What’s It About?
The newly sponsored Record Bank E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke... no matter what you call it, no matter what races you schedule around it, no matter how you come at it, the E3 is simply the best of the rest of Cobbles Season. It’s the premier preview of the Tour of Flanders, in terms of timing, difficulty, rhythm of the race, the beauty of it all. This is Flemish-style racing at its finest, save for THE Flemish race of course.
Maps for this race are uniformly terrible, and the super GPS-y version at the official site is completely broken. So here ya go.
Profile is of some help:
This course has been pretty consistent in its basic makeup, and for the last three years it’s been identical after about the halfway point. A typical version of E3 includes a dozen or so named climbs, up from ten at the beginning of the decade, as well as some of the Flemish Ardennes’ noted sectors of flat cobblestones. The end of the race is a flat run-in to Harelbeke, one of the few great races left that uses the same start and finish line. It can even end in a sprint, though the chances of that aren’t great.
Who Will Be There?
Everyone. Every active former Flanders winner (even Devolder!), every team leader, almost every rider who’s ever been on the Flanders podium. And Mikel Landa!
If you want top names, those would be Van Avermaet, Sagan, Kristoff, Benoot, Gilbert, Naesen, Stybar, Terpstra, Colbrelli, Haussler, Breschel, Vanmarcke, Demare, Hayman, Langeveld, Stannard, Matthews, Degenkolb, Stuyven, and Stijn Devolder. Everyone. Except Michal Kwiatkowski, who I gather is keeping his powder dry for the bigger events.
Where Will the Race Be Won?
This is where the subject gets interesting. Since the graphics for this race are so terrible, let me lay out the business end of things for you more clearly:
- Hotondberg, 85km remaining
- Korte Keer, 78km
- Taaienberg, 72km
- Boigneberg, 66km
- Eikenberg, 62km
- Stationberg-Mariaborrestraat, 56km
- Kapelberg, 46km
- Paterberg, 42km
- Oude Kwaremont, 39km
- Karnemelkbeekstraat, 31km
- Tiegemberg, 20km
Nothing much will happen before the Taaienberg. The Hotond is no big deal, and as much as I love the Korte Keer (I may be its biggest fan), it’s too close to the Taaienberg for anyone to go too crazy there.
The Taaienberg has been referred to in this race as Boonensberg, because of how every year Tom Boonen would ... hang on, I need a moment.
This will be the first E3 Prijs without Boonen since 2002, apart from 2011 when Quick Step made him go win Gent-Wevelgem and 2015 when he was hurt. His five wins in the race are the all-time record (in part because it only goes back to the 1960s).
OK, I’m back now. Anyway, the Taaienberg plays a nearly identical role in this race as the Koppenberg does in de Ronde, acting as the gatekeeper and slamming it shut on anyone who isn’t up for contesting the finale. The Koppenberg is its doppelganger in length and shape, and nearly (but not quite) difficulty. Plenty of people will be eliminated, maybe even a few big names, like last year when the Naesen-Gilbert-Van Avermaet gang separation from Peter Sagan and others. The Taaienberg always matters; it’s simply a question of how much.
The Boigneberg-Eikenberg-Stationsberg trio of climbs east of the N60 Rijksweg* all fall into the “sure, why not?” category. The Boigneberg is long, 2km of nearly 6%; the cobbles kick in for the Eikenberg and Stationsberg, so while neither is very steep, they combine with Mariaborrestraat to form a long phase of cobbles. All this stuff chips away at a rider’s strength, but because these sit between the Taaienberg and Paterberg-Kwaremont phase, you will only see attacks here if for some reason nothing much happened on the Taaienberg. Otherwise, expect the top riders to wait.
[* The Rijksweg is a significant divider, sitting on a north-south ridge that links Oudenaarde to Ronse. To the east are the geologic features that give us the Taaienberg, Eikenberg and several others; to the west is a separate fold of earth that has spawned the Paterberg, Koppenberg, Hotond and Oude Kwaremont, to name just a few. Climbs tend to bunch together on one side of the N60, then cruise around a bit, then bunch up again on the other side. Harelbeke is west of all of this, so as you head back to there, you do the east-side climbs, then the west-side ones, then home.]
Whatever wasn’t settled on the east side will probably get sorted out on the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont (the paved Kapelberg is little more than a speed bump on the way to the final climbs). Their order is reversed from Flanders but their effect is about the same. I guess you can’t overlook the Karnemelkbeekstraat, where Sagan and Kwiatkowski got away in 2016, or the non-cobbled Tiegemberg, which has yet to play much of a role in my recollection (ahem). Prior to the Tiegemberg is Varentstraat, a long stretch of flat cobbles where the strongest rider might want to drop his companions if they include any sprinters. Those are your cards, but there are a lot of them, so how they get played... well, that’s why we watch.
Pick to Win
Philippe Gilbert. He seemed ready to launch at Milano-Sanremo before getting held up. He and Van Avermaet are a fair fight in a sprint, but more importantly Gilbert is likely to have some help at the end. For all the firepower on teams like BMC, Bora and AG2R, it’s Quick Step who seem to take the aggression to these races. So I like their chances.
But I don’t like them that much more than any other scenario you want to concoct. Maybe a secondary threat like Sep Vanmarcke or Jasper Stuyven will be given too long a leash. Maybe a larger group will stay together (weather report is mild), and sprinters like Arnaud Demare or John Degenkolb or Michael Matthews will have a chance to take the win. Maybe Tiesj Benoot will just leave everyone in his dust again. Maybe Sagan will put together a good plan of attack, and execute it, for once. [His one win here seems a bit light for his skillset.] So many things can happen, and so many teams will be trying one or more of those scenarios out.
Who ya got?