It may not be the Ronde van Vlaanderen nor Paris-Roubaix but in recent years this race has made up for its lack of history and dull name with some exciting racing to become one of the finest cobbled classics of the year. It’s unusual that it’s held on a Friday but being Belgium we can expect large crowds as usual.
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 come in rapid succession in second half. The Taaienberg, Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont feature as highlights.
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 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: 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.
The Contenders: Peter Sagan can still make the news when he loses a race. For all his struggles the E3 is a race he knows well having won here before and placed on the podium twice too. Last year he made the winning break only to get out-sprinted by Michał Kwiatkowski, a familiar scenario. The course is hard but if he’s forced to show himself early then perhaps we’ll test the hypothesis of his upright position again, that being forced to ride through and off at full intensity for a sustained period means he burns through energy so he’s cooked by the finish. Traditionally Sagan’s had a weak team around him but Maciej Bodnar, Aleksejs Saramotins and Marcus Burghardt bring heavy support.
How do you beat Peter Sagan? Another tactic is strength in numbers and Quick Step Floors come with a team so strong they can leaves Dwars winner Yves Lampaert at home. Philippe Gilbert is looking hungry again, Niki Terpstra and Zdeněk Štybar look to be in great shape after their efforts on the Paterberg this week while Tom Boonen is due to be in form and Matteo Trentin is a valuable helper but with a nose for the big wins with and classics and Tour de France stage wins on his palmarès. The chief to indian ratio looks askew here but perhaps Boonen will curry favours by working for the team?
Greg Van Avermaet is a prototype winner as he’s at ease on these cobbled climbs and finishes fast. He’ll look to win from a breakaway group and has a very strong team of riders so much that all of them are potential outsiders for the win, whether stalwarts like Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato or promising riders like Floris Geerts or Loic Vliegen.
Team Sky bring Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard as their leaders while last year’s winner Michał Kwiatkowski sits out the race to focus on the Ardennes classics. The British pair keep featuring in the spring classics but results so far are elusive, eight wins between them but they’re getting closer and of course Stannard has won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice. Sky bring a strong team with Gianni Moscon as their third option.
Trek-Segafredo would like a win but first they really need to show in the final phase of a classic. They were part of the action in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as the race split but vanished from the front group. Still they come with a team packed with promise. Jasper Stuyven and John Degenkolb are the two captains and should be exciting to watch with Fabio Felline offering a fast finish too.
Lotto-Soudal are a staple of the spring classics but haven’t won big cobbled classic for years, when depends on your definition of “big”. Tiesj Benoot has the talent to win but faces a lot of competition while Tony Gallopin is an interesting rider, he’s been aiming for the cobbled classics this year but still climbed well in Paris-Nice. Kris Boeckmans is a sprint outsider.
Katusha bring Alexander Kristoff but the shine’s gone off the Norweigan in recent weeks. After a great start in the Gulf he’s gone off the boil since, a quiet Paris-Nice but he did take the bunch sprint in Sanremo. Tony Martin will be worth watching as he aims for a win in the cobbled classics. Nils Politt and Sven Erik Bystrøm are two young recruits who have impressed in smaller races.
Orica-Scott have some chances with Luke Durbridge in great shape. He was climbing well in the Strade Bianche and made the selection in Dwars, it’s part of a renewed focus on the classics after a couple of sideways seasons but how can he win, ideally he’d want to go solo. Jens Keukeleire is the local pick but hasn’t won in Belgium since his dynamic debut with Cofidis in 2010.
Now for a few more names. Lars Boom (Lotto-Jumbo) 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. Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) has had a bad rib injury after crashing in the Strade Bianche which put him out of training. He seems to be the type who can get into form quickly but the E3 seems too soon, still the shorter distance could help so perhaps Dylan Van Baarle gets his chance? Astana are chasing their first win of the season and it’ll be hard to do that here, Alexey Lutsenko is looking strong but how he converts this into a win isn’t obvious. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) could be an outside pick because this is a 200km race and he’s often better in these shorter racs. Ag2r have built a decent classics team with the recruitment of Stijn Vandenbergh and Oliver Naesen but you sense they’ll feature along the way but a win is beyond them even if Naesen is very promising and sprints well. Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Guillaume Van Keirsbulck has found winning ways this year. Direct Energie’s Bryan Coquard has been close in some classics. Movistar don’t bring cobbled conqueror Imanol Erviti but will hope Carlos Betancur can shine in the event of a brunch sprint.
|Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet
|Alexander Kristoff, Niki Terpstra|
|Zdeněk Štybar, Philippe Gilbert, John Degenkolb, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Luke Rowe, Jasper Stuyven|
|GVK, Boonen, Naesen, Durbridge, Stannard, Van Poppel|
Weather: a mild Belgian spring day with some sunshine and clouds and a top temperature of 15°. The wind will blow from the NE at 15-20km/h which is just enough to stir things up, nothing savage but it makes being on one side of the road better than another and as the course changes direction all the time there will be subtle headwinds and tailwinds to exploit.
TV: the race begins at 12.20 CET, TV coverage begins at 3.10pm and the finish forecast for 5.10pm 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 despite the world changing around it.