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Cobbled Classics: six riders to watch this week

Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem take the pro peloton to the Flandrian cobbles

Attention turns to Flanders this week, starting with Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday (March 22), before E3 Harelbeke and then Gent-Wevelgem as preparations for the Tour of Flanders ramp up.

No sooner has the dust settled on the Via Roma after Michal Kwiatkowski’s Milan-San Remo win than the Classics specialists head to Belgium to tackle the cobbled Hellingen.

The Flandrian cobbles take centre stage for the next fortnight (pic – Sirotti)

Dwars door Vlaanderen is a WorldTour race for the first time this year, joining E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem on cycling’s top tier, while all three build up to the big one: the 101st Tour of Flanders on Sunday April 2.

With cobbles to tackle, and the Flemish weather to negotiate these are far more than just warm-up races, however.

Here’s what to look out for during the next week of racing.

Dwars door Vlaanderen, Wednesday March 22

A new addition to the UCI WorldTour calendar for 2017, Dwars door Vlaanderen is being run for the 72nd time, with Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) rolling out as defending champion.

– Dwars door Vlaanderen 2017: TV schedule – 

Similar to the Tour of Flanders, the race is largely flat to start with before the cobbled climbs come thick and fast in the latter half – Taaienberg, Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg included.

Philippe Gilbert: cobbled contender?

Philippe Gilbert made his name in the Ardennes Classics, but the Belgian champion’s move to QuickStep Floors has seen him presented the opportunity to tackle the cobbles as a protected rider too.

And with the black, yellow and red jersey on his back, there is nothing the Belgian fans would love more than to see Gilbert prove himself over the Hellingen.

Philippe Gilbert is not known for the cobbled Classics, but will be the centre of attention with the Belgian champion’s jersey on his back (pic – BrakeThrough Media)

Dwars door Vlaanderen presents the perfect chance for Gilbert to do exactly that as well, as he leads a QuickStep Floors team with a huge depth and range of talent.

Two-time former winner Niki Terpstra is among his team-mates, as are Zdenek Stybar and Fernando Gaviria, but it’s Gilbert – as Belgian champion – who will garner the most interest on Wednesday.

A victory, or a strong showing at the very least – against a slightly weaker field, sans Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet and Alexander Kristoff among others – will mark him as a serious contender for the bigger races to come.

E3 Harelbeke, Friday March 24

Two days after Dwars door Vlaanderen, things ratchet up another level on Friday with the 60th edition of E3 Harelbeke, with world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) and five-time winner Tom Boonen (QuickStep Floors) headlining the startlist.

The race has been a part of the UCI WorldTour since 2012, and while it can no longer claim to be the first cobbled Classic of the UCI WorldTour season, since the promotion of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Dwars door Vlaanderen, it has still attracted a much stronger startlist.

Expect the action to kick off on Oude Kwaremont again, with Knokteberg and finally the Tiegemberg two final platforms to escape en route to Harelbeke.

Peter Sagan: back to the fore?

In what could almost have been a prelude to Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, world champion Peter Sagan escaped late in the race last year, only to be tracked and ultimately outsprinted by Michal Kwiatkowski.

Kwiatkowski does not return to defend his title this weekend – the second consecutive Team Sky win following Geraint Thomas’ 2015 triumph – but Sagan headlines the startlist.

Peter Sagan celebrates his first victory as world champion at last year’s Gent-Wevelgem. He had earlier finished second at E3 Harelbeke (pic: Sirotti)

And the man in the rainbow jersey, winner in 2014, is chief among the favourites for the race as he looks to prove his pre-Flanders form.

He and Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet have already faced off at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and after the Belgian’s triumph there, this is Sagan’s chance to hit back.

Team Sky: that winning feeling

Success breeds success, and Team Sky are enjoying rather a lot if it lately ahead of a race in which they have provided the last two winners.

Neither Geraint Thomas nor Michal Kwiatkowski will race on Friday, leaving British duo Luke Rowe and last year’s third-place finisher Ian Stannard as the team’s biggest hopes – but don’t bet against another victory.

Michal Kwiatkowski and Ian Stannard celebrate on last year’s E3 Harelbeke podium (pic: Sirotti)

Kwiatkowski’s victories at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo sandwiched Sergio Henao’s Paris-Nice triumph and a fourth success in four straight weekends does not look out of the question.

Rowe’s form in particular is encouraging – sixth and third at the Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last month in the first cobbled races of the season put him among the contenders for at least another podium on Friday.

Tom Boonen: six of the best?

Tom Boonen’s farewell tour continues on Friday at a race in which he has enjoyed phenomenal success over the years, winning five times in all.

His last triumph was back in 2012, but with a strong team around him Boonen will be keen to avoid a repeat of the crashes and illnesses which hampered his season’s first two Classics – the Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – last month.

Tom Boonen is looking for one final hurrah on the cobbles. Victory at E3 Harelbeke would be his sixth in the race (pic: Sirotti)

Realistically, the 36-year-old has a task on his hand against the likes of Sagan, Van Avermaet, Rowe, Sep Vanmarcke and Alexander Kristoff, but you can’t shake the feeling there is one final cobbled hurrah left for Tommeke Boonen.

Gent-Wevelgem, Sunday March 26

Traditionally viewed as a ‘sprinter’s Classic’, Gent-Wevelgem is still not a race to be under-estimated, with the cobbled Kemmelberg climb proving vital last year as Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke escaped the peloton’s clutches before the world champion claimed victory.

– Gent-Wevelgem 2017: TV schedule – 

Sagan is among the favourites again this time out, and victory would mean the Slovakian joins an elite list of three-time winners, including Eddy Merckx, Mario Cipollini and Tom Boonen.

The addition of three semi-paved “Plugstreets” roads – a tribute to the lives lost in Flanders Fields during World War One – adds a slightly different dynamic to the race, but the same favourites still emerge.

John Degenkolb: back in the game

A top-ten finish at Milan-San Remo was John Degenkolb’s 11th of the season already, and the 2014 winner will be among the leading contenders to dethrone Sagan at Gent-Wevelgem.

Degenkolb won both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015, before the horror crash at Giant-Alpecin’s winter training camp saw him miss the entire Classics campaign last year.

John Degenkolb proved his penchant for difficult days by winning stage three of the Dubai Tour (pic: ANSA/RCS Sport)

But Degenkolb is back in the bunch this time out, and with plenty to prove – not least that he can step up and fill Fabian Cancellara’s now vacated position as the Classics leader of his new team, Trek-Segafredo.

Degenkolb’s lone victory so far this year was on a wind-battered 200km stage in the desert at the Dubai Tour, so he certainly has the strength (not that it was ever in doubt).

Mark Cavendish: time running out

Mark Cavendish has made no secret of his desire to become the first Brit to win Gent-Wevelgem since Barry Hoban’s 1974 triumph, but as of yet has never managed to back that up in the race.

A quick look at the form book doesn’t exactly land in Cavendish’s favour either – his 101st-place finish at Milan-San Remo followed an illness-affected Tirreno-Adriatico, which has stopped him getting into his stride so far this season.

Two top-20 finishes are his best results in the race, but he is yet to even crack the top ten – and yet, can you really count him out for Sunday?

Mark Cavendish lacks form but he has outlined his desire to win Gent-Wevelgem in the past, and is part of a strong Dimension Data line-up for Sunday’s race (pic: RCS Sport)

He has a strong team around him, including former winners Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernie Eisel – both of whom were HTC-Colombia team-mates of Cavendish when they won in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

And with Dimension Data chasing as many WorldTour points as possible, all three will have a big role to play in Sunday’s race.

Cavendish is one of seven British riders on the provisional startlist who could become only the second Brit, after Hoban, to win the race.

Team-mate Scott Thwaites is another, while Team Sky have Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard and neo-pros Owain Doull and Jon Dibben.

Mark McNally races for Wanty-Groupe Gobert, meanwhile – the Belgian team returning to a race which ended in tragedy 12 months ago when Antoine Demoitie died after being hit by a race moto.

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