Apologies to our southern hemispherite friends, but I have Flanders on the brain, in no small part because 1) it was 40, windy and raining buckets on my ride in, and 2) my Facebook page has voluntarily defaulted to Dutch. The latter I take as a compliment.
Below I try to argue that Gent-Wevelgem's big changes (Sunday, longer) will remake the race back into the mega-classic it was before it became a midweek amuse bouche. Now though, I'd like to play a little devil's advocate with myself (and hopefully at least a few of you). E3 Prijs is run on Saturday March 27, in the same spot on the calendar it had held before. Previously it preceded Brabantse Pijl, which is a much less prestigious race in the Brabant region, not Flanders, so most of the Flanders guys focused heavily on E3 and maybe rode Brabantse Pijl as an afterthought.
Now, though, the more prestigious and relevant Gent-Wevelgem is the next day. So if you're Tom Boonen, the choice is not so clear. Let's run down the relevant factors... on the flip!
Flanders training: E3 may have started out as a tribute to a motorway, but nowadays it is an explicit dress rehearsal for de Ronde. The way the race circles around the Flemish Ardennes to catch the middle set of Ronde climbs is straight out of some Flemish coach's training guide. G-W, on the other hand, circles out to the west, occasionally overlapping with the Ronde route but not taking in any of the climbs. E3 gets the upper hand if you're talking about rehearsing specific moments of de Ronde, but otherwise the advantage is not that great. First, the Tour of Flanders tests your ability to withstand more than just the Koppenberg; it's about crosswinds, cobbles, rain and long hours in the saddle too... all of which you can find in G-W. Also, if you just want to scamper up the Muur or the Valkenberg, you have the Omloop Het Whatever and Dwars door Vlaanderen to help scratch that itch. Choice: E3 if you force me to pick, but it's durn near even.
Pride: My G-W post makes it sound like a clear choice here, and I think it is -- G-W is simply a more significant palmare. But in the short term it may not be as clear a choice to the riders. E3 has been the scene of some tough battles, and Boonen does like to show the competition he can fly over the Flemish Ardennes. But if G-W is a hit in its new slot, memories of some recent E3 battles will melt away quickly. Choice: Gent-Wevelgem
Perception: Conjecture here, but I think this is what will push the best riders to Sunday. G-W has the history, it's a Pro Tour race, it will get all the official anointings of a Classic, while I suspect without knowing til we see that E3 will get downgraded in the hearts and minds of the Flemish people. After all, what was so great about it in the first place? The riders, that's what. Not the course. It's the week before de Ronde and you want to know who's looking strong. G-W will offer plenty of tests -- at that length, only when it's blessed with unusually nice weather will it fail to be a huge sufferfest. Once the sponsors and the UCI push everyone to Sunday, the fans will simply follow. Choice: G-W, hands down.
Wildcards: G-W can miss out on this opportunity for two potential reasons. First, if the top guys get spooked by the descent of the Kemmelberg, they may decide to save their skeletal frame and just to the E3. So the G-W organizers will have to be careful not to overreach here. Secondly, if the sprinters grab hold of G-W in the next few years, it might resume its reputation as a sprinters' classic. I really doubt this will happen, but a tailwind can change everything. On the other hand, I don't know much about E3's sponsorship, but right now they are swimming with some big sharks. There is no mandate for this race if G-W completely takes over. Not that that has ever stopped the Flemings from holding a bike race...