Goodbye San Remo and hello Harelbeke! Wake up and smell the frites and mayo, cycling fans – the first of the three WorldTour Flandrian cobbled classics is upon us.
- The 218km route starts and finishes in Harelbeke. Riders head out on the flat roads but soon encounter all the cobbled sections and bergs this area is famous for. Many of them will feature in the Ronde van Vlaanderen in ten days’ time, so this race is both an ideal preparation and an excellent form guide.
- There are 17 hellingen to be conquered, and it’s important to be well positioned near the front. Getting caught behind a crash once the action hots up could well spell disaster for podium ambitions. Expect fast-paced, furious racing with constant selections.
- The first fight for position will start at La Houppe, but we probably won’t see any action from the favourites until the cobbled Eikenberg (1,200m, 5.5% average, 11% maximum) with 100km to go, and again on Tom Boonen‘s favourite launch-pad, the Taaienberg. (Takes a moment to weep for Tommeke.)
- The real action will start once the riders hit the Paterberg/Oude Kwaremont combination with less than 50km to go. Paterberg is brutal with a maximum gradient of 20% and was the climb which saw last year’s group of four make their race-winning breakaway. Kwaremont is a longer, gradual climb and was where Fabian Cancellara launched his attack for his solo win in 2013.
- The race concludes with a long, flat, heart-in-the-mouth, run-in to the finish line.
Riders to watch
It’s such an unpredictable race. Last year’s edition was won by Peter Sagan from a four-man breakaway, 2013’s by Cancellara soloing to victory and Boonen took the win in 2012 from a mass group sprint. There are so many riders with a good chance of being in the mix that I am going to go with …
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo): Fourth in this race last year and has shown some great form so far in 2015, particularly at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where he was plagued with bad luck, and also at Strade Bianche. He will certainly be one of the strongest on the climbs and could well strike out with a solo attempt. However, he may be disadvantaged by not having one of the strongest teams.
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step): You can’t really have a cobbled classics preview without a rider from this team. Even without five-time champion Boonen they have any number of cards to play. Stybar has been mightily strong this year taking a beautiful win at Strade Bianche and making several attacks at Milan-San Remo. He has the strength for the climbs and the speed for a fast finish.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo): The defending champion in need of a win. This race ought to suit him. At his best he can stay with the favourites on the short, steep climbs and match the faster finishers in the sprint. However, although he has been strong this year it hasn’t quite come together in a winning combination yet. Hopefully he will have support in the finale, particularly from Matti Breschel who has put some good performances together this season.
Jean-Pierre Drucker (BMC); My last pick is a bit of a wildcard. In his first season with BMC after moving from Wanty Groupe Goubert, Jempy has already posted top ten finishes at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, Three Days of West Flanders and the Handzame Classic, and finished in 11th at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Of course he will work for his team leader, however I’d like to see how he goes up against the best and would love to see him in the top 20.
Riders that nearly made my list and will therefore do extremely well: Fabian Cancellara, The Mighty John Degenkolb, Niki Terpstra, Greg van Avermaet, Geraint Thomas and Alexander Kristoff.
Link: Official race website
(Header: 2014 E3 Harelbeke Trophy from race website)