Cancellara favourite in E3 as Boonen heads to Gent-Wevelgem

Controversy surrounds build-up to Saturday's race

The E3-prijs Vlaanderen has dominated the headlines in Belgium for the last few weeks, whipping up storm as riders draw swords ahead of Flanders and Roubaix, teams threaten strikes and campaign posters lead to apologies.

Firstly the riders’ organization (CPA) warned they would strike over race radios on March 26 as three important races were held on that day. However the body’s president, Gianni Bugno, will meet the UCI which should result in the riders racing without earpieces on Saturday.

While radios dominated cycling on an international level, E3’s organisers started their own controversial media display. The 2011 race posters showed a naked lorelei lying in a field with riders riding over her backside. Bank sponsor KBC felt the campaign was too risqué and the banners were replaced by a photo of Tom Boonen (Quick-Step), Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) in their offices.

A few weeks before the race one of the three banner models – Boonen - expressed his love for the E3-prijs. Boonen has won the race four times – sharing the record with Rik Van Looy – but he offended E3’s rivals, Gent-Wevelgem, by calling the race merde.

Cue another public media storm, which saw Boonen eat his own words as team boss Patrick Lefevre decided to make the Belgium pull out of E3 and ride Wevelgem due to Quick-Step's complete lack of World Tour. It should improve the team car's position in the race which is crucial for the upcoming Monuments on small roads, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

The absence of the hugely popular Boonen in Harelbeke is bad news for the race organizers as they seem to be losing the battle with Gent-Wevelgem. The rivalry with neighbouring town Wevelgem has grown over the last few years.

Wevelgem's World Tour status allowed the race to move from being organized on a Wednesday to a more commercially viable spot on the Sunday before the all-important Tour of Flanders. Being a 1.HC race on the continental calendar the E3 opted to keep their race organized on the Saturday in the same weekend and in the end it hasn't helped their cause. The big stars are starting to skip Harelbeke to make sure they can perform in Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

That despite the fact that E3 seems to be the best preparation towards the Tour of Flanders as out of the last 15 years a podium finisher in Harelbeke has been winner of the Ronde no less than 10 times.

Still, there’s an impressive amount of top one-day specialists set to ride in Harelbeke with Cancellara, Heinrich Haussler and Thor Hushovd (both Garmin-Cervélo), Bjorn Leukemans and Stijn Devolder (both Vacansoleil-DCM), the returning Omloop Het Volk winner Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank), Leif Hoste (Katusha), Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), in-form Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and the winner from Dwars door Vlaanderen Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank).

Last year eventual Ronde-winner Cancellara impressively sprinted away from Boonen and Flecha in the last two kilometres in Harelbeke. This top trio had distanced the rest of the field on the short but steep cobbled Paterberg climb at more than 40km from the finish. On the following long cobbled Oude Kwaremont climb Filippo Pozzato fell just short of bridging up to the elite lead group.

Cancellara will find no other protagonists from last year in Harelbeke but the other ingredients from the 2010 race remain the same in 2011. Twelve climbs and cobbled sectors that turn the race into a mini-Tour of Flanders, with an additional 60 spiced kilometres in the Tour of Flanders being the main difference. The race starts in Harelbeke at noon and heads East towards Oudenaarde, Kruishoutem and Zottegem.

Halfway the race heads South towards Geraardsbergen, then back West towards the hill zone in the Flemish Ardennes between Oudenaarde and Ronse. All twelve climbs feature in the final eighty kilometres with the final 10 kilometres being flat roads towards Harelbeke.

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