GP E3 Harelbeke Preview


It may not be the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix but in recent years this race has made up for its lack of history and dull name with some exciting racing and it’s become one of the finest cobbled classics of the year, it’s 50km less than next week’s Ronde which allows more riders to be in the mix.

The Route: 206km across East and West Flanders, the race is an out-and-back loop with 15 bergs back-ended into the route. There’s the familiar but never comforting list of hellingen which really get going in the final 100km. The Taaienberg, Patersberg and the Oude Kwaremont feature as highlights among others.

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 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 climb around and the ideal place to split the field to pieces. From here there are 40km to go, a long ride with the 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: Belgium is not in a festive mood right now and when Jens Debusschere instinctively threw his arms in the air after winning Dwars Door Vlaanderen he conciously pulled them back down moments later and the ensuing podium celebration was muted. It was a hard fought race, it’s just the mood around it wasn’t so festive and celebratory for obvious reasons.

In recent years the E3 has been an attritional race thanks to bad weather which has helped to splinter the field. This time the weather looks more banal and so odds tilt to a sprint finish, albeit from a reduced group. But who wants a bunch sprint? Far from everyone and several teams have an interest in sending riders up the road and splitting the race.

Cancellara E3

The Contenders: Fabian Cancellara crashed out here last year, ending his spring classics bid. Until then this race had smiled on him, he’s won here before after bold solo attacks, proof that he’s not afraid to show his hand before next week’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen and that not is it worth saving any energy. This time Cancellara is back on top form and he has a good team around him. Jasper Stuyven is a genuine contender too after his impressive Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne win. Unusually Trek-Segafredo haven’t brought a sprinter so they must bet on attacks.

Peter Sagan can still make the news when he loses a race, something few others can match. For all his struggles, the E3 is a race he knows well having won here before and placed on the podium another time. Last year he made the winning break only to crack so badly in the final he got swept up by a chase group. Now he’s got what it takes to repeat. He’s in form and the course is hard enough to shed many sprinters meaning he can either try an attack or sit tight and hope to win from a select sprint; the former seems more likely. Better still for him he’s got a stronger team built around him with Oscar Gatto in form too.

Patrick Lefevere was blaming the motorbikes in Dwars Door Vlaanderen for aiding Greg Van Avermaet for a moment but is this just a ruse, a media strategy? It means he’s the lightning conductor for the day instead of his riders, people moan at the boss rather than rant at yet another Etixx-Quickstep failure. Tom Boonen holds the record for wins in this race but has yet to show scintillating form, look to see if he can lead up Taaienberg again for the sake of tradition as he was missing here in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Zdeněk Štybar is probably their best bet, he’s in great shape and Niki Terpstra multiplies the tactical options, it was the Czech champ who split the race apart up the Oude Kwaremont last year but how can he win, his best sprints seem to be uphill finishes and here it’s a flat dash. Matteo Trentin brings more sprint options and the team have some strong helpers.

Greg Van Avermaet Tirreno Trophy

Greg Van Avermaet is out with stomach problems has found winning ways and is in form, he hasn’t come off the boil since winning the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Tirreno-Adriatico and almost won Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Dwars showed his limits, as confident as he may be, soloing away from a pack of riders isn’t his forte. Team mate Daniel Oss could barge away for the win too, he’s a workhorse but packs a powerful sprint if allowed to take his chance.

Katusha bring Alexander Kristoff but the shine’s gone off the Norweigan in recent weeks. After a great start in the Gulf and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne it looked like he was on track to repeat his strong spring performances from last year. Only he was regularly losing out in the sprints of Paris-Nice then in Milan-Sanremo he was sixth but not happy with his team so today we’ll look for signs of recovery. Nils Politt and Sven Erik Bystrøm are two young recruits who have impressed in smaller races.

Who is Team Sky’s leader? They’ve often gone into classics without one obvious leader but instead fire riders up the road to make other chase. It worked here last year when Geraint Thomas won but the Welshman is in the Pyrenees right now for the Volta a Catalunya. Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe join Michał Kwiatkowski as the three obvious picks. “Kwiatek” was looking very good in Sanremo and Stannard and Rowe are on their preferred terrain, Rowe was excellent in the Omloop opener while Stannard has been building towards a later start but showed last weekend by leading over the Cipressa.

Tiesj Benoot was very visible in Dwars door Vlaanderen as he hunched over his bike and tried to launch several late moves. Nothing worked or so it seemed until Lotto-Soudal team mate won Jens Debusschere won, he benefited from sitting in the wheels while Benoot made everyone else work. Benoot has only just turned 22 but has what it takes to win if he can force a move clear with a handful of other riders. Jürgen Roelandts made third place in Sanremo but he’s not really a sprinter, he can just finish well against a few others. The team have Pim Ligthart for a bunch finish but he’s not the firm insurance policy they’d have from Greipel or Debusschere, neither of who ride.

Arnaud Démare

Arnaud Démare leads FDJ full of confidence and it is reciprocal, the team will work that bit harder for him but how will he race? If sitting in for the sprint is a tactic it might be better on Sunday for Gent-Wevelgem. Watch for Johan Le Bon, second to Cancellara in the Tirreno time trial stage and he’s not even a time trial specialist, instead he’s a wannabee Flandrien aged 25 who’s spent time living in Flanders so to better learn the roads; it paid off when he won a stage of the Eneco Tour last summer.

Sep Vanmarcke needs a big win soon, something people have been saying ever since his 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win. He’s slowly been improving, the clash of his yellow jersey and celeste bike has been more visible in recent weeks and now he’s on home soil. He’s been on antibiotics of late but as it’s all cleared up and he’s ready to go. But a win? It’s that question mark that he needs to get rid of.

Now for a few more names. Lars Boom was going to be a classics star but his road career hasn’t matched the hopes and the wins are becoming rarer, still he’s got the power but maybe he prays for more rain. Orica-Greenedge’s Jens Keukeleire is almost on home roads and sprints fast. Filippo Pozzato is doing better than expected with Southeast. Ag2r La Mondiale bring the irrepressible Alexis Gougeard who is making a name for himself as a strong attacker but this is partly because he hates fighting for space and rubbing shoulders and elbows while Damien Gaudin‘s form is building quietly ahead of his preferred Roubaix race. IAM Cycling bring a cohesive team with Dries Devenyns and Heinrich Haussler.

Fabian Cancellara
Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet
Alexander Kristoff, Tiesj Benoot, Zdeněk Štybar, Sep Vanmarcke
Niki Terpstra, Arnaud Démare, Jurgen Roelandts, Jasper Stuyven, Ian Stannard, Michał Kwiatkowski
Boom, Haussler, Boonen, Keukeleire, Trentin, Rowe, Oss, Le Bon

Weather: cold and wet to start with but the 20km/h NW wind will blow the clouds and rain away. A top temperature of 11°C.

TV: the race begins at midday, TV coverage begins at 3.10pm 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 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 despite the world changing around it.

36 thoughts on “GP E3 Harelbeke Preview”

  1. I’d like to see a ‘hilltop’ finish to one of the cobbled races – to differentiate it from the others. I’d suggest Dwars door Vlaanderen: it’s a small race, so the logistics of ending on the Patersberg, Oude Kwaremont or similar shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Also, DDV doesn’t have anything to make it stand out from the others, whereas Scheldeprijs is for the sprinters, G-W for the ‘almost-sprinters’, E3 is a mini-Ronde, etc. I’d also make it short – around 160-170km – and pack in as many bergs as you can: do a circuit and get in about 25. A short race, packed with bergs: not too tough as a warm-up race and would be an interesting change, I think.
    The people of Waregem wouldn’t agree with me, of course.

  2. 9 chainrings between Spartacus and Sagan– so glad neither went down in the MSR sprint. The Cancellara photo shows him in quite a bit of pain, but I hope it’s OK to laugh about it now.

    • I like Stannard too, but Fabian is a great patron of the peloton in his last classics season, have to go with him. From the picture you can tell he’s not the sort to worry about showing his hand.

  3. One chainring for Boonen at a cobbled classic. My, how the mighty have fallen.

    “Alexis Gougeard who is making a name for himself as a strong attacker but this is partly because he hates fighting for space and rubbing shoulders and elbows.”

    That’s really interesting. Has he said that publicly?

    • No, I heard it the other day via French journalist Pierre Carrey. “hates” is probably too strong a word, it’s more he likes to get up the road rather than fight.

      As for Boonen, I know what you mean but nothing so far says he’s in top shape but we’ll soon see, perhaps on the Taaienberg. Millions in Belgium and beyond would love to see him back in the action.

      • I wasn’t disagreeing with the assessment – I’d never discount Boonen, but his recent form certainly hasn’t suggested he’s in line for a win tomorrow. It was more that seeing him so far down a list of favourites really hit home how the guard has well and truly changed. In a way, it’s sad to see Boonen’s power start to fade, but having such a strong crop of younger riders coming through is also really exciting.

          • Boonen is on a 2-year contract now. So unless something truly awkward or glorious happens he should be in the mix again next year. He has said in the Belgian press that the aftermath of the skull fracture he endured at the end of last season is still causing him some troubles, so question marks are surely justified. But apparently he likes bike racing so much that he doesn’t care sticking his nose in the wind for team mates or just being the ominous presence towards contenders he’ll always be when he pins on a dossard.

          • Oh I must have remembered it incorrectly, during the media-fuss about his contract renewal he stated a few times not wanting to sign for one year only. All he talks about in the media is how much he still enjoys racing and not wanting to throw in the towel yet.

      • Very interesting about Carrey. I can think of a couple questions I’d ask him if I could…do French journalists commonly keep anything “off the record” if a source requests it? And I seem to recall something similar being said of Romain Bardet (also Ag2r fwiw). But Bardet is skinny and smart, so it would not really make news if he prefers to avoid a scrum.

  4. No rings for Pippo? He was in the mix in MSR (8th) and could have taken DDV (4th in the bunch sprint). What’s more, he’s been riding in stealth mode like in his best days, you don’t notice him until suddenly he’s there when it matters. In DDV he missed the cut and with the Terpstra group going full throttle he turned on that big engine and powered across solo, no small feat (and in his trademark effortless style!). Wouldn’t discard him for today or for Flanders and Roubaix for that matter.

    • ” Filippo Pozzato is doing better than expected with Southeast.” translates to me as “Pippo doing ANYTHING AT ALL is better than expected.” I used to keep hoping this fellow, who so many teams have taken yet another “last chance” with would eventually reward one of them, but I’ve given up on the “Italian Fons De Wolf” though De Wolf at least one two monuments in his career. Now that I’ve posted this perhaps he’ll surprise us all? 🙂

      • The season for Pozzato starts with MSR. He was 8th there. His second real race of the season was DDV, where he was 4th. Those would be great results for any rider except perhaps for the four or five guys who are expected to win everywhere (Sagan, Fabian, GVA etc). I would argue that Pippo is not doing ‘better than expected’, he is actually doing great so far. Also bear in mind that regardless of the media attention in Flanders for Omloop/KBK/DDV/E3/Wevelgem these races are not even starters, more like breadsticks while you wait for the main dish. I expect Pippo to bring his a-game in Flanders and Roubaix, and if he does, you cannot rule him out.

        • I would consider Pozzato, when he can be bothered, to be a proper classics specialist in that he does well in very long races I.e Milan-Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix. I’d say E3 is maybe not quite long enough and though he’s in good form it won’t be selective enough. He’s a dark horse for the next couple of weeks though.

          • E3 not selective enough? Have a look at the winners the last five years, we’ve had Thomas (solo from an elite group), Sagan (sprint from elite group), Cancellara (solo from far), Boonen (bunch sprint) and Cancellara (solo from elite group). Weather will be important, I agree, conditions today look much more like 2012. The 2009 edition that Pippo won was probably tougher in terms of weather, but still this is a hard race. Not a lot of wind today and blowing from the wrong direction for a long solo, so that might favour the bunch sprint outcome as well.

        • Pippo gets way more media and fan attention than his rather thin palmares warrants. Kind of “always there, never a threat” as they say, but teams keep wasting money on him, hoping somehow he’ll come good. He’s on his 7th team this year in a pro career that started in 2000. But even the RAI graphics guy is still hopeful, putting his name up during MSR when teammate Andrea Fedi made a move.

          • I fully agree with you Larry, lots of hype, not enough wins. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is a former MSR/E3 winner and Flanders/Roubaix contender who has shown to be in arguably his best form in years. He can get in the decisive breakaway and he still has a fast finish as shown in DDV. No he will not beat Kristoff in a bunch sprint or out TT Fabian, but if he’s still on your wheel in Harelbeke, you have a problem.

    • I can’t see how he wins. He’s been there in the results by lurking around rather than putting his nose in the wind. If he gets into a breakaway surely there will be Sagan or GVA? If he sits tight for the sprint then Kristoff, Démare etc will surely outsprint him?

      • Fair point, although this is how he has always been riding, lurking and following, never attacking first. Remember Boonen’s frustration a while ago because Pozzato was marking his every move? Or him closing down Gilbert in MSR which lead to both of them losing instead of Gilbert winning? Or bridging the gap with Ballan in Flanders, which gave Boonen the win on a silver platter? My point is, more often than not his racing tactics lead to defeat, but sometimes it pans out (MSR and E3 admittedly ages ago). If Pozzato can be invisible AND if he marks the right guy, he’s a real threat. Today my guess is he will never be more than a bike length away from Cancellara or Sagan and those guys have lost plenty of races by towing someone else to the line. It would be vintage Pozzato to ‘steal’ a win that way and his recent form suggests he is capable of doing just that.

  5. Is there a reason for Boonen’s poor form so late in the season?
    What is Thomas doing in Catalunya, other than proving that he doesn’t have the climbing ability?
    If you can win E3/Gent-Wevelgem/Flanders, etc., what are you doing there?
    Even if he is ‘focusing on stage races’, he’s doing Paris-Roubaix, so he’s presumably not doing the Basque Country and therefore isn’t riding a stage race until at least Romandie in May.
    If Sky really do want to win a monument, they should tell him to ride these races (and should be backing Swift solely in Milan Sanremo). Also, Thomas’s aim to win P-R cannot be helped by not doing these races.

    • Boonen suffered a serious skull fracture in the last race of last year (Dubai was it?) as a matter of fact it wasn’t for him being who he is, his carreer possibly would’ve ended there and then.

      Also he’s only really aiming for one thing, becoming the ultimate mr. Roubaix by winning that race a fifth time. In the mean time he’s some sort of team captain/domestique de luxe. At least that is what one gathers from his press-appearences.

  6. I don’t think Thomas is riding P-R, only Flanders. Sounds as though he’s sick in Catalunya and isn’t starting today so it seems doubly the wrong decision. I agree he should’ve gone to E3.

  7. Question out of curiosity. How come people always place Stybar above Terpstra in the classics preview while Terpstra has better placings over the years in most of the races in Flanders?
    People always seem to doubt his form at the start of the season. I must admit that he almost seemed like hiding away on Wednesday (seemed like he wasn’t good) but then he brought back GVA almost all by himself which seemed like he was working for Gaviria more then going for his own chances. I’m just curious if I’m looking at it too much from a Dutch side.

    • Don’t know about others, but here it’s because he’s often an all or nothing ride, either he goes solo up the road and wins or he’s marked and loses… the later scenario happens more often than not and in a sprint finish he’s often beaten. Still a top rider, it’s just the probability of a win is lower today… better for Roubaix?

      • This seems sound to me– though of course I am in the habit of getting my best information here. The commentary says “probably” in giving the nod to Stybar, and if Inrng was not overly impressed with closing down GVA on Wednesday maybe someone would say it is he who is being slighted, not Nikki.

      • His only win this season showed he’s good for Roubaix indeed. But with 4 second places in the Flanders classics last year it surprises me he is still an outsider. He showed a better form then Vanmarcke for example, won allot more and races smart instead of throwing away his energy.
        But like I said, maybe my judgement is to cloudy because I’m Dutch, and 95% of our riders never seem to get passed the “really talented/upcoming” part to win big races which is frustrating sometimes.

  8. What a great race. From Cancellara fighting back, to a replay of the Strade Bianche ’14 finish in when those guys were both still future world champions.

    • Agree. I am one who is generally much more impressed than bothered by Sagan’s frequent second place finishes, but in this case from the time the two got away it was hard to see how their break favored Sagan any more than it did Kwiat. Knowing what it would take to hold off the remainder of the group (remarkable that they did so) you had to figure any finishing speed advantage for Sagan could be seriously compromised, and Kwiat looked much less uncomfortable than Sagan as it played out. I’d think a lot of the “second is first loser” types would question the tactics. Brian Smith accused Sagan of getting caught napping in the finale but I’d say he was simply and totally cooked. So chapeau to both of them, and very nice interview from Kwiat.

      • Agree – he was cooked… but where was the bluff or some other tactic except in last KM take a turn, let Kwiat come to the front with 500 to go, and then watch him sprint to the line.

        It seems odd to say it, but Sagan really needs a win in Flanders or Roubaix.

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