The Flemish Classics season continues with this weekend’s double-header of E3-Harelbeke (Friday) and Ghent-Wevelgem (Sunday).
Two-and-a-half weeks of cobbled racing began on Wednesday with Dwars door Vlaanderen, won by Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) from an elite escape group which included British national champion Ian Stannard (Team Sky).
Dwars door Vlaanderen only provided a taste of things to come, however, and a number of star riders, including Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Leopard-Trek) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) sat out in order to recover from a gruelling edition of Milan-San Remo.
The 56th edition of E3-Harelbeke measures 209km, starting and finishing in the town of Harelbeke in West Flanders, and is packed with 15 climbs. Just two of those ‘bergs’ come in the first 100km, however, with 13 climbs packed into the second half of the route.
A number of infamous cobbled climbs pepper the course, including the back-to-back ascents of the Paterberg and Kwaremont, the two finishing climbs in the Tour of Flanders, and E3-Harelbeke serves as a valuable recce ahead of the second Monument of the season, set to take place on Sunday March 31.
The Paterberg may be less than 500m long, but it is cobbled in its entirety and averages 12.5 per cent, while the Kwaremont is significantly longer, cobbled for 1,500m of its 2,200m length, but with a lower average gradient of 4.2 per cent. The course is ripe for attacking but race-defining moves are often saved for the latter stages and, after the Paterberg and Kwaremont, come the Knokteberg and Tiegemberg before a 16km run-in to the finish.
If E3-Harelbeke serves as a recce ahead of the Tour of Flanders, it’s also a useful gauge of form, and any riders in the mix at the finish are likely to feature again at the Ronde. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) holds the record for the most victories, having triumphed in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2012 – no wonder Tornado Tom says it’s one of his favourite races. The 32-year-old fired a double warning shot to his rivals last year, winning E3-Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem before triumphing at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in what was a stunning Classics season for the Belgian star.
Twelve months on and 2013 poses more of a challenge for Boonen, who is yet to show his cards after a pre-season heavily disrupted by an elbow injury and having failed to emerge from the team bus for the restart of Milan-San Remo.
Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Leopard-Trek) is also likely to be in the mix after a strong showing to finish third at Milan-San Remo and having previously won E3-Harelbeke in 2010 and 2011, while Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), winner in 2009, will all start among the favourites. Three Brits – Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe – have been named in Team Sky’s eight-rider line-up.
Friday March 22 – 16:00-18:30 – delayed coverage and highlights on British Eurosport
Ghent-Wevelgem is known as a sprinters’ classic but rarely does the finish come down to a full-on bunch sprint, with the winner normally the fastest finisher from a depleted group. The race actually starts in Deinze, west of Ghent, and heads north towards the coast before turning south for the finish in Wevelgem.
The 238km route includes ten climbs, including a double ascent of the Kemmelberg, and all are packed in a 60km section in the second half of the race. The Kemmelberg is often decisive, whether it be the scene of a race-winning attack, or where a sprinters gets tailed off, and the first ascent of the one-and-a-half kilometre climb, which has a maximum gradient of 15 per cent, comes at the 174km mark, before the route loops round via the Monteberg and Baneberg climbs for a second ascent after 192km. The Monteberg is climbed once again ahead of a 42km run to the finish.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep are likely to have two cards to play at Ghent-Wevelgem, with Tom Boonen searching for a third successive win and Mark Cavendish the team’s ace card should he make it to the finish in the front group. The Manx Missile has been short of luck in recent editions, however, having lost contact on the Kemmelberg last year, while he crashed out in 2011, but Ghent-Wevelgem remains on the 2011 world champion’s hit-list of races to win. Otherwise, Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen is a former winner, having triumphed in 2009, while the Norwegian’s team-mate, Bernhard Eisel, won as a HTC-Highroad rider in 2010.
Other names likely to feature are Ian Stannard (Team Sky), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE), Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida).
The race will not be shown on British television.