E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem provide key test before Tour of Flanders

Both races are wide open as the 2015 winners won't return this year

With the Tour of Flanders looming on the horizon, the double header of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem is an important chance for the contenders to see how they match up against their rivals. There is still time ahead of the big day to make up for a poor weekend but a strong performance in either race is a morale boost and sends a serious message to your fellow competitors.

E3 Harelbeke is the newer of the two races, holding its first meeting in 1958 and, for the Flanders hopefuls, it possibly holds the most importance. It is sometimes known as the mini-Tour of Flanders due to its hilly route containing several of De Ronde’s key climbs. Over the past 10 years, on four occasions has the winner of this race gone on to win the main event.

In that time, only once has the winner of the Tour of Flanders come from outside the top 10. In 2011, Nick Nuyens came back from a lowly 38th place at E3 Harelbeke to win the Tour of Flanders just over a week later. Last year’s Tour of Flanders winner, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), finished fourth into Harelbeke.

In contrast, Gent-Wevelgem is usually a chance for the sprinters to have a shot at glory with John Degenkolb, Oscar Freire, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mario Cipollini among the list of winners. It cannot simply be described as a sprinters race, however. The many climbs in the second half of the race means that a breakaway has every chance of staying away.

Last year’s race will likely stay in the memories of many fans and riders alike, after windy conditions saw riders blown clean off their bikes. It was a day made for the breakaway and saw only 40 riders make it to the finish line in Wevelgem.

Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) tried to make a selection on the Kemmelberg in Gent-Wevelgem

The courses

There have been some changes to both routes as the organisers look to make the races even tougher. E3 Harelbeke will be nine kilometres shorter this year and will contain two less climbs, with the intention of making the finale much more intense.

The route will begin much the same as it winds its way northeast from Harelbeke to Oudenaarde, hitting the first climb of the Katterberg around the 30 kilometre mark. This year, the riders will skip the Leberg and head out around Zottegem and Geraardsbrgen towards the second climb of the day La Houpe. This is where things start getting very different compared to last year’s route. Instead of continuing north for the Berg Stene, the course takes a right turn and makes a trip up the Oude Kruisberg before taking on the Knokterberg around 20 kilometers earlier than in 2015.

After the Hotondberg and the Kortekeer, the riders will go back on themselves and head northeast again to complete the Taaienberg, the Boigenberg, the Eikenberg and the Stationsberg. After a brief respite of a little over 10 kilometres, the final five climbs will appear before the riders, with four of those condensed into 15 kilometres. The Kapelberg comes first, followed by the Patersberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Karnemelkbeekstraat with the Tiegemberg, as usual, the last climb. It’s not all over for any dropped riders with 20 kilometres remaining to finish from the bottom of the Tiegemberg.

For Gent-Wevelgem, the organisers have decided to route the riders up the tougher side of the Kemmelberg as well as adding in a number of other climbs. After climbing the Kemmelberg for the first time at the 170km mark, the riders will loop around and pass over the Monteberg and the Baneberg before heading back into Kemmel. While neither side could ever be described as easier, the second ascent will see the riders tackle gradients of up to 23 per cent.

It is the first time in over 20 years that this side has been used and has provided a logistical challenge for the organisers. Should it prove a success, race organisers hope to keep it as a regular feature in the parcours. The new addition will make it tougher for a bunch sprint to succeed but second time up the Kemmelberg comes after 209 kilometres of racing and with over 30 kilometres still to run to the finish, there is still a chance for the sprinters to make it work.

Peter Sagan leads Zdenek Stybar and Fabian Cancellara

The contenders

Neither of last year’s champions will be back to defend their title, for differing reasons. E3 Harelbeke winner Geraint Thomas, is riding at the Volta a Catalunya this week while Gent-Wevelgem victor Luca Paolini is currently suspended after testing positive for cocaine during the Tour de France last year.

As the most recent winner on the start-line, it is Peter Sagan that will be wearing the number one on his back. With no John Degenkolb around either, Sagan is also the most recent winner of Gent-Wevelgem in action this weekend. The Slovakian has been performing well in recent weeks but has not yet been able to convert that into a victory.

Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) and Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) are the two other former winners of both events that will be present on the start line. Cancellara is embarking on his final season as a professional and has proved already that it is not going to be a lap of honour, with victories at Strade Bianche and the Tirreno-Adriatico time trial. Along with Sagan, he was lucky to escape a crash at the finish of Milan-San Remo when Fernando Gaviria came down in the final metres.

Boonen’s form is much more of a mystery going into the weekend, with no outstanding results thus far. His lack of results could be down a certain tentativeness due to the two heavy crashes he suffered last year. If he hopes to add another monument win to his palmares next week then he’ll have to step up his game. Etixx-QuickStep, however, have a number of other options with Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra in the line-up. After getting his first taste of the cobbles at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gaviria will also be in the mix for Gent-Wevelgem.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), will also be looking to relocate his winning ways ahead of his Tour of Flanders title defence next week. He could be a threat in either race, as could the Lotto-Soudal pairing of Jurgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has been the man to beat so far this spring and put on a good showing at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Other contenders include, Sep Vanmarcke, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Sylvain Chavanel.

Following his first monument win at Milan-San Remo, Arnaud Demare (FDJ) will be looking to improve on his previous second place at Gent-Wevelgem. He will face challenges from riders such as Andre Greipel, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sacha Modolo and Elia Viviani.

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