Name another classic, besides the Tour of Flanders, that has its own dress rehearsal a week prior? I can't, and the only thing that comes close is the Dauphine Libere's sorta-preview of the Tour de France... on the years they use the same climbs, which isn't all that often.
Is Saturday's E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, a/k/a Harelbeke, a Tour of Flanders preview? Check out the facts:
The list of climbs in the E3 Prijs are: La Houppe, Berg Stene, Boigneberg, Eikenberg, Stationsberg, Taaienberg, Oude Kruiskens, Kapelberg, Paterberg, Kwaremont, Knokteberg, and Tiegemberg.
In the Tour of Flanders, the list is: Molenberg, Wolvenberg, Kluisberg, Knokteberg, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Kortekeer, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Boigneberg, Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Tenbosse, Eikenmolen, Muur - Kapelmuur, and Bosberg.
If you're getting excited reading this, you're not alone. Anyway, of the 12 climbs in E3 Prijs, seven are also featured eight days later in the national race for Flemish immortality. Significantly, the E3 Prijs has two-thirds the total number of climbs, and none of Flanders' last five where the race is usually determined. In a sense, E3 Prijs is more of a training ride for de Ronde, where everyone works extremely hard but nobody is forced to show their cards.
OK, so there's a resemblance, but is E3 Prijs a predictor of Flanders success? Let's compare; for the E3 list, go to the homepage and click on "honorary list" for all podiums; for Flanders go here. Short answer: there's more than a coincidence. In the last nine years, E3 Prijs' winner won de Ronde four times. Historically, that number is seven out of 49... but in those 49 years, on 22 occasions E3 Prijs was won by someone who won de Ronde at some point... just under half. In 2005, E3 Prijs predicted the entire Ronde podium (Boonen, Klier, Van Petegem). One clear distinction: a few pure sprinters like Mario Cipollini, Guido Bontempi and Olaf Ludwig have broken through in Harelbeke. These are guys who never made a podium in de Ronde; those last six climbs tend to eliminate the Cipo-type specialists.
So E3 Prijs is sort of a mixture of de Ronde and the flatter, shorter midweek classic Gent-Wevelgem. No climbs in the last 12km mean that if you get your sprinter past #12, you're in good shape, just as teams need to tow their fast men over Gent's two major climbs on the run-in to have a chance. Similar distance (just over 200km) as Gent too. But enough hills to create more of a Flanders preview than anything else.
The start list shows an elite cast for Saturday: Boonen, Bettini, Van Petegem, Steegmans, Hoste, Steels, O'Grady, Cancellara, Wegmann, Klier, Ballan, Bennati, Zabel, Boogerd, Flecha, Devolder, Casper, Thor... everyone but Nick Nuyens, who's chosen Sunday's Brabantse Pijl instead for sentimental reasons. Or maybe because he can win. In any event, Boonen has won E3 Prijs the last three years, and after his win yesterday he's on form, so call him a prohibitive favorite. Luca Paolini has the flu, and few other challengers can wind it up to Boonen's speed, so it will likely take an escape on the final climb to beat him.
I'll take a guess here and call Steegmans my winner. Boonen doesn't need a fourth win here, and he can't afford to win everything in Vlaamse Wieler Week if he wants all of Quick Step on his side for de Ronde. He needs to let his illustrious teammates get some glory. De Peet doesn't have the closing speed for the E3 finale, barring a breakaway, and Bettini is sorta hurt, so Steegmans is the most likely object of Boonen's largesse.
Update [2007-3-29 19:35:50 by chris]: Not only is this year's race on Cycling.tv, but head over there and scroll down a ways in the "watch now" category (premium??) to watch last year's race. For the record, Ballan led out Boonen from the 2km mark all the way to about 300 meters from the line.