E3 Harelbeke preview: five riders who could win

The first cobbled WorldTour classic of the season attracts strong line-up

Fifteen hills, 16 cobbled kilometres – E3 Harelbeke kick starts the UCI WorldTour’s cobbled Classics season on Friday (March 25).

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) attacked on Oude Kwaremont last year to take victory, and the cobbled climb is likely to be key again this time out, even with the Welshman absent.

Geraint Thomas lights it up on Oude Kwaremont (pic: Sirotti)

Thomas is in action at the Volta a Catalunya instead, but the ‘usual suspects’ of the cobbled Classics will all be in action on the 206km course.

Dubbed ‘the mini Tour of Flanders’, the race offers a great insight into who has the form  ahead of the Ronde, the season’s second Monument, but is a huge prize in its own right too.

We’ve taken a look at the course, and five men who could win this year’s race below.

The course

The route has been tweaked slightly from 2015, with two less climbs, but the usual favourites all feature.

Katteberg comes first, a 600m ascent at an average gradient of 6.7 per cent before La Houppe, the longest climb of the race, after 90km of racing.

The riders will face the cobbled ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, where Geraint Thomas escaped to win in 2015 (pic: Sirotti)

The climbs then come thick and fast, with Oude Kruisberg, Knokteberg, Hotondberg and Kortekeer all in quick succession, before the short, steep cobbled ascent of the Taaienberg.

The Boigneberg, and cobbled climbs of the Eikenberg and Stationberg complete the run of climbs, though the respite does not last long.

The Kapelberg features next but it is the Paterberg (700m at 12 per cent, with some sections closer to 20 per cent) where selections might be made and the fight for position is vital.

– E3 Harelbeke: TV schedule –

It is followed by the 2.2km Oude Kwaremont, where Thomas attacked last year, with the final cobbled ascent averaging 4.2 per cent in gradient.

After that, any escapees will have to stay clear on the 1.5km Karnemelkbeekstraat and 1km Tiegemberg before getting their arms in the air.

Thomas’ attack last year, and the move he instigated before Peter Sagan won in 2014 both proved too much for the chasers to reel back so anybody with an advantage over the Oude Kwaremont will fancy their chances of making it stick.

The contenders – Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo)

In Geraint Thomas’ absence, there are four former winners on the provisional startlist including Fabian Cancellara in his final season.

Cancellara has won E3-Harelbeke three times but crashed out last year – the injuries he suffered curtailing his entire Classics campaign.

Fabian Cancellara celebrates victory at Strade Bianche (pic: Sirotti)

Spartacus is back to his best this year, though, with the burning desire to end his career on a major high note.

Strade Bianche victory, followed by a time trial win at Tirreno-Adriatico, proved his form and E3 is the time to step it up.

Cancellara will be a marked man – something which cost him in 2014 when his rivals refused to help chase down the front group.

But team-mate Jasper Stuyven won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and showed well at the Omloop too so will be a valuble ally for Cancellara.

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

The curse of the rainbow jersey appears to have struck Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) in some style this season, as he continues to search for an elusive first win in the rainbow bands.

He has been close though – within one second of an overall win at Tirreno-Adriatico for starters, and was unlucky to be impeded by Fernando Gaviria’s crash on the final straight at Milan-San Remo.

World champion Peter Sagan is still after a first win in the rainbow jersey (pic: Sirottti)

Second at the Omloop, seventh at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and fourth at Strade Bianche, Sagan has already shown well at the semi-Classics however.

He came in for criticism last season for below-par form in the Classics, so he has a point to prove to Oleg Tinkov.

And while he is still after a first win as world champion, if he can get away in a small group a la 2014, he will surely be among the favourites in the sprint.

Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep)

Five-time former winner Tom Boonen leads Etixx-QuickStep ahead of what is also likely to be his final Classics season.

But the Belgian super team have proved in recent years that strength in depth is their key to success, and Zdenek Stybar – last year’s runner-up – is without doubt a man to watch.

Zdenek Stybar is one of a number of cards for Etixx-QuickStep to play (pic: Sirotti)

Runner-up at Strade Bianche, Stybar proved his form with a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico but crashed at Milan-San Remo after a dog ran across his path.

An over-zealous fan has already cost him a Monument too, when he crashed at Paris-Roubaix in 2013, but the Czech former ‘cross world champion is more than capable of E3 Harelbeke success.

With Boonen another obvious option, and 2014 Paris-Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra also in their ranks alongside last year’s third-place finisher Matteo Trentin, Etixx-QuickStep have plenty of cards to play.

Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal)

Third at Milan-San Remo, Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal) issued a well-timed reminder of why he should be watched closely during Classics season.

He was also third at the Ronde in 2013, and has been solid – if unspectacular – at the Classics since, including his solo breakaway at the windswept Gent-Wevelgem last season.

Jurgen Roelandts finished third at Milan-San Remo (pic: Sirotti)

He was seventh at E3 Harelbeke last time out, the same position he finished Gent-Wevelgem, and then came eighth at the Tour of Flanders.

He is not the most obvious contender, compared to say defending Tour of Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) or perennial Classics contender Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) but he is a dark horse well worth keeping an eye on.

Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing)

Greg van Avermaet has enjoyed a great start to the 2016 season, and already boasts one win on the cobbles at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Since then, van Avermaet has also won a stage and held on for overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and was fifth at Milan-San Remo at the weekend.

Greg van Avermaet has enjoyed a great start to 2016, including one cobbled classic win already at the Omloop (pic: Sirotti)

The Belgian ace has always been there or thereabouts at the Classics, and was third at both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix 12 months ago.

It would not be a huge surprise if he were to better those results this year, and victory at E3 Harelbeke will certainly shorten his odds of doing just that.


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