Cobbles and hills have always backboned the routes of Flemish bike races, but in the 21st century, more and more of their number have deliberately sought to replicate the challenge provided by the Tour of Flanders.
By dint of both its route and its place on the calendar, the E3 BinckBank Classic – latterly E3 Harelbeke – has established itself as the most essential dress rehearsal for Belgian cycling’s most treasured day. Contenders for the Tour of Flanders may pick and choose their battles in their early part of the season, but (almost) every realistic candidate for Ronde victory will be in action in Harelbeke on Friday as a matter of obligation.
The E3 route began to mimic the Tour of Flanders more closely in the mid-1990s, at which point the race started to offer some very reliable pointers of Ronde form. Johan Museeuw became the first rider achieve the E3-Ronde double in 1998, a feat that has been matched on seven occasions since: Peter Van Petegem (1999), Tom Boonen (2005, 2006 and 2012), Fabian Cancellara (2010 and 2013) and, of course, Niki Terpstra (2018).
Last year’s edition prefigured what came to pass at the Tour of Flanders a little over a week later, as Terpstra punched his way clear on the Taaienberg with 70km to go, initially in the company of teammate Yves Lampaert, and their QuickStep comrades defused the chase behind before it truly had a chance to ignite. In the finale, men like Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan found themselves marooned on Philippe Gilbert Island, a situation that effectively repeated itself at the Tour of Flanders.
Terpstra has moved on to Direct Energie for 2019 but Deceuninck-QuickStep have scarcely missed a beat in his absence. Patrick Lefevere’s team has dominated one-day racing (and not only) in the early season, snaring victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo. The road to victory at E3 will inevitably run through the men in blue.
For all concerned, the E3 BinckBank Classic is a chance to set the tenor for Belgian cycling’s Holy Week. Deceuninck-QuickStep will view the race as an opportunity to offer a further, intimidating demonstration of their collective might. Men like Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), on the other hand, will be keen to lay down important markers of their own.
Deceuninck-QuickStep’s run of one-day success was interrupted at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday but they will set out from Harelbeke with more potential winners than any other team.
Zdenek Stybar and Bob Jungels have already won Omloop and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, respectively, this season, while Belgian champion Lampaert was arguably the best supporting actor on each occasion. Gilbert was a stage winner at Tour La Provence and will be stronger here.
Van Avermaet placed second at Omloop at the beginning of the month and has been quietly building on that foundation ever since. Naesen claimed a fine second place at Milan-San Remo, and the Belgian will relish the chance to showcase that form on more amenable terrain at Harelbeke.
Sagan could only manage fourth at Milan-San Remo but he had been stricken by illness in early March and should continue to progress. The Slovak won E3 Harelbeke in 2014 and placed second in both 2013 and 2016 but has endured misfortune in each of the past two editions. Daniel Oss will again offer robust support.
Terpstra lines up at the helm of Direct Energie. The Dutchman placed on the podium at both Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Le Samyn but knows Harelbeke is the first true gauge of his prospects against his old QuickStep teammates. Three-time cyclo-cross world champion Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has lined out in just three road races this year and caught the eye in every one of them, most recently with an aggressive sixth place at Milan-San Remo. He should be to the fore again at home.
Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) looks to have recovered well from his Omloop crash, an on-form Luke Rowe headlines a Team Sky line-up that also includes Ian Stannard, Gianni Moscon and Owain Doull, while Alexander Kristoff leads UAE Team Emirates in the absence of Fernando Gaviria. Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) was to the fore at Milan-San Remo and will hope to transfer his early-season form to the cobbles, though he will miss Luke Durbridge, who crashed hard on Wednesday.
Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) is searching for a big performance to spark his season, as are Trek-Segafredo en masse with Mads Pedersen, John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven. Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) will aim to continue the development that carried him to Paris-Tours victory last year. His teammate Michael Matthews is among the few notable absentees from Harelbeke on Friday. The Australian is at the Volta a Catalunya this week, along with another man slated to make his Ronde debut next week, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
The E3 BinckBank Classic packs some 15 climbs into 203.4km as it winds its way through the Flemish Ardennes. The Taaienberg, favoured test ground of Tom Boonen, is where the first real selection usually tends to take place, but last year, a crash on La Houppe meant that the peloton had split even before it hit the ascent with 70km remaining. Indeed, the Taaienberg ultimately proved decisive, as it was where Terpstra forged clear with Lampaert, never to be seen again.
In any case, there is precious little respite from the Taaienberg onwards, with eight climbs punctuating the next 60km. Unlike at the Ronde, the Paterberg precedes the Oude Kwaremont, though with a little over 40km to go, the stiff combination signals the beginning of E3 BinckBank Classics’s denouement.
The smooth-surfaced but wickedly steep Karnemelkbeekstraat has been a favoured launch pad in recent seasons – Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski broke clear here in 2016 – while the final ascent comes on the Tiegemberg with 20km to go ahead of the run-in to the finish in Harelbeke.
E3 BinckBank Classic climbs:
Km 28.5 Katteberg
Km 82.5 La Houppe
Km 98.3 Hogerlucht
Km 108.5 Knokteberg
Km 112.4 Hotondberg
Km 119.5 Kortekeer
Km 124.2 Taaienberg
Km 132.1 Berg Ten Stene
Km 137.3 Boigneberg
Km 146.5 Stationberg
Km 157.5 Kapelberg
Km 161.5 Paterberg
Km 164.5 Oude Kwaremont
Km 174.1 Karnemelkbeekstraat
Km 183.5 Tiegemberg