Situated between Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke comes as an opportunity for the classics minded riders to keep their legs’ ticking over between weekends. Not only does it offer an insight as to the condition of the season’s favourites, it also provides the first real venture onto the Belgian cobbles for many of the big names this year. Contested upon a course including most of the hellingen apparent in the following week’s Tour of Flanders, E3 is not won exclusively by strongmen, nor guaranteed to be duked out by sprinters. This openness makes the race a consistently difficult affair to predict, but only adds to the tension as the pressure ratchets up towards the day’s decisive moments.
It is a 215.3km ride which separates the riders from the start in Harelbeke to the finish; which is also in Harelbeke. Though the distance has increased marginally from 2014’s edition, all the usual array of hellingen will be waiting for the peloton to encounter along the way. The riders will have 32km to warm up before they are tasked with their first hill, the Katteberg’s 600m of 6.7% (max 8%), which is soon followed by the Leberg (700m avg 6.1% max 14%.) The obligatory breakaway will be formed on these early ascents, which are also peppered with cobbled sectors along the way. A rhythm will have been established by both those out front and the real contenders secured within the pack at this point; limbering up for when the real race starts after 102km. La Houppe is 3440m long and has an average gradient of 3.32%, but attention will be focused more on its ramps which stretch up to 10%. Though this will not be decisive enough to impact upon who wins, a costly error in positioning by a favourite could mean getting held back by a crash or puncture; even at this point it will be hard to make it back to the main bunch. Rapid fire hills come thick and fast after this, Berg Stene (1560m, avg 7.3% max 10%) is bridged by the cobbled Varentstraat sector directly into the Boigneberg which ups the maximum gradient to 15% (2180m, avg 5.8%). The peloton are afforded a 4km break from hills and cobbles, though anxiety will be growing as teams seek to keep their leaders safe at the front of affairs before striking the Eikenberg. This is a 1200m long cobbled hill at an average of 5.5% (max 11%) and is swiftly followed by another cobbled climb in the shape of the Stationsberg (460m, avg 3.2% max 5.7%.) Next to be ticked off the day’s agenda is the Taaienberg’s gruelling cobbled slopes, 650m in length with ramps of 18% upon its 9.5% average gradient. This seems certain to see some race action occur if nothing has done so already, often acting as the foundation for a Tom Boonen attack over its entire distance; with no ‘Tommeke’ here it will be interesting to see who picks up the mantle this year. Despite having tackled all of the afore mentioned challenges, the peloton will still have only just dipped several kilometres under the 90km to go marker by this point. The next two climbs do not appear until 72km remaining; this time it will be the Knokteberg (1530m, avg 5.3% max 13.3%) then the Hotondberg (1200m, avg 4% max 8%.) Approximately 8km of flat road then follow before heading onto the Rotelenberg (1100m, avg 3% max 6%) which is separated by hardly a kilometre to Kortekeer and its 17% maximum gradients (1000m, avg 6.4%.) An interesting 12km break from the climbing then follows; a unique passage which is hard to predict how the favourites will approach it tactically.
E3 Harelbeke’s decisive final third begins with 46km remaining as the peloton start the relatively sedate Kapelberg (900m, 4%, max. 7%.) Afterwards the infamous Paterberg will need conquering, only 700m in length, but boasting an average gradient of 12% which rockets up to 20% in places. This is like a sharp jab to the ribs compared to what follows upon the Kwaremont’s cobbled slopes, demanding respect from the riders over its 22oom of 4.2% gradient (max 11%.) This leg breaking double header should have formed the group from which we will see the eventual winner emerge from come the end, but 37km still need negotiating before those present can begin dreaming of victory. Seemingly named after the gasping noises expelled by the riders, Karnemelkbeekstraat (1530m, avg 4.9% max 7.3%) will be the first of the final two clear opportunities to attack upon with 30km left. A cobbled sector is next in the form of the Varentstraat, but the last hellingen is the Tiegemberg. The one kilometre run of 6.5% average gradient (max 9%) is the last chance to shake things up as the frantic race dips under the 20km to go marker. Once into the final 5km, the leading rider(s) will need to negotiate a couple of corners before the final turn places them onto the finishing straight with 600m left to decide the champion.
Defending champion Peter Sagan comes here as a major contender for the win in Harelbeke and will treat this as more than just a rehearsal for the following weekend’s Tour of Flanders. Sagan has found form elusive so far this year, but encouraging performances have been apparent regardless. He will arrive at E3 Harelbeke off the back of a solid fourth place finish at Milan-San Remo and will believe his form is beginning to return. On paper the race suits him nicely, which comes as no surprise considering he won last year’s edition, but this still does not quite feel like enough to enforce his claims. If he arrives before the line as part of an elite group, there is a good chance that he could be the fastest man present; whether or not he clings on long enough to find out remains to be seen.
A rider who has shown consistency in the classics, but is also lacking a major win like Sagan is Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian is surely set to fill the shoes of Tom Boonen in coming years and seems guaranteed to play a major role in how the race will develop tactically. His performance at this year’s Strade-Bianche was quite incredible, managing to bridge to within spitting distance of the winning group, just before they took off to contest the win. The Italian classic certainly failed to suit him as much as E3 does and with the evidence of how deep he is willing to dig in order to stay amongst the favourites, he is a class act worth backing. It appears he has tried to stay relatively fresh by only riding Tirreno-Adriatico since Strade-Bianche; meaning he should arrive at the start line as one of the fittest contenders. Vanmarcke will do his best to be part of a small elite group and hope to put the others to bed with his solid sprinting capabilities if he has not already soloed away come the finish.
The man who won Strade-Bianche in imperious fashion was Zdenek Stybar, who has not quite managed to keep the ball rolling with his form. He came third in almost a repeat of the Italian classic’s results on stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico and then crashed upon the crucial descent of the Poggio at Milan-San Remo. He should not struggle with the terrain in itself, though he is likely to find his crucial competitors in better shape heading into this race. No doubt he will be part of the Etixx-Quick Step team which animates the day, the win however might be a stretch too far at this point in time for the Czech. Stybar’s teammate Niki Terpstra will also be at E3 to make life difficult for the other riders, but will be in need of ideal tactical conditions in order to benefit most. The Dutchman is known for taking off from an elite group solo and essentially time trialling his way to the finish; this lacks a key factor though. For this to work most effectively, he usually ensure there is at least one other team member present in the group, upsetting the chasing dynamic and forcing others to pursue. If he does find himself and teammate Stybar in the deciding group, then this seems the most likely way he could challenge for the victory.
Geraint Thomas is exhibiting some of the best form we have ever seen at this time of the year from him on the road so far this season. Working for teammates Richie Porte and Ben Swift at Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo respectively, demonstrated how the Welshman can blow a race apart with sustained pressure at crucial points. He has been jinxed in recent years when it has come to the cobbled classics, but he seems destined to win a title at some point in his career; it could be soon. Thomas is aware that the likes of Wiggins, Stannard and even Swift are all able to keep him from taking command of the team at a monument in the near future; meaning he should see E3 as a golden opportunity. He has form here, having finished 3rd and 4th in the last two years, but he has never appeared in such great shape before when arriving at Harelbeke. His difficulty comes in envisioning a situation where he can win from; a solo effort seems unlikely given the chance of a draining headwind and an elite group is likely to contain several riders who can all finish faster than him. Perhaps his best bet is to attack within 5km of the finish from whatever group he finds himself in, regardless of what his plan might be for the day; Thomas remains a man worth watching.
Another contender is Greg Van Avermaet of BMC, a man who consistently challenges for the major races but often finds himself short when the odds are stacked in his favour. Like Stybar, his early season form has been impressive, but Avermaet’s does not seem to be ailing somewhat like the Czech rider’s. He should be part of the key moves late in the day and will also find a close ally in teammate Daniel Oss. The Italian has often demonstrated total commitment to his leaders, sacrificing his chances of winning when setting up the likes of Avermaet for a win. Oss has shown potential in these sorts of races before and seems to be returning to the sort of form he wielded on the cobbles in 2013. Between the two of them, BMC will be confident of causing a stir, but it is hard to say who will have the bigger impact upon the race of the two.
Having won Milan-San Remo last weekend, John Degenkolb will certainly feel the pressure to win a race such as E3 has decreased somewhat. The German sprinter is clearly in imperious form this spring, but might want to keep his powder dry ahead of further monuments he will have his eye on already. He managed to stay with the winning group for the most part last year, eventually finishing 15th after being dropped near the end. His climbing has certainly improved judging by his showings on the Cipressa and Poggio, but any group will do their upmost to shell the German before the line, as he is likely to be the fastest man here at the finish.
A few years ago, Fabian Cancellara would have been the favourite for this, but nowadays it seems his classics crown has firmly slipped. He did not look the man of previous spring campaigns at Milan-San Remo and lacks the potency he once wielded to take off solo; decimating the field behind. He will as ever be worth watching out for, but a win seems beyond him; especially given the in-form talent listed above.
Other contenders for the day are: Alexander Kristoff, very strong this year but likely to find the hillingen too arduous. Sebastian Langeveld, always a modest performer at these races, though likely to be swamped by greater talents. Jurgen Roelandts, seems to be coming back to the classics form which originally cast him as ‘the next big thing’.
Outcome: 1st Geraint Thomas 2nd Sep Vanmarcke 3rd Peter Sagan