Since E3 Harelbeke became World Tour a few years ago and the calendar conflict with the moved Gent-Wevelgem was somewhat resolved by moving the race to Friday this has really become a massively prestigious calendar date. Far enough ahead of the Ronde van Vlaanderen to let people commit almost 100% to it and close enough for them to be near peak form. Add to that a course that encourages attacking active racing and you have a recipe for fireworks.
The Finish. A move of the start and finish area to the local football stadium, for the day conveniently renamed the "E3 Arena". This shouldn't have any major impact on the racing itself. Just like the old finish it is a pretty straightforward finale where the riders, not the road and topography, decide the outcome. And apart from the finish the course is basically the same as last year.This year the final kilometers will look like this:
Of course the sentimental will miss the "Cancellara traffic-island" but in reality that was a rare moment of one man's brilliance and wasn't due to some magical course feature. So we should be fine at the E3 Arena
Most of all probably that this looks like a massively open edition with a wide range of favorites and a pretty unpredictable race development. We've had some years where Boonen and Cancellara have looked like the obvious race-makers but now the list of possible scenarios is pretty long. Sagan and Cance aren't looking invincible and there are a bunch of challengers like Kristoff and Degenkolb who look every bit as strong contenders.
Maybe the the most curious storyline will be Etixx-Quickstep and how they play their cards now that they are Boonen-less? E3 should give us a first look at how we might see Flanders and Roubaix play out. With Boonen there the basic strategy was always obvious with him as the natural ace and the handful of awe-inspiring lieutenants used as decoys and tactical players with often brilliant results. Now they have an equally strong cast but perhaps without the obvious leader. Can Peeters and the other DS gel this unit to a working machine? A machine that can take on even a Cancellara in full force for example? It's far from as straightforward as it has been for them in the Boonen era and there are so many hoping to fill the big man's shoes. Results-wise then perhaps Terpstra is the natural leader-choice but he's a totally different kind of rider whereas Stybar might be growing into the more classic style of classics-captain, plus his form is fantastic. The Harelbeke course doesn't really cater to any specific kind of rider either so the options are pretty open. Apart from the guest-starring Kwiatkowski the Dwars crew weren't overly impressive but E3 is several pegs higher on the list of priorities. And frankly, who doesn't wish that wonderful, kind-hearted human Patrick Lefevere all the success in the world?
Where Will the Race Be Won?
E3 is a tricky one to map out. The course is eerily similar to what a Ronde course looks like, or at least used to look like before the move to Oudenaarde. First you have a 100km loop east in Flanders that is almost entirely flat. Then there is a 100 km zone of hills/hellingen where the race will be won and lost and then a 15 km flat run-in back to Harelbeke and the finish. The decisive moves can come pretty much anywhere in that hilly part. In Dwars we just saw a good part of the field get shredded and held up behind early crashes. Even favorites can very easily find themselves out of contention through poor positioning at the wrong moments which is why experience and local knowledge count for more on these roads than practically anywhere else in cycling. There are spots where position seems to matter more than most, like the Taaienberg for instance. End up too far back coming into that climb and you can suddenly find yourself at the wrong end of a very long stretched out field that splits off ahead of you. You might not even see it before it's too late and suddenly you are tasked with an impossible chase just to be part of the race again.
The list of climbs is basically a full run-down of all the stuff we know and love. Just to be quirky they've flipped the order of the Kwaremont/Paterberg combo which is the kind of cooky stuff we've come to expect from the E3 organizers (and also crude posters of halfnaked women but let's leave that behind us). Reverse order or not, that section with Kapelberg-Paterberg-Kwaremont-Karnemelkbekerstraat within 15 kms is a pretty likely place we will see the bigs make their moves. That leaves 25-30 kilometers to the finish for fun and games between whoever is left at the front.
Who Do I Need to Know?
Sep Vanmarcke. The guy is coming into this cobble season with all the subtlety of a stampeding rhinoceros. An angry one. In Omloop Het Nieuwsblad only the crappiest tires west of Nederbrakel could stop him from stomping the opposition into submission. Unless his managers have put some restraints on him to keep him primed for Flanders/Roubaix then odds are he goes berserk in E3. Luck and shrewdness on the part of his opponents will likely decide if it gets Sep the win or not.
Pick to Win:
It takes a brave man to bet against Etiixx two days after they struck out at Dwars. I am not a brave man.
If the beforementioned stampeding from Vanmarcke doesn't pay off then I can see this becoming a fairly tactical affair. And if it does I wouldn't be surprised if the others walk head-first into the Terpstra-trap again. The other option is that Sky goes and wins another cobbled classic but that is just too weird to contemplate so let's not go there.