E3 Harelbeke has always been seen as a ‘mini’ Tour of Flanders and, after an ‘opening weekend’ in February that yielded more questions than answers, and a low-key Three Days of De Panne on Wednesday, the race has added significance with the Ronde now just over a week away.
By this point last year, the tone had already been set, with Dwars door Vlaanderen showcasing the kind of early aggression and wide-open racing that would come to characterise the 2017 Classics. Now, though, Dwars has snatched the pre-Flanders slot, forcing De Panne into this week and a one-day format, with all top cobbled classics contenders absent.
Despite the upheaval to the format of the ‘Flemish cycling week’ – which is more like a fortnight – E3 retains its familiar slot on the first Friday, followed closely by Gent-Wevelgem on the Sunday.
Gent-Wevelgem heads up towards the coast before exploring the hills around Heuvelland, near the French border, and has a tendency – albeit one that’s been subverted in recent years – to be kind to the sprinters. However, E3-Harelbeke is rooted firmly in the terrain of De Ronde, and the repeated hills of the Flemish Ardennes invariably whittle the field down to the very strongest.
First held in 1958, E3 Harelbeke has established itself as the most important pre-Flanders hit-out, or at least the one you can read the most into. Four of the past 11 winners have ‘done the double’, while only once in that time has the Ronde winner finished outside the top 10 at E3.
All three of Tom Boonen’s Ronde titles were preceded by E3 success, and it’s the retired Belgian who holds the record for most victories with five.
Greg Van Avermaet won 12 months ago as part of a golden spring that also included Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix titles, and who knows what might have happened in Flanders had that jacket not been there on the Oude Kwaremont.
Echelons and a strung out peloton at the 2017 E3 Harelbeke. (Tim de Waele/TDWSport)
The race starts in Harelbeke, a small town in West Flanders, and heads into the Flemish Ardennes before returning to finish in exactly the same spot.
The route is 206.5km and contains 15 hellingen, the short, sharp climbs that characterise the region.
The 2018 route is largely unchanged from last year. The early climb of the Kruisberg is off the menu but the organisers have found a substitute near Ronse in the form of Broeke. Otherwise, it’s much the same, and once again 20 kilometres will separate the final climb, the Tiegemberg, from the finish line.
The first part of the race is largely innocuous, with two climbs in the opening 100 kilometres. Things start to heat up with Broeke after 108km and it should steadily build from there.
Last year the race came to life on the Taaienberg, courtesy of Tom Boonen on his favourite climb, which is again the seventh climb on the menu, appearing with around 75km to go.
Boigneberg, Eikenberg, Stationberg, and Kapelberg all follow, but an undoubtedly crucial phases of the race will be Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont, the Tour of Flanders pairing tackled in reverse order here with around 40km remaining. After that it’s the Karnemelkbeekstraat and then the smooth but draining Tiegemberg, before the run to the line.
Naesen, Van Avermaet and Gilbert in the late breakaway in the 2017. (Tim de Waele/TDWSport)
E3 Harelbeke hellingen
Wolvenberg (kilometre-28, 666 metres long, 6.8% average gradient)
La Houppe (km91, 3440m, 3.3%)
Broeke (km107.6, 1400m, 4%)
Knokteberg (km117.7, 1530m, 5.3%)
Hotondberg (km121.6, 1200m, 4%)
Kortekeer (km128.7, 1000m, 6.4%)
Taaienberg (km133.7, 650m, 9.5%)
Boigneberg (km140, 2180m, 5.8%)
Eikenberg (km144.5, 1200m, 5.5%)
Stationberg (km150, 460m, 3.2%)
Kapelberg (km160, 900m, 4%)
Paterberg (km165, 700m, 12%)
Oude Kwaremont (km167.6, 2200m, 4.2%)
Karnemelkbeekstraat (km175.4, 1530m, 4.9%)
Tiegemberg (km186.5, 1000m, 6.5%)
Peter Sagan chases the lead trio at the 2017 E3 Harelbeke. (Tim de Waele/TDWSport)
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) returns after winning the title last year. Fiftieth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 56th at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, 34th at Strade Bianche, and 17th at Milan-San Remo, he’s had a quiet start to the season compared to recent years. How much can be read into that is unclear – it’s true there’s heightened scrutiny on the Olympic champion after his extraordinary spring campaign last year – but nonetheless the Belgian fans will be looking for signs that he can win the big one next Sunday.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is included in the list of favourites for pretty much every race he starts, and this will be no different. Despite winning the Tour of Flanders two years ago, the three-time world champion hasn’t had quite the spring classics success expected of him so far in his career. There’s no doubt about his physical capabilities, but the drawback is that they in turn give rise to tactical headaches. Whatever his rivals say, expect the race dynamics to revolve around the world champion.
If Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) is in the shape he was last spring – when he finished on the podium at Dwars and E3 before winning De Panne and the Tour of Flanders in astounding fashion – then there’s no doubt he’s on an equal footing with Van Avermaet and Sagan. As always, Quick-Step have multiple options, with Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, and Yves Lampaert all in attendance. If the race isn’t revolving around Sagan, it’s usually revolving around Quick-Step and their strength in depth.
Below that ‘top-tier', if you like, there are plenty of other potential winners in a race that’s far from predictable. Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac) is always there or thereabouts and has replaced Van Avermaet as the nearly-man of Belgian cycling. Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) was the revelation of last spring and comes into the race saying his race and training data is better than ever. Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal), fifth on the Flanders debut in 2015, may reckon his future lies in the Ardennes but he’s in flying form after winning Strade Bianche and finishing fourth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico. Jasper Stuyven is another Belgian on the rise and leads Trek-Segafredo alongside the hard-to-read John Degenkolb, who was disappointing last spring.
Can Alexander Kristoff rediscover success on the cobbles after a rough couple of years? He finished fourth at Milan-San Remo so is clearly back in shape after illness in his first spring with UAE Team Emirates.
Team Sky might be saving Michal Kwiatkowski for Flanders and Geraint Thomas for Roubaix, but they have options in Ian Stannard, Gianni Moscon, Dylan van Baarle, and Lukasz Wizniowski. Astana are another team to watch after the way they dominated Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. That day’s winner Michael Valgren will be hoping to be up there again with the promising Alexey Lutsenko.
Edvald Boasson Hagen has had a troubled winter with surgery and illness so Julien Vermote could be the likelier card for Dimension Data, while over at Mitchelton-Scott, Luke Durbridge – himself already overcoming a broken collarbone this season – will look to kick on after an encouraging spring 12 months ago. He’s in the team alongside Matteo Trentin and former Paris-Roubaix winner Mat Hayman. Sonny Colbrelli has steadily been growing as a cobbled classics rider and finished top 10 here last year. He has a fast finish but Bahrain-Merida also have Heinrich Haussler, who looks injury-free and in-form for the first time in a long time.
Arnaud Démare (FDJ) is much more than ‘just’ a sprinter but is unlikely to survive a highly selective race, and the same goes for Michael Matthews (Sunweb), who’s still feeling his way on this terrain.
Finally, he’s not going to win, but keep an eye out for Mikel Landa (Movistar). In a field full of Classics strongmen, the Basque climber will try not to stand out like a sore thumb as he gains experience on the cobbles ahead of the Tour de France.