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Preview: E3 Prijs Vlaanderen

When: Tomorrow! Saturday, March 27. RBTF and Sporza will go live at 14:30 CET (9:30 AM EDT, 6:30 AM PDT, 12:30 AM Sunday in Sydney). CTV is providing audio, but not video, for their remaining subscribers. Look for links at cyclingfans, steephill, myp2p, and BVLS.

Where: Flanders, of course. Begins and ends in Harelbeke, which is why you'll also see it called E3 Harelbeke. The meandering loop twists upon itself a couple of times, covering 203 kilometers and going over 12 hellingen, 6 of them cobbled (bolded): La Houppe, Berg Stene, Boigneberg, Eikenberg, Stationsberg, Taaienberg, Oude Kruiskens, Kapelberg, Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, Knokteberg, and Tiegemberg.

Parcours from official site:

The first of the hellingen, La Houppe, appears about kilometer 116. It's the longest climb, 3.44 kilometers, but its average grade of 3.32% and max of 10% serve mostly to warm up the legs for the 11 additional bergs to come. While most have an average grade of 3 to 7%, the majority contain sections that hit double-digits. The steepest is the Paterberg, with an average grade of 12.5% and max of 20%--but it's also the shortest, a mere 362 meters in length. Expect more suffering on the Taaienberg: not quite as steep (average 9.5%, max 18%), but more than three times as long. Throw in the cobbles and you'll see what puts the "hell" in "hellingen."

The last climb ends just past kilometer 186, allowing nearly 17 km for riders to regroup and recover before the finish. Result: occasionally a sprinter wins the E3, a feat Mario Cipollini--not a big fan of hills--pulled off in 1993.

More below the jump.

Who: Former winners Pozzato (2009), Arvesen (2008), Boonen (2007), Boonen (2006), Boonen (2005), Boonen (2004), and Ivanov (2000) will line up, along with other cobbly stars and hopefuls, including Cancellara, Kirchen, \0/, Van Avermaet, Boom, Boasson Hagen, Ballan, Burghardt, Hushovd, Hoogerland, and flavor-of-the-month Keukeleire. Pay special attention to the homeboys--Belgians have won 37 out of 52 times.

Given his recent form and history here, it looks like Tommeke's race if he wants it. And should he win E3 for the fifth time, he'll have the record for most victories (currently tied with Rik van Looy with 4). How badly would he want that? I'm guessing a lot will depend on conditions--if the race is too hard, he'll save it for Flanders. Right now, the forecast is for temperatures in the range of 10-13 C (mid-50s F) with 20% chance of rain, and winds topping out at 12 mph (that's a 'gentle breeze' on the Beaufort scale). Sounds like a very pleasant spring day--but don't be too disappointed. This is March in Belgium, so things could definitely get worse.

Official startlist here, which might even be current by start time. Might want to check cyclingstartlists or cyclingfever in the meantime.

Why: Tom Boonen said it best: "Who rides Flanders, also chooses Harelbeke...It is perfect preparation for the Ronde van Vlaanderen." With its bergs and cobbles, E3 is similar to de Ronde but shorter, covering 59 fewer kilometers and 3 fewer climbs. It's clear the pros agree with Tommeke. Consider:

Of the past 12 winners of Flanders:

4 won E3
3 more finished in E3’s top ten
2  more finished in E3's top 20

Taken together, 3/4 of the last twelve winners of de Ronde have come straight off a top-20 finish in E3.

The rest of the Flanders podium: 9 of 24 second- and third-place finishers came from E3's top 20. In all, 30 of the 36 podium spots were filled by people who raced E3. They show up for it, they race it pretty hard, and someone who takes it seriously almost always wins de Ronde. How can you not watch?

Absolute proof that unicorns exist: the 2005 podium of de Ronde exactly duplicated the E3 podium: Boonen, Klier, Van Petegem, in that order. The odds against this happening have been scientifically calculated at 8.23 gazillion to one.