By Jeff Jones
The Belgian classics season clicks into top gear with the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen on Saturday, March 25. The race is a perfect prelude for next Sunday's Ronde Van Vlaanderen, and most of the riders looking to do well in the Ronde will test themselves in Harelbeke. Held over a challenging 198 km course, the race features 12 of Flanders' notorious bergs, starting with La Houppe after 117 km and finishing with the Tiegemberg at 14 km to go, with very little respite in between. The old favourites of the Paterberg (km 160), Kwaremont (km 164) and Knokteberg (km 173) should be more than sufficient to break the race open.
Last year, Tom Boonen notched up his second success in a row in the E3 Prijs, beating T-Mobile's Andreas Klier in a two man sprint. The pair had escaped on the Taaienberg with 55 km to go, and impressively held off the chasing bunch all the way to the end. This year, Boonen is in good enough form to take three in a row, but it depends on how hungry he is before the Ronde. He'll have most of his teammates with him that will ride on Sunday week, so the E3 Prijs will be a good dress rehearsal.
On the Davitamon-Lotto front, Gert Steegmans, Peter Van Petegem and Robbie McEwen are the men to watch, with Nico Mattan always a chance. CSC has hopes for Fabian Cancellara, in the absence of the injured O'Grady and Breschel. AG2R's Lloyd Mondory performed well to finish third in Dwars door Vlaanderen during the week, while Cofidis will be looking to the reliable Staf Scheirlinckx.
Cyclingnews will be providing live coverage of the 49th E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, starting 14:30 local time (CET)/08:30 (USA East)/05:30 (USA West)/00:30 (Australia East).