Actually comparing the final startlist for E3 to the startlist for Dwars is slightly scary. The level of competition hasn't just gone up a notch, this thing goes to eleven. Eleven. Think about it. Most races just go to ten. You have one or two teams saving their better sprinters for Sunday but otherwise everyone is here, everyone is set to measure their strength for the coming challenges. And with the E3 being World Tour these days there are important points at stake as well, putting a damper on the tendency for some to treat this merely as a warmup for next weekend.
You have some people who will no doubt want to put their mark on this race. BMC are way to good a team not to feature on the podiums. They sat out Dwars but are sending all the bigs to Harellbeke. Expect Greg van Avermaet to be their most active rider as Gilbert probably sits back and bides his time for next week. Or will he be wanting to race hard already now to shake the ghosts of last year?
While Boonen is the official king of the E3 no one has put on more devastating displays of power here than Cancellara and all signs point to him doing the same tomorrow. Disappointing outcomes in Siena and Sanremo should have the bear hungry to assert his power and show who's boss. Sandbagging was never really Spartacus thing was it? And after a week of über-hype around Sagan ahead of Sanremo, things have gone eerily quiet all of a sudden. As if one narrow miss should have turned him from a world-beater to an anonymous outsider? Expect him to be on the podium tomorrow if he is as good as we all assume.
At the risk of being branded an idiot, Heinrich Haussler looks like the strongest outside favorite to me alongside Jurgen Roelandts. Both fit the mold of in form riders with a strong sprint from a medium sized group. Exactly the type of riders to take advantage should the bigger teams cancel each other out in a similar manner to what happened in Dwars. The question marks about how riders that suffered in the cold at Sanremo will fare are still there to me though. That could become a huge theme in the week ahead if we're unlucky. Otherwise the condition of Sep Vanmarcke's knee will probably be what the Belgian population will be focusing 67% of their attention on tomorrow when the race heats up. That could mean the difference between a decent and spectacular classics season probably. Is there anything that would sell more newspaper copies in Gent than a repeat or two of the Boonen/Vanmarcke duel from last years Omloop? Other than a third Ronde for Devolder, I think not.
Sky is next in line to look for revenge. Third place was not what they were looking for on Wednesday since this is the year that Brailsford has declared that it is time to get the results out of their efforts. Edvald Boasson Hagen is back on the roster and for Sky's sake he had better be recovered from his illness in Tenerife because Thomas was not looking overly sharp in Wargem and the rest of the squad looks powerful but......blunt.
Blunt on the other hand is no word to describe the course for E3. With 211 km and 15 hills it is just a touch tougher than Dwars on paper. With slighly harder climbs stacked toward the end and less time to recover between the hills it makes for harder racing. Of course weather conditions might have more impact on how hard the race is compared to Dwars than small variations in the course. With no rain and slightly warmer temps on the forecast, Friday's race should be more about racing and less about survival than DdV was. With the field as loaded as it is that should be no problem.
The list of Hellingen looks as follows:
1. Leberg, 53km into the race , 700m 6,1% (max 14%)
2. Oude Steenweg, 98 km, 900m 4% (12%)
3. La Houppe, 118 km, 3440 m 3,3% (10%)
4. Stene Berg, 130 km , 1560m 7,3% (17%)
5. Boigneberg 135 km , 2180m , 5,8% (15%)
6. Eikenberg 141 km, 1200 m 5,5% (11%)
7. Stationsberg, 145 km, 460 m 3,2% (5,7%)
8. Taaienberg, 149 km, 1250 m 9,5 % ( 18%)
9. Berg Tenhoute, 152 km 1100m 6,3% (18)
10. Kanarieberg, 157 km, 1100 m 7,7% (14%)
11. Kapelberg, 168 km 1260 m 7,1% (14%)
12. Paterberg 172 km 362m 12% (20%)
13. Kwaremont, 175 km 2200 m 4,2% (11%)
14. Knokteberg, 184 km 1530m 5,3% (13%)
15. Tiegemberg, 196 km 1000 m 6,5% (9%)
Taaienberg is usually the pivot point in the E3 the way I see it. This is Boonen's patented launching pad and since he is the hub that so much of Flandrian racing revolves around that sort of sets the tone. This is where Lars Boom had brief illusions of grandeur last year and tried to go shoulder to shoulder with Tommeke, which earned him nothing but a quick sample of the local ditch-cuisine and an early end to his campaign for the day. I can imagine he will be looking for a more positive E3 experience this year because he was looking golden up until that point. After this point the race rarely drops back in intensity and the final climbs are harder than the Dwars finale so there should be less opportunity for weaker riders to sit in but that said, almost 40 riders made it to the sprint last year. It says something about the race that in spite of that, the race was an aggressive affair with excellent racing throughout. Tomorrow should be as good or better.