The form guide for the Tour of Flanders continues to come together on Friday at E3 Harelbeke, the semi classic over 209km and - more importantly - 15 bergs, the majority of which will feature next weekend at the Ronde.
Starting and finishing in Harelbeke, the 202km first cobbled WorldTour race on the calendar gets underway at midday, heading east towards Oudenaarde, tackling the first major climb of the day, the Leberg shortly after. It’s from around the halfway point in the race where the E3 gets serious, with La Houppe signalling the start of the notorious hill zone. The next 70km sort out the peloton: the worst (or best) coming in the form of the cobbled Paterberg (362m at 12.5%) only to be followed by the Oude Kwaremont, the longest of the day at 2200m (4.2%), 1500m of it cobbled. The Tiegemberg, 16km from the finish, should provide a final selection.
Defending champion, and the most successful rider in the history of the 56-year-old event (five wins - 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2012), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) will be back in action after he was among the raft of competitors that failed to finish Milan-San Remo. It was a call that team manager Patrick Lefevere was forced to defend following La Primavera saying that Boonen’s focus was on what was to come, specifically the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Lefevere also said that E3 was not a major goal for the 32-year-old.
"He has to be good in the next 14 days, not now," Lefevere said, adding "I have every confidence in him."
Omega Pharma-QuickStep may have another option in current WorldTour leader Sylvain Chavanel, although he did pull out of Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen with a cold, so there needs to be some caution taken.
Last year, Boonen prevailed in a bunch sprint after the Taaienberg had provided the first opportunity to test his rivals, forcing all of the big guns to follow his wheel.
Other contenders include Thor Hushovd (BMC), Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana), Lars Boom (Blanco), Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-ISD), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
The Slovak powerhouse went in as outright favourite for Milan-San Remo, only to fall short after mis-timing his sprint on the Lungomare Italo Calvino. What that means for the 23-year-old and his rivals over this next period of racing remains to be seen.
The peloton will be provided with some relief from the recent spate of atrocious weather which has buffeted them in recent weeks: no rain is forecast and the temperatures of 6 degrees are slightly warmer than what was experienced on Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
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