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Did You Know? It’s E3/Gent-Wevelgem Weekend!

Double your previewing pleasure, or maybe cut it in half...

Ypres City Hall as Gent-Wevelgem passes by
Tim de Waele

Welcome to the first of its kind dual E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (Harelbeke) and Gent-Wevelgem Did You Know?-Style preview! We have two more races coming up in the next three days, and at this point I’m like the guy in the plane next to Luke yelling something to the effect of “I CAN’T KEEP THEM OFF ME!!!” So for efficiency’s and sanity’s shared sake, let’s knock off all the weekend’s festivities in one fell swoop.

And we can start with a question every rider must face:

Mirror mirror on the wall, what’s the beastliest berg of all?

Did you know! They aren’t “bergs,” they’re hellingen? “Berg” means mountain, and it’s just cute enough to not be totally ridiculous that the Paterberg is officially “Dad Mountain.” But if you were standing in Nederbrakel and claiming to be looking out at “the mountains,” well, all I can say is that in Seattle this is what counts for mountains:

Washington Post/Getty

So please, when it comes to the Vlaamse Ardennen, let’s go with “hellingen,” which means hills. We’ve inflated their importance enough already. But the answer to the question above is the Kemmelberg, unless you have access to Broerie’s super-secret list of underappreciated Cobbled hellingen. Like French fromagerieres separating out only their worst product for import to the US, the Belgian people apparently have a few hills they don’t want us to know about. And if I have learned anything from my many years, it’s that it’s not the hills, it’s the cover-up.

That diversion aside, we have you covered like a lenticular cloud over a stratovolcano on a cool fall day.

E3 Harelbeke Cycle Race Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos - Velo/Getty Images

There’s Something About E3 Harelbeke

Unfortunately it’s not something new. If you’ve been around these parts for a while you know some things about the race:

  • The name is a misnomer that is comical even by cobbled classics standards, since the E3 no longer exists;
  • The race itself has some 15 climbs, with a few key features like Dad Mountain and the Old Kwaremont, in reverse order of the Tour of Flanders; and
  • In general, it’s just a straight-up Ronde preview, 9 days before the curtain goes up, which is roughly the moment when riders seem keen to take the opportunity to whale on each other for four hours in the Flemish Ardennes, as a practice ritual.

Continuing the theme of repeating myself, this has made E3 the second-greatest race on the Flemish spring calendar, after the Holiest of Holies. And since only one guy (and gal) can win that one, anyone who’s realistic about what that means can decide ahead of time that winning E3 doesn’t sound like a bad consolation prize. Nope, not bad at all...

Boonen in E3
Tim de Waele

Did you know! Compared to Gent-Wevelgem, E3 is a far, far, far better predictor of who will win De Ronde? Since 1990 the score is 7-2, and of the 2 one of those was also one of the 7s, namely Tom Boonen, who won all three races, plus Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Stanley Cup and Dancing With the Stars in 2012. Of the 2, the other one is Peter Sagan who went from Wevelgem to Monumental status just last year, either signaling that Gent-Wevelgem is on the precipice of replacing E3 as the ultimate Ronde warmup, or that Peter Sagan is not really like anyone else.

The regard in which E3 is held was rather stunning right from the start. You could say it was the Strade Bianche of its day, with a highway christening instead of a bunch of old guys in wool and non-functioning old bikes as its creation inspiration. Right out of the gate it was won by, well, Armand Desmet, a decent rider, and then a few other guys (including the incredibly awesomely named Daniel Doom in 1960), but in its fourth go-round it went to Arthur De Cabooter, then the defending Ronde winner, and for much of its history E3 has been contested and won by Cobbled Classic royalty.

  • The record for wins is held by Tom Boonen (5)
  • He broke the record of Rik Van Looy (4), who was once the subject of a blogging tournament that proved he was the greatest classics rider of all time.
  • Fabian Cancellara and Jan Raas are next with three each
  • Other wins went to Noel Foré, Roger De Vlaeminck, Walter and Eddy Planckaert, Didi Thurau, Freddy Maertens, Phil Anderson, Eric Vanderaerden, Johan Museeuw, Peter Van Petegem, and Willy In ‘t Ven, a name I swear I did not just make up.

So yeah, that’s the story here. Someone you know and are maybe pretty keenly interested in, for better or worse, is the favorite to win this race. It won’t be weird in any way; it’ll be a boss move and you’ll totally respect the guy for doing it. [Probably. 2012 ended in a massespurt, as the locals will say, but it was won by Tommeke Boonen, so nobody complained.]

Gent-Wevelgem Cycle Race Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos - Velo/Getty Images

There’s Something Weird About Gent-Wevelgem

In a way, I would say that although E3 has locked down the title (for now) of best Ronde preview, there are more than a few times I’m tempted to think of Gent-Wevelgem as the weekend’s true highlight. No, the winner isn’t your best bet for de Ronde. No, it doesn’t typically insert a battery of climbs to make people suffer in slow motion. Yes, it can end in a medium-sized bunch sprint far more than the rest of the big classics (I’m looking away from you, Scheldeprijs). But it’s different. It has character. It’s West Flemish.

Did you know! West Flanders is one of two halves of the old County of Flanders, which is how this whole half of a country and its addictive obsession with cycling got its name? Dividing West Flanders from the Eastern province was actually a pretty good idea, at least for underinformed foreign cycling fans, because the harsh winds, the turn out toward the North Sea, the flat terrain punctuated by occasional hills and the Sint Sixtus Abbey... all of this gives the race a character that just isn’t like anything else. And if E3 came along to create a Ronde preview that didn’t properly exist in 1958, well, that was 1958.

This is a special race in its own right. So... (shifts uncomfortably)... why does it seem to not really have an identity? This year’s race can be summarized as 248km long with nine rated climbs. It will be raced on the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders. Here are some facts from previous editions:

  • Its earliest editions just sorta went from Gent to Wevelgem, staying mostly in East Flanders on along the Leie River.
  • In 1961 it was run as a two-day event. In 1977 it ran 277km long.
  • From 1960-2009 it took place on the Wednesday between Flanders and Roubaix, making for a Holy Week trio that no one rider ever won in succession.
  • In 2010 it got bumped to World Tour status and lined up a day after E3, in an effort to muscle that race off the newly-established Flanders Classics turf and assert itself as the only Ronde warmup that mattered.
  • The name has only recently been changed to add “In Flanders Fields,” after a popular and very very sad poem, in honor of the 100th anniversary of World War I.
Gent-Wevelgem Cycle Race Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos - Velo/Getty Images

So now the Ronde warmup thing has been diminished, the course has been set to a long arc out to the sea with a double Kemmelberg loop on the way back, and it sits at a fairly beefy 248km... and it might end in a sprint. The “sprinters’ classic” is still a misnomer, except sometimes, but even then it’s not your ordinary bunch sprint.

This Sunday the winds are predicted to be up, and if that happens, you won’t see a big bunch come thundering down Wevelgem Boulevard or whatever they call the only big road through town where the finish is located. For starters, people will be tired from Wednesday and Friday, if they showed up at Dwars or E3 or both. For another, it’s 248km with a constant threat of crosswinds! Imagine your worst ever club ride and that’s what Gent-Wevelgem is like, a huge bunch of guys, none of whom can ever get all that comfortable, going on and on for close to six hours. Hostilities will be up and running at the end of the day. There are about 30 guys who I’d pick to win, but of course my very top favorite is [the guy on your FSA DS team]. Enjoy!