he can do about it, …”

    Thought provoking as ever. Love the image of the orphaned climb without Tomeke. Even without TB, Etixx’s overstacking of their roster gives them so many options to put a man in the break and make everyone else do the work and leave them with the numbers come crunch time. Could Stybar be the Etixx sprinter for a 250km+ monument group finale, he’s been top 7 in MSR(’14)? I think Sky will simply be ensuring their classics group are all fresh and have all (including any reserves/rotations) get the chance to fire the legs up fully before RVV and P-R.

  • noel Friday, 27 March 2015, 12:57 pm

    Sky need to stop leading races out from 50-20k to go, only to then get short of numbers when the crunch comes…

  • Thruxmaster Friday, 27 March 2015, 1:46 pm

    Lets keep the old names, E3 was something in the 50s and 60s, the nearby (that is Venlo) disco is also still called the E3. The worst would be renaming like soccer stadiums, Pepsi Spring Classic for Milan-San Remo.

  • ian Friday, 27 March 2015, 2:06 pm

    Cancellara out, Wagner out, Langeveld out, Erviti, Amador and Malori out – big crash on the Haaghoek

    • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 2:32 pm

      Cancellara reportedly done for the Spring as well with a wrist injury.

      • SeeingElvis Friday, 27 March 2015, 2:40 pm

        Heartbreaking. My favorite two riders are Cancellara and Boonen. Spring will not be the same.
        Hope maybe Fabian can be back for P-R.

      • The Inner Ring Friday, 27 March 2015, 2:43 pm

        It’s sore but we don’t know more for now, Demol says Gent Wevelgem on Sunday is out but it’s probably too soon to tell for more.

        • Gargatouf Friday, 27 March 2015, 4:17 pm

          He’s definitely out. Two fractured vertebrae apparently. No Boonen, no Cancellara, the classics are wide opened.

          • bmj Friday, 27 March 2015, 6:02 pm

            It appears the changing of the spring guard is happening in earnest.

  • Joe K. Friday, 27 March 2015, 3:54 pm

    Did you see the Dwars Door Vlanderen yesterday with the two Wanty riders taking out the lead group of four, which included Etixx’Kwiatkowski btw, to take 1st and 2nd? It was pure playbook with one Wanty rider taking off with 1 km to go and the other Wanty rider sitting back for the sprint. So simple and decisive–it made me wonder why Etixx messed it up in last month’s Het Niewsblad.

    • gabriele Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:12 pm

      Topsport Vlaanderen

  • george Friday, 27 March 2015, 5:29 pm

    Great win for Geraint Thomas. Sagan looked like he completely blew up the last four kilometers there, which is not such a god sign for later. We’ll see in a week how it all goes down.

  • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 5:30 pm

    Woo! Geraint, you da man!! Got to be one of the top favourites for Tour of Flanders now.

  • george Friday, 27 March 2015, 5:33 pm

    And I am just now reading Cancellara is definitely out for the rest of the classics. Terrible news. First Boonen, and now him. However, the younger generation now gets a chance to shine

  • BC Friday, 27 March 2015, 5:35 pm

    A fantastic non stop race living up to its original poster promise, and much more. ‘G’ certainly rode well, Sagan still looked as if he is eating too many pies. Tough luck on the many crash victims, lets hope the injuries are not to serious.

    I wouldn’t like to be around the team owner tonight !

    • gabriele Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:18 pm

      Eating too many pies ’cause he’s maybe a little overweight?, but that’s not so bad in these races, look at how he surged back to the front. I think that he didn’t eat *enough* pies (or, well, any kind of more appropriate food)… during the race. Swallowing sugars within 10kms to the finish line, very bad sign and anyway it’s too late (remember Velocio’s rules? 🙂 ).

  • matt Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:24 pm

    Great riding by Sky. Geraint will be a force at Flanders. Stannard grizzed it big time to get back to the chasing bunch on the last climb and then continued to ride strong. Two big players in a talented team. Sky have put their classics woes to bed- almost.