E3 Prijs Harelbeke: Mega-Battle Brewing

AFP/Getty

Sometimes the evolution of the Classics feels like an old Godzilla movie, where the unstoppable beast attacks a defenseless Tokyo, for reasons having to do with nuclear weapons. [Do NOT get me started.] Then along comes Godzilla versus King Kong, because destroying defenseless Tokyo again isn't impressive enough. Then Godzilla gets mechanized and cast against the original Godzilla (who then becomes the hero, in another devastating social commentary -- I told you not to get me started). Surely Mecha-Godzilla versus Mecha-King Kong happened, but anyway, one-on-one wasn't enough, so along come Mothra and Ghidora, leading to the inevitable All Monsters Attack! [Yes, I've made this comparison before.]

Well, that's basically where we are now. No longer are the Cancellara-Boonen duels enough (though I would kill to see Mecha-Cancellara versus Mecha-Boonen). Now it's All Monsters Attack: Spartacus, Boonen, Pozzato, Sagan, Terpstra, Farrar, Leukemans, Vanmarcke, Langeveld, Roelandts, etc. etc. And they're all converging on a quiet suburb of Kortrijk (Kortrijk has suburbs) called... Harelbeke. I'm pretty sure Harelbeke won't be destroyed in the battle, though those team buses can sure tear up wet grass. Anyway...

What's New?

The course has beefed up again for 2014, maxing out to 17 rated hellingen -- a number more befitting of de Ronde, and four more than last year's course. I'd show you a simple graphic of the profile, if the race organizers made one available, but instead they've offered fans a broad menu of useless items, such as a map, a more detailed map showing every street name, and my favorite, the .zip file to nowhere. So here's your list, from the roadbook, which surprisingly enough resembles a roadbook:

  1. Katteberg (600m, 6.7%)
  2. Leberg (700m, 6.1%)
  3. La Houppe (3.4km, 3.3%)
  4. Berg Sterne (1.5km, 7.3%)
  5. Boigneberg (2.1km, 5.8%)
  6. Eikenberg (1.2km, 5.5%)
  7. Stationberg (460m, 3.2%)
  8. Taaienberg (650m, 9.5%)
  9. Knokteberg (1.5km, 5.3%)
  10. Hotondberg (1.2km, 4%)
  11. Rotelenberg (1.1km, 3%)
  12. Kortekeer (1km, 6.4%)
  13. Kapelberg (900m, 4%)
  14. Paterberg (700m, 12%)
  15. Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%)
  16. Karnemelkbeekstraat (1.5km, 5%)
  17. Tiegemberg (1km, 6.5%)

Bold indicates cobbles. Numbers 3-7, 9-11 and 13 were there last year. That's a pretty significant change to the route, by Cobbled Classic standards, and suggests not so much an increase in cobbledness but in pure climbing. Of course, the Tour of Flanders seems to be increasing its emphasis on climbing too. So you can see where this is going.

What's Interesting?

E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, a/k/a Harelbeke, is the race named after a highway opening circa 1968, even though the highway is now called the E17, and even though nobody says the name without slipping Harelbeke in there, that being the host town for both the start and finish (a distinction not shared by any other cobbled race). Its function is purely to warm up the riders for what's coming, de Ronde Van Vlaanderen, but the riders so heartily agree with this concept that they've turned it into a mini-Ronde, holding nothing back. Granted, it's 60km shorter, so its previewedness has its limits, but most of the time you can expect people to show their hands a bit here. At one point the race was being squeezed off the calendar by Flanders Classics, the company which unites and sorta-runs all the other Flemish classic races except this one. Now, though, it's World Tour level, and with a Friday start it has recommenced kicking Gent-Wevelgem's ass as an attractive Flanders preview. Sometimes E3 is the race of the season. It's that great.

Where Will the Race Be Won?

In 2012 it was won in a mass sprint, with Tom Boonen taking the honors. Apart from that, this race almost always breaks up into small selections. Where? Well, with Cancellara taking three of the last four editions, those winning moves have been further from the line than one might reasonably expect. The Paterberg, for example, is one of his launch pads, and that's 37km from home. Same for the Oude Kwaremont, 4km closer to the line. Cancellara has used that one twice. Should the final selection be a selection (like 2010) rather than a solo dealio, then anywhere in the final 2km is likely to sort things out. Varentstraat, a 2km stretch of stones, occurs with 19km to go.

My favorite edition was, of course, in 2010, when Cancellara led Flecha and Boonen through outer Harelbeke and used some road furniture as his launching pad, demonstrating that the ability to accelerate properly through every last tight turn in Flanders is a handy skill indeed. That was inside 1km, and gained him about 10 seconds when it was said and done. Brilliant stuff.

Who Do I Need to Know?

Alejandro Valverde! Got your attention now, right? One of the sport's most prolific winners has suddenly tasted the Lotus Tree and finds it to his liking. My prediction is he continues his cobbles assault, determines that by comparison he hates stage racing, moves his family to Brakel, and signs for Topsport Vlaanderen in 2015.

As for everyone else, the answer is... everyone else. Dwars sees a reduced peloton, somewhat, because the guys coming back from Milano-Sanremo often need a few days to recover. Certain riders like Cancellara have determined that one pre-Flanders warmup is enough, and with Dwars too soon and Gent-Wevelgem too different, E3 is the ideal selection. Nobody is missing unless they're hurt, with the exception of a handful of more sprinterly-inclined riders (e.g. Kristoff, Greipel) for whom Gent-Wevelgem is too juicy a plum to pass up.

Pick to Win:

Niki... um, Cancellara. A boring prediction, perhaps, but he sure makes a point of making a point here. Winds are predicted to be in the 10mph range, enough to cause splits and diminish chases. Nothing but a perfect weather day would favor the pack hanging together for another bunch sprint. So yeah, Cancellara.

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