Formerly known as the tongue-twister that was E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, this year’s E3 Harelbeke is the 55th edition – but the first as a WorldTour event. This – and Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem – is seen as a warm-up event for the brutality of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix later in the month.
Defending champion Fabian Cancellara will be back to defend the title he won with a dramatic solo ride last year.
What kind of race is it?
This one-day race is the start of the Vlaamse Wielerweek, a week of Belgian cobbled races, including Gent-Wevelgem, Driedaagse van De Panne (Three Days of De Panne) and culminating with the mighty Ronde on April 1st.
The race has been traditionally dominated by Belgian riders, with Tom Boonen winning four times in a row between 2004 and 2007. However, no ‘home’ rider has won since then.
The winners from the last five years are:
2007: Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic)
2008: Kurt Asle Arveson (CSC)
2009: Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)
2010: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
2011: Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek)
What happened last year?
Last year’s E3 was a race that gave Cancellara the opportunity to seal his reputation as the strongest rider in the peloton. After puncturing twice and needing a bike change, he used both his power and his will to chase back through group after group until he caught the leaders. After a brief rest within that front group, he attacked and simply rode away to finish all by himself, not unlike his Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix wins in 2010 or his Strade Bianche victory at the start of this month. It was a fabulous win but also meant that he was a marked man for the Classics that would follow. This video shows the chase-back in all its glory.
1. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek)
2. Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
3. Vladimir Gusev (Katusha)
4. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Cervelo)
5. Bram Tankink (Rabobank)
This year’s race
Cobbles and climbs, this is the race that the hard men of the peloton use to get ready for the Ronde van Vlaanderen as the race follows much of the same route. Named for the E3 motorway and the town of Harelbeke, where the race starts and finishes, this race is 210km – 45km shorter than the Ronde – and takes in 12 hills. The first half of the race is (relatively) flat with cobbled sections, then a multitude of short, sharp, cobbled climbs take over.
This is when the men are well and truly separated from the boys. Climbs include the Eikenberg, Taaienberg, Kapelberg, the Knokteberg, with the Tiegemberg as the final climb, just 16km from the finish. The cobbled Paterberg has a thigh-burning 12.5% gradient, while the Oude Kwaremont has a less killer 4.2% gradient but piles on the punishment with 1,500m worth of bone-shaking cobbles. Featherweights and the faint of heart need not pin a number on their back.
Who to watch
Obviously, RadioShack’s Fabian Cancellara will be throwing down the gauntlet for the spring Classics and looking for his third consecutive win, with Daniele Bennati, Yaroslav Popovych and Gregory Rast to help. Picking up that gauntlet will be four-time winner Tom Boonen, back in shape both mentally and physically this year and with a cracking Omega Pharma-Quick Step team to support him, so he’s what Sean Kelly would call ‘a real danger man’. He’ll be supported by Sylvain Chavanel and Stijn Vandenberg, either of whom could take over the ‘danger man’ role if Boonen is having an off day.
BMC’s Philippe Gilbert is scheduled to ride, as are Alessandro Ballan and Thor Hushovd, and there can be no doubt that the King of Belgium would like to emphatically shut the mouths of the Doubting Thomases out there. GreenEDGE is fielding Stuart O’Grady, who is as hard as they come and, with the team on a winning streak, is not someone to dismiss lightly.
Juan Antonio Flecha was supposed to start but a fractured hand has put him out of the Sky roster, but ladies’ favourite Bernie Eisel is still on. As the Flecha substitute looks to be Mark Cavendish, it will be interesting to see if Eisel is riding for himself – something we don’t see often enough – or riding for Cav. Eisel’s a powerful rider, so he could do some damage if allowed. Heinrich Haussler, Johan Vansummeren (last year’s Paris-Roubaix winner) and Sep Vanmarcke are the key men for Garmin-Barracuda, while Vacansoleil-DCM is fielding Stijn Devolder and Gustav Larsson. And the winner three years ago, Filippo Pozzato will be joining Oscar Gatto for Farnese Vini.
E3 Harelbeke takes place on Friday 23rd March. For TV coverage check cyclingfans.com.
Link: Official website