The WorldTour descends upon Harelbeke on Friday with the Classics stars set to battle it out on the cobbles and hellingen of Belgium.
The race, now settled and neatly positioned between Dwars door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem, provides the contenders for the up-coming Tour of Flanders with a demanding 218km of racing, and many of the Flanders climbs included.
However, the race is more than just a teaser for the main show that will take place on the first Sunday in April, and with a slightly modified course the race is one in which sprinters or a small group could dominate proceedings.
The race, starting in Harelbeke, swings east and eases towards Oudenaarde before a distinctive southern turn sees the course start the first small cluster of climbs with the Katteberg and Leberg. Depending on the weather and wind direction a break may well form at this point but only after a 60km loop past Geraandsbergen does the race come alive with La Houppe serving the next test after 100km of racing.
From there the race is peppered with hellingen - the Eikenberg (118km), Taaienberg (128km), and Knokteberg (143km) standing out in section of 39km that includes no fewer than seven climbs. However, it’s not until the Paterberg (173km) and Oude Kwaremont (177km), that the main contenders typically tend to shine. In the last few years both climbs have been repeatedly used to form winning attacks and although two climbs remain from the base of the Kwaremont until the finish, the 20km between the final climb and the finish line in Harelbeke could provide the opportunity for a number of riders to pull themselves back into contention.
To subscribe to the Cyclingnews video channel, click here
Fabian Cancellara lines up for the race with his best squad around him, although question marks surround Stijn Devolder after the Belgian crashed heavily in Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Cancellara, though, is a three-time winner of the event and has used E3 as a marker for victory in Flanders and Roubaix in the past, often using the Oude Kwaremont as the springboard for victory. After a subdued – by his standards – performance in Milan-San Remo, and with Tom Boonen out injured, all eyes will be on the Trek Factory rider, who perhaps solely personifies the ‘old-guard’ of contenders in the face of a new generation eager to pull the crown from the Swiss rider’s head.
Peter Sagan would of course dearly like to defend his title from last year, when he provided a rare glimpse of how his power can beautifully dovetail with tactical astuteness in the Classics. After a difficult few weeks for both him and his manager-less team, nothing would arrest the tense mood inside the Tinkoff-Saxo bus than a victory at WorldTour level.
Last year, Sagan dutifully swatted away the attacks from Etixx-QuickStep as he marched to victory but the Belgian team line–up is without Boonen in their ranks. This may have robbed fans of the leadership question marks between the team’s talisman and Niki Terpstra but team boss Patrick Lefevere will be looking to use E3 to lay some foundation ahead of Flanders and Roubaix. Terpstra has often ridden as Boonen’s foil, so a change of character may be required while Zdeněk Štybar and Stijn Vandenbergh may need to move into the role previously occupied by the Dutchman. While victory in E3 Harelbeke will not define Etixx’s Classics season, it should provide evidence as to how Lefevere’s men plan to handle Cancellara.
And without a recognised sprinter in the ranks BMC Racing will be aiming to replicate their ride from Milan-San Remo, where they constantly looked to disturb the rhythm and break up the peloton. In Marcus Burghardt, Jempy Drucker, Manuel Quinziato and Michael Schär they have the talent to do so while Daniel Oss and Greg Van Avermaet are both in resounding form.
Another rider looking to distance the sprinters will be Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian skipped Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen and is due a result. He has been one of the strongest one-day men this season but 4th in Strade Bianche and 5th in Omloop are perhaps scant consolation for the performances he has delivered so far.
Team Katusha enter the fray with Alexander Kristoff as their focal point. The Milan-San Remo runner-up has been flying all season with second in Kuurne already under his belt.
The man who beat Kirstoff to win Milan-San Remo, John Degenkolb, leads the line-up for his Giant-Alpecin. Sixth in 2012, the German has kicked on since then and with morale sky-high he will be searching for another win ahead of his Gent-Wevelgem defence on Sunday.
Team Sky come into the race with a number of cards to play but Geraint Thomas stands out of his ride in Milan-San Remo. Viviani has been drafted in to replace Bradley Wiggins but in Peter Kennaugh, Bernhard Eisel and Ian Stannard, the team has options.