A year ago an organization called Flanders Classics came into being as a sort of umbrella group for several of the, um, Flanders classics. Don't ask me what they do, but whatever it is, they do it for all of the races we'll be talking about from Dwars through Brabantse Pijl. Every last one of them. Even the Scheldeprijs.
Except for E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. Property of that powerful multinational consortium, the Hand In Hand Cycling Club of Harelbeke.
At the same time this was going on, the schedule was being reconfigured so that Gent-Wevelgem moved into the Sunday before De Ronde, staking a claim to... not quite monument status, more like "I can't believe it's not a monument!" status. But by linking itself to de Ronde and Paris-Roubaix with a Sunday slot, the intent was unmistakeable.
Now, being all Flemish brethren, I personally wouldn't read any animosity on the part of Flanders Classics toward the Hand In Hand folks into this maneuver, and without knowing more I found it interesting that they have the same press agent. So maybe the distance isn't so great after all. At the same time Flanders Classics peeps aren't going to let some Saturday race named after a highway foil its plans. So the battle is joined, and here's the tale of the tape.
1. You call that a history?
E3: The race actually predates the E3 Motorway after which it was named, which is good because the E3 is now called the A17. But it still only dates back to 1958.
GW: Started in 1934 as a tribute to local boy Gaston Rebry, who had won Paris-Nice, though he's long since been brushed aside. So too has the traditional start in Gent, as it's moved to Deinze. But it has two items that can't be overlooked: its long history as the Wednesday meat in the Ronde-Roubaix sandwich, and palmares that go back to the days of Briek Schotte, Flandrien among Flandriens.
Verdict: GW, hands down.
More? There's more to discuss?
2. Eyes on the prize
E3: The header references the race's relationship to Vlaanderens Mooist, which is why everyone is in chilly Belgium right now. Tom Boonen has long called the E3 the ideal Flanders dress rehearsal, and it's no surprise, since the race meanders around the Flemish Ardennes for most of its 200km. You get hills, cobbles and skinny roads for most of the last three hours. The Hand In Handers know what the riders want, and they serve it up.
GW: I suppose every biking adventure bears some resemblance to de Ronde at some point, and in Gent-Wevelgem's case that comes down to crossing paths with the main event in West Flanders. But that's an hors d'oeuvre in Flanders; in Gent-Wevelgem it's the main course, the side dishes and arguably the dessert. Are the roads all that different? Maybe not; they're still skinny and twisting back and forth. Is the race hard? Sure, at least in bad weather years. But much of the beauty of Gent-Wevelgem is in its uniqueness, and this category is about sameness, so...
3. Where's the beef?
E3: Riders thing of races as being hard if... they have to work a lot. Fans don't always pick up on crosswinds or the bunch speed. What we want are hills. E3 is roughly on par with Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Omloop: the 2011 course features a dozen climbs, with several recognizable items like the Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, etc.
GW: Some claim that the hardest ascent in Flanders is the Kemmelberg, which the pack runs over twice as part of two circuits of six climbs each, plus earlier climbs of the Mont des Cats and Rue de Bailleul. Fourteen to twelve! Except the Kemmelberg is by far the 800 pound gorilla here, and I'm not sold on the idea that the other climbs (Schomminkelstraat, Baneberg, Rodeberg Scherpenberg) are all that difficult. Apparently Tom Boonen agrees with me.
4. Who's Who?
E3: Last year the battle between Sky, Rabo, Quick Step, Saxo, Vacansoleil and Katusha was more than enough to keep everyone occupied. This year Sky are out, as are BMC, though Garmin is in. The lineups are generally pretty strong.
GW: Every team is here, and the ones not at E3 are especially out in force. HTC bring Eisel, Cavendish and Goss. BMC have Ballan, Burghardt, Hincapie, and Van Avermaet. Liquigas bring Oss and Sagan. Basically there are a lot of teams putting their Flanders squad together for this. Not sure anyone is doing that at E3.
Verdict: G-W, just.
5. I got the bling
E3: Sometimes it's the little things. E3 seems to be a small-town, modest-budget affair. There is no special cordoned-off place for the team buses. The stage looks like something DS Little Bear and I could construct in an afternoon. The big screen TV hangs from a crane, as if it has someplace else to be later and needs to make a quick exit. The VIP section are some luxurious wooden benches.
GW: Everything is tight at GW. In Deinze, portable fencing creates a habitrail-like corridor for the riders to get from the team bus to the sign-on to the line without ever being fully in public. To balance that off, the corridor narrows to a few feet as the riders approach the stage for the obligatory presentation, and are besieged with autograph-seekers on both sides. The stage is mammoth. A band plays. The finish has large covered areas for the VIPs. There's even a VIP train to take you from Deinze to Wevelgem. And in Wevelgem, those darkened buildings with music coming out of them appear to be VIP parties. It's on another level.
Verdict: E3. I don't actually like bling. And I do like the riders mingling with fans, assuming everyone behaves.
6. What's it all mean?
E3: Put it together and you have in E3 a great race with strong ties to a town, Harelbeke, which doesn't have other stakes in the cycling game. I don't think it can compete with Flanders Classics, but I don't think they'll ever be compelled to move or shut down either. But I'm not sure. If you're organizing a race in Belgium and Tom Boonen wins it a lot, but then suddenly says there's another race he has to go to because they give out world tour points... that's gonna leave a mark.
GW: In some ways this race can't win. If the weather is bad -- and in some years it's been bad enough to force out 75% of the field, early on -- riders don't like being out all day. And if the weather is good, it simply won't be as selective. And Gent-Wevelgem needs to be a little selective to break up the sprinters.