GP E3 Harelbeke Preview

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.

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.

41 thoughts on “GP E3 Harelbeke Preview”

  1. I’d love to see Tony Martin take this in Tony Martin style. Not saying he will, just that it would likely be a thing of beauty if he did.

  2. Excellent preview, thanks! One complaint – who is responsible for “…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.” Really? Has Sagan ever blamed tiredness at the end to this? Sadly, this sounds like more SKY “marginal gains” talk. Just by the guy’s bulk compared to others it’s reasonable to think he might be pushing a bit more air out-of-the-way, but this makes it sound like he (or his bike sponsor/team, etc.) are somehow incompetent, missing something so obvious…well at least “obvious” to whomever penned the phrase I quoted above.

    • I came up with the idea but so have others because he looks to have an upright position and in situations when he’s been riding in the wind for an hour he’s lost sprints to riders who are normally slower than him. None of his sponsors are incompetent, he’s just got a particular build and position that works well for him, it’s one way of looking for a weakness amid a seemingly unbeatable rider.

      • Sagan isn’t unbeatable. Ask Michal Kwiatkowski. As for the Pole, I’m dubious about him passing over this for the various charms and pitfalls of the Ardennes where its quite likely Valverde will be the man to beat again on the Mur de Huy, Amstel has been ruined by course tamperers and Wout Poels will surely be the chosen Sky son for LBL as defending champ.

        • I’m not usually on the side of the tamperers, but I think Amstel might be significantly improved with the new finish. There are more likely to be earlier attacks rather than everyone waiting for the Cauberg (which hasn’t been the finish for that long a time anyway).

      • You have a valid point CHRW, but I detect an aroma of condescension around the idea that Sagan’s position is somehow incorrect and is the reason he ends up 2nd rather often. There’s no way to disprove or prove this “hypothesis” so what’s the point? It’s the same as a bit I read elsewhere with a “hypothesis” regarding how Contador could have beaten Henao recently if only he’s used more “aero” equipment.

  3. Any particular reason that you have Niki Terpstra a ring above his teammates? Do you think Terpstra will be the preferred option for a long range attack?

  4. Carlos Betancur a contender for cobbled classics bunch sprints!!! i wondered where he had got to, a new challenge to inspire him or just still overweight?

  5. It will be a cracking race, like it was last year. Something about the Friday slot seems to give the occasion that “something else”. A good thing!

  6. My three picks for winner:

    Ian Stannard
    Phillipe Gilbert
    and because Trek need the win or the ghost of spartacus will haunt them for 100 years – Jasper Stuyven

    Great preview, excited for tomorrow!

  7. I don’t see the point in this and Dwars being in the World Tour, they are practically the same race (as is Omloop, just colder). I wouldn’t have either in as they are basically just plastic Rondes and st the end of the day build up races. That’s not to say they aren’t entertaining races in their own right. It’s especially daft when you consider the continued reduced stays of Paris-Tours.

    Anyway, as a Gilbert fan I was pleased to see him boss the field at Dwars, seen as historically his form has come in bunches I’m hoping it’ll last til sometime after Liege and include a couple of big wins. It’d be good to see him in the mix with Sags and GVA here. Why no Edward Theuns for Trek?

    • I second your opinion on DVV & E3 being superfluent in the WT. Gent-Wevelgem is different so I’d grant that race a WT label. As I understood it, this was initially the idea from the UCI as well but E3 were so miffed about this, and them losing a good spot on the calendar in favour of G-W that they were bribed with a WT label as well. As it goes the wednesday-friday-sunday build-up of the three works quite nicely but given the similitude of the parcours and the pelotons it definitely waters down the WT-label.

      • Yeah Gent-Wevlegem has quite a different parcours and uses different hills, as opposed to the others which all seem to use the same ones. Plus it is 250km long, not 190-200, and as such I consider it a proper ‘classic’ rather than a semi-classic.

    • There is no logic to the WT label – there never really was (as you say, the omission of Paris-Tours), but it’s a nonsense now.
      Watching these races alongside the Tour of Catalunya really does show just how riveting a long train of riders going up a mountain with no-one able to attack is.
      As for the similarities between DDV, E3, etc., I think one of them should end on – if possible – or much nearer the hellingen.
      The Ardennes classics all (until Amstel’s change this year) end on hills, which tends to make them dull because everyone waits for that last hill to attack; the cobbled classics do it much better, with the flat finishes. However, I think one of the cobbled races – in the interests of variety – could change their route so that they offer something different from the others. Would make for an interesting finish too. I suspect that the finish towns would put the kibosh on that, though.

      • Yes you are right, the key here are the finish towns. All these races (with noteable exception of the Ronde) are associated with a town, and normally this town is like 10 to 20 km from flemish ardennes area. Omloop -> Gent; kbk -> Kuurne; ddv -> Waregem; E3 -> Harelbekre; Gent-Welvelgem -> Wevelgem. In flanders, the races are often called with the name of the associated town, it gives you an idea on how it is a fixed idea in the mind of The people there.

        That makes for beautiful racing but indeed it comes with a lack of variety and all of these races tend to have the same kind route (not really a problem to me).

  8. As the race isn’t quite as selective as Flanders it feels like their are so many more possible scenarios which could play out. It’s hard to look past Sagan for the podium but I think GVA is my favourite.

  9. Its got to be Sags really. GVA is a top rider but he can sometimes go missing and although he’s won two Omloops that’s not really the most reliable race for what happens in the rest of the classics season. Just ask Stannard. Quick Step will have their usual “too many cooks” which, although it doesn’t hamper their overall total in the win column, seems to work against them in races they should be winning at a canter judging by their roster. No, it will be Mr Sagan.

  10. Sagan, because he is magnanimous, comfortable in his own skin, confident of his abilities, and prepared to try and win a number of ways, is by far and away a better rider than those names who may beat him. Essentially one dimensional characters, picking and choosing races that suit their abilities, and then using up a whole team in preparation for a final that’s suits their designated leader is not as worthy or exciting or Corinthian as the gladiatorial nature that Sagan races with. Some of them are making a career out of following Sagans wheel. You can argue it’s clever and tactical, but it’s also dependant on more than you’re own ability. Something Sagan doesn’t struggle with.

    The longer this carries on, the more I struggle to remember a racer as capable and diverse as him. I am only early thirties though. Sure we’ve had greats, and I dont claim him to be the greatest – but on teams not built around them, sacrificing everything for the benefit of one leader….I may be wrong. I probably am. But I just can’t see another racing with such panache and style and taking it all with the pinch of salt he appears to.


    • In many ways this team WAS built around Sagan. He took what, 14 people with him to Bora? It’s been said he ended up there because they were the only team with room for the entire entourage and happy to have the Big-S footing a huge portion of the bill. But they ran out of money (or space on the roster?) when it came to big-euro gregari to create a sprint train for him (though he doesn’t seem to need one) or pilot him around in other ways. I wonder if would he do any better on a super team like Quick Step? Too often it’s “too many Chiefs and not enough Indians” as the old saying goes. Meanwhile we can enjoy the show!

      • Agree entirely, the depth at QS must make gauging an optimum race strategy very difficult, especially if you factor in “how good the legs are” on race day.

        I had heard about the large number of his team following him to Bora, and the difficulty for other teams to accommodate that. If you look at the make up, it appears to be a team built around early season one day success with Sagan (but short on an experienced road captain, someone like Rogers?) and some opportunities for stage wins (and maybe a mountains jerseys) with Majka in the mountains. I assume Sagan will ride a GT and compete for stage sprints there.

        Either way, it’s a lot of eggs in the Sagan basket for them and their sponsors.

        I couldn’t agree more about enjoying the show. Early season, Sagan has been the lead player 🙂

    • I’d be careful what you believe with regard to how much Sagan is bothered about winning. At the end of the day all professional sportsmen have ‘that’ aggressive will to win, if they didn’t they would never have got where they are. I think Sagan has successfully cultivated an image for himself with his post race interviews, long hair and social media activities, a ‘corinthian’ amateur he certainly aint.

      • Yes, you are correct. He has a good social media image and cultivates it cleverly. Also an option for other riders/teams, yet seemingly less important to them? Or maybe it’s not an act, and it’s his genuine character that shines in a somewhat otherwise sterile vacuum of professional sport. Hard to say without knowing him.

        I was confused. Corinthian is not the right word, but this image he has created makes me at least believe he has won, even when he comes second! It seems to represent the “better to try and fail, than not to try at all” mentality which I thought was commendable. Similar to Berti’s doomed attack on the final day of Paris-Nice, the sport looks short on mavericks at the moment and is the better for the few we do have.

      • I’m not saying Sagan isn’t bothered about winning vs losing, but he at least plays a good game about having done his best, win or lose. I think that’s what the fans (including me) like in a world of petulant crybabies who throw tantrums when they don’t win or blame others for their failures – or turn out to be cheats. I think this guy understands there’s more to happiness in life than an impressive palmares?

  11. Looking at Geraint Thomas’ score in this race 2013-2015 and then watching him showing his supposed Ti-Ad form on Mont Caro today was quite saddening. Hope it’s a decision he made on his own, at least, even if that wouldn’t make it much more appropriate.
    A great guy in the wrong place.
    It’s not like last year this strategy proved to be much effective, not for him at least: if anything, he really honed his gregario skills.
    Well, yes, he’s getting slightly better uphill, but he’s 31, too.
    I suppose that since Froomey and Valverde apparently get better year after year, they calculated that Thomas, too, will stretch his career to the forties or so.

    • Totally agree – not sure why he skipped the early Classics… if you look at 2015 approach to TdF vs. 2016 the end result was the exact same, yellow shirt for the froome, 15th on GC for Geraint (yippee) and comparable finish at the Ronde.

      In 2016 he did win Paris-Nice though, but what does he have this year? Zip, in terms of personal wins.

    • +1 Whose idea was this anyway? Was it the “genius” Brailsford (who now is starting to remind me of the “genius” Bruyneel) or Thomas himself? Nobody likes to see talent squandered and SKY seems interested in single-day victories, so the situation is puzzling, at least to me. Perhaps he’ll come good and we’ll all be eating our pixels?

    • He does suffer from being very good at a lot of disciplines without really being the best at any. I wish he had really focused on Paris-Roubaix as I feel that would be his best bet for a Monument, a tactical Terpstra style win, but that can’t happen while he’s looking at GTs. He still has a year or two to try again though. I’m not convinced he has the right attributes to win Flanders, although it’d be nice to be wrong.

  12. On previous Thomas will not come good in three week tours. He is not a three week GT rider, and one decent performance in a three week race – which was hindered by a ‘bad day’ does not change that fact. GT appears to suffer the age old problem of having an ‘off’ day on a regular basis. The sure sign that three week races are not going to be his calling.

    Who has given him this advice, when his obvious strengths are as a top 5 cobbled classics rider ? I suspect that GT himself felt he might be capable of more in a team where the TdF is the main goal. Thomas has the unfortunate characteristics of being good at every discipline, but not outstanding in any one area.

    In my book he is a decent classics rider, but not a ‘winner’ in the Sagan mold, with domestic potential in three week Tours. I am sure Brailsford and his team are well aware of the limitations.

  13. Brian Smith got two things spot-on during commentary on E3 – the photo motorbikes towed Gilbert up that hill he attacked on, whilst Naesen was trying to chase on behind. Seeing that a lot this year – from TV motos too. Still far too many photographers.
    The other thing was that Cannondale had four men in the large group behind the front 5 (3+2) and didn’t try to work at the front, settling instead for sprinting for the points for 6th. I’ve said it many times and so have many others, having a WT points system encourages negative racing like this. (And when people wonder how at the end of the season Cannondale have anonymously accumulated so many points, this is why.) Surely, we all want to see all the riders trying to win the race? GVA, Gilbert and Naesen went virtually unchallenged once they’d built up their gap.

    • While I try to avoid the English commenters, the few times I’ve heard Brian Smith he seems to be spot-on about most things, even to the point of correcting the guy sitting next to him.
      I wonder if this TV moto issue is something that’s increasing or are we just paying more attention? Either way they need to come up with some way to minimize the help (or hindrance, as on descents) TV motos provide.

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