The second major weekend of racing in Belgium takes place this weekend, March 26-27, with the E3-Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke on Saturday and the Brabantse Pijl on Sunday. Both are considered important races in view of next week's Ronde Van Vlaanderen, with the 1.HC rated E3 Prijs always an important form tester.
Starting from Harelbeke in West Flanders, the E3 follows a tougher route than last Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen, taking in several tricky cobbled sections (Ename/Volkegem, Paddestraat) and 12 climbs, including the Eikenberg (km 134), Stationsberg (km 139), Taaienberg (km 143), Paterberg (km 160), Oude Kwaremont (km 164), Knokteberg (km 173) and Tiegemberg (km 184). There are no finishing laps, so the last 16 km after the Tiegemberg will not leave much room for cat and mouse tactics.
Last year's winner was Tom Boonen, and the Quick.Step sprinter will be in action again to try to defend his title. He faces stiff opposition from the likes of 2003 winner Steven de Jongh and his teammate and World Champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Peter Van Petegem (Davitamon-Lotto), who was looking in good form last Wednesday, Andreas Klier (T-Mobile), an expert in the Belgian races, Stijn Devolder and Roger Hammond (Discovery), who are due for a win soon, Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis), Ludovic Capelle (Landbouwkrediet) and Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques).
Sunday's Brabantse Pijl starts in Zaventem, near Brussels, and finishes on the Alsemberg in Beersel. It will be run over a 198.3 km parcours featuring one big lap of 118 km and five circuits of 15.9 km. The finishing circuit features three climbs per lap (Bruineput, Lindenberg, Alsemberg) and the race is suited to the hilly classics specialists. It was won last year by Luca Paolini ahead of Michael Boogerd and Nico Sijmens.
Neither Boogerd nor Paolini are on the start list for this year's race, leaving the door open for other favourites such as Oscar Freire (Rabobank), who is often a player in this race, Erik Dekker (Rabobank), Nick Nuyens and Rik Verbrugghe (Quick.Step), Axel Merckx (Davitamon-Lotto), Allan Johansen (CSC), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues). Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) will be making his comeback to racing here after his aborted Paris-Nice.