Classics heavyweights ready for famed Flemish terrain at E3 Harelbeke

The peloton's premiere cobblestone specialists will do battle at E3 Harelbeke this Friday on much of the same terrain that will host the Tour of Flanders in less than two weeks. More than simply a useful tune-up, however, E3 Harelbeke has earned its place as a bona fide Classics prize, with an impressive list of recent winners and a knack for providing entertaining racing.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) claimed the 2016 edition of the race, jumping clear with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and then topping the world champion in a thrilling finale. Kwiatkowski won't make the start this year, but Sagan and plenty of other big names will.

E3's deftly balanced parcours practically guarantees a constant barrage of attacks and counter-attacks in the final hour of the race. The route traverses enough challenging topography to encourage aggressive racing, but its mostly flat finale spurs creative tactics in what is typically a vastly reduced field by that point.

An excellent spot on the calendar doesn't hurt either. With the cobbled Classics' two biggest prizes around the corner, the one-day specialists are nearly in peak form by the time they hit the start line in Harelbeke—but Flanders is just far enough away that there is little worry of going too hard nine days out. In other words: Expect to see the star-studded start list racing to win Friday.

The Route

The 60th E3 Harelbeke runs 206.1km in total, with a route that loops and snakes through West Flanders to start and finish in the town of Harelbeke.

There are 15 official climbs on the day, many of them paved with brutal cobblestones. The first half the race, however, is mostly flat and without too many challenges, as only two of those climbs come inside the first 100 kilometers. Once the climbing starts, however, it hardly lets up until the final ascent with around 20 kilometres left to race.

Just after the midway point of the race, the Kruisberg kicks off the rapid succession of 'hellingen' at kilometre 109. After a series of ups and downs has begun to soften up the legs, the Taaienberg – climb number seven, whose gradient nearly hits 10 per cent – frequently incites attacks with a little over 60 kilometres to go. Still, those that survive won't have much time to recover with so much climbing yet to come.

The brutal pairing of the Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont is perhaps the most popular launching point for the big stars. The steep cobbled slopes of the former and long grind of the latter are ideal terrain for those in strong form to put their mark on the race.

After the Kwaremont comes the Karnemelkbeekstraat and then the Tiegemberg, the final official climb of the day. From there, less than 20 kilometres remain until the race finish in Harelbeke. Without any serious topographical challenges, those final kilometres require tactical savvy and either a big engine to solo away on flat terrain, or a healthy finishing kick to outsprint rivals at the line.

The Favourites

While many of the the biggest names for the Classics opted to skip the mid-week Dwars door Vlaanderen – despite its WorldTour upgrade this year – E3 will have no shortage of stars in attendance.

Although the 2016 champ won't be around to defend his title, last year's runner-up will make the start as a top favourite. Bora-Hansgrohe's Peter Sagan already has one E3 victory on his palmares, having taken victory in 2014. He knows how to separate himself from the field on this terrain, and he's got the punch to dispatch most of his top rivals in Harelbeke should he arrive in a group. His powerful attack at Milan-San Remo showed that he's in great form, meaning that all eyes will be on the world champ Friday in Belgium.

BMC's Greg Van Avermaet may have only one career podium at E3 Harelbeke, but he has the perfect skill set for the race. He's even proven capable of topping Sagan head-to-head in fast finishes in the past few years. After a disappointing spring Classics campaign in 2016, the Olympic champ should be motivated to make a statement in Harelbeke.

Quick-Step Floors, as always, will have an impressive array of options. Tom Boonen has won the race a whopping five times. All eyes will be on the 36-year-old Belgian Friday in his final E3 appearance before he retires in April—but he's just one of their many cards to play. Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar have each been second-place finishers at E3, in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Yves Lampaert will arrive fresh off a nice Dwars door Vlaanderen victory, and Philippe Gilbert proved strong there as well as runner-up. Matteo Trentin gives the team an option should a larger group make the finish. Expect an aggressive race from Quick-Step.

Cannondale-Drapac's Sep Vanmarcke has been a consistent contender in the past and will be a threat again this year if he is recovered from a bit of gastric distress that assailed him at Dwars door Vlaanderen. He insists the ribs he injured at Strade Bianche are recovered, and if that's true, he'll almost certainly be on the move on the Paterberg-Kwaremont double, if not before.

In lieu of Kwiatkowski, Sky have a strong one-two punch in Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard. Lotto Soudal's Tiesj Benoot looks very sharp this season and is in the hunt for an elusive first big win. Trek-Segafredo will look to Jasper Stuyven, John Degenkolb and Fabio Felline to pick up the mantle of the now-retired Fabian Cancellara, who won this race three times. Katusha-Alpecin may send Tony Martin on the move knowing Alexander Kristoff is a real contender if things come back together in the flat run-in to the line. Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) are other riders who will look to stay near the head of affairs on this challenging parcours and hope for a sprint finish in Harelbeke.

AG2R's sneaky strong duo of Oliver Naesen and Stijn Vandenbergh, Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Lars Boom (LottoNl-Jumbo) and surprising Dwars door Vlaanderen third-place finisher Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) are others to watch Friday.

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