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E3 BinckBank Classic Preview

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A familiar sight in 2019
Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The best non-monument cobbled classic can’t stop getting in the way of itself. (There’s a saying that I’ve only heard used in West Virginia that seems oddly appropriate - The E3 organizers can’t stop stepping on their own dicks). The always-exciting racing is often overshadowed by the organizer’s sexist provocations in advertising the race. This year’s addition to their chauvinistic oeuvre was this:

Honestly, the body paint thing standing alone is kinda neat. The message, though, is at best muddled— “Who will crown himself prince in Harelbeke?” First, in the Frog Prince fairy tale, it’s a princess that kisses a frog, which turns the frog into a prince. (And actually, in one of the original editions of the Frog Prince fairy tale, it wasn’t a kiss by the princess that turned the frog into a prince, but rather the princess smashing the frog against the wall in a fit of rage.) Here, the frog is two ostensibly naked women in the state of some type of congress. It would seem to suggest that the winner of E3 will have the opportunity to kiss the frog and have two naked ladies as a prize. It’s not entirely clear, and with any other race you’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt that it was perhaps muddled execution but just innocent intent. And, one of the PR flacks for E3 even offered this explanation in an interview on the Cycling Tips podcast— that they were just trying to do something artistic and had no idea that the people in the United States would take it out of context. The interviewer took it easy on the PR guy and bought into the explanation that the poster was borne more out of simple ignorance to the sensitivity of the rest of the world, but that explanation is total bullshit. Why? Well, first, Jacques Coussens, the pervy mind responsible for the posters, said last year in relation to the relatively non-risque cowboy poster that “I already had a design ready, but due to the thugs with Bart De Pauw and the # Metoo campaign, I have left that design for the sake of caution. It was perhaps a little too spicy, but we may be working out next year.” That doesn’t sound like cluelessness, but rather a pretty damn premeditated idea of what the fornicating frog ladies would result in.

Second, the organizers have a very long history of similar behavior. The worst offender was of course the 2015 poster that made light of Peter Sagan’s sexual harassment of a podium hostess in 2013, asking “Who will pinch it in Harelbeke?” But this started way before then. Let’s take a look back.

2009 - “You come and watch too?”

The organizers were apparently looking for a “striking” poster and convinced Joke Eeckhout, this sister of former pro Nico Eeckhout to pose nude on a bike. It’s the equivalent of advertising your race with the suggestion “Free Beer” and most disturbingly involves the most unnatural cycling position this side of Chris Froome on a bike.

2010 - “Finally, they are there!”

I.. don’t... get... it... But, perhaps there are some Belgians that are into cows as much as a certain well known PdC bovine enthusiast?

2011 - Professional nudity, not so professional photoshop.

They tried a naked woman on a bicycle, so the only next logical step was to have cyclists riding on naked woman, using Belgian cover model, Phaedra Hoste. Look at that first rider! He didn’t even need to get out of the saddle riding up her back!

2012 - “Germaine is ready. Who dares to win in Harelbeke?”

The horror! The winner might have to be kissed by an older women, rather than a voluptuous podium girl! The organizers even had Germaine (who happened to be an actress in a local theater group that one of the race organizers belonged to) performing live on the podium that year. Women, if they’re not young and nubile, who needs em? Amirite or amirite?

2013 - “Win in Harelbeke, not child’s play”

At least the year in which Sagan tried to grab the podium hostess’s bottom had a cute poster.

2014 - “Who is the “fastest” in Harelbeke?”

We’ve had a lady riding a bike, and bikes riding on a lady, so fuck it, let’s have a lady riding a bike made out of ladies! They showed great restraint as none of the women were naked. I have no idea about the quotation marks around ‘fastest’ but assume it’s some type of crude Flemish word play.

2015 - Sexual harassment sells bike racing!

No need to repost the offending poster here. It’s unfathomable that not a single member of the organization didn’t realize what a bad idea this was.

2016 - the Church of Cycling

Ya know, maybe people can change. Perhaps a lesson was learned after the 2015 uproar.

2017 - “60 years young”

Wow, perhaps they really did take the lesson from 2015 to heart?

2018 - “Who will be the new sheriff in the Texas of Flanders?”

Amazing! I now believe in the power of forgiveness and human transformation. As Rocky once said, “I Guess What I’m Trying to Say, Is That if I Can Change, and You Can Change, Everybody Can Change!” I mean not the most relevant poster, but.... oh never mind.... just an excuse to have sexy dancing cowgirls.

2020: A special sneak peak!

Fuck it.... Sex sells, and I’m buying!

The Course

Like the organizer’s casual sexism, the course is more or less the same every year. Here’s the list of hellingen included in this year’s course:

The Katteberg replaces the Wolfenberg, but this comes at 21 kilometers into the race, so will have no effect. The Hogerlucht replaces the Broeke, but at 85 kms into the race, again, no effect. The only real difference will be that the Berg Ten Stene (1,300 m at 5.2% avg with a max of 9%) comes before the Boigneberg, instead of where last year the Eikenberg (1,200 m at 5.5% avg with a max of 11% and cobbled) came after the Boigneberg. The last decisive climbs remain the same - the Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, Karnemelkbeekstraat, and Tiegemberg.

Here’s the official map and profile:

And in case anyone is using PCS to look at the race, its profile is a little different than the organizer’s profile and includes another Kapelburg climb that is cobbled that comes after the Stationberg. I assume their profile drawing software took a wrong turn somewhere into Belgian cobble fantasy land.

The Contenders

Deceuninck - Quick Step have now won every single major one day race up until now. Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (I know, I know. But it is a world tour race), Omloop, KBK, Strade Bianche, and Milano-Sanremo. (Late breaking news- they lost One Dog). They’ve done so with four different riders-- Viviani, Stybar, Jungels, and Alaphilippe. Such a run is unprecedented. On the season, they already have 19 victories (which puts them 4 victories ahead of last year’s incredible pace). While it is hard to imagine their streak continuing, it’s also a fools game to bet against them. It’s more of a question of picking which one will seize the opportunity to have a chance at the victory-- take your pick between Yves Lampaert, Philippe Gilbert, Bob Jungels, Zdenek Stybar. Jungels has KBK, while Stybar has Omloop. I’d look for Gilbert to have the best shot at victory here. He’s only getting more wily the older he gets.

The other two in form picks would be Oliver Naesen and Wout Van Aert. Naesen took a surprise 2nd in Milano-Sanremo as well as surprised on the hilly stages of Paris-Nice. He seems to be timing his peak at just the right time and looks primed to take his first big spring classics victory. AG2R don’t have the deepest classics squad, but he will be able to get some help from Silvan Dillier and Stijn Vandenbergh.

Tim de Waele/Getty Images

If you were to rank riders based upon their average finishing position in all of their races this year, Van Aert would be champion. His average finishing position is 7.33. Of course, that’s only over the course of three races, but when they include Omloop, Strade Bianche, and Milano-Sanremo, that’s still pretty impressive. For Van Aert, the strength is present, but perhaps the tactical game not as much, as he still seems to have a cyclocross mindset of just riding as hard as possible for as long as possible. His late drop and then catch of Alaphilippe and Lutsenko and then drop at Strade was exciting but predestined to failure and his work to shut down Trentin in the closing kilometers of MSR was again impressive, but probably helped win the race for Alaphilippe. He’s got a deep, young, and talented group of teammates to support him, but when he finds himself without support in the final selection late in the race, you’d have to give the strategic advantage to almost any other rider not named Richie Porte.

If I told you that there would be a bunch sprint at the end of a hard race from a group that included Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe, Oliver Naesen, Michal Kwiatkowski, Matej Mohoric, Wout Van Aert, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali, and Simon Clarke, how much money would you be willing to wager on Sagan winning that sprint? Several days later after MSR, it’s still inconceivable to me that Sagan does not have another monument victory in his palmares. Was it just bad tactics, as some have said, or is there something else going on? As Conor mentioned in his preview of the potential winners of MSR, Sagan has only won a single race so far-- a stage in the TdU and had a disappointing late 2018-- with no wins after the TdF and four second places at the Vuelta. In Sagan’s favor, though, is that last year he only had a single victory at the TdU up to this point as well, but then went on to win Gent-Wevelgem and Roubaix, so for all this is worth he may just go onto add three more monuments to his career total before the Spring is over.

If cycling was fair, Greg Van Avermaet would have made a hat trick of Omloop victories this year, as he was clearly the strongest rider in the race. Instead he was beat by the strongest team. And, unfortunately, the Polish Carrots just don’t have the beta carotene to support Van Avermaet here. However, even though DQS prove that cycling is a team sport, sometimes the strongest rider does win, so you still have to rate Van Avermaet as a favorite.

Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Since winning Strade last year, Tiesj Benoot has not placed better than third in a race, but he’s been consistent in racking up top 10 placings. Unfortunately, that Strade victory now feels less like a breakthrough and more like a confirmation that Benoot will finish in the front group often but only win occasionally. To win, he’ll have to go alone a la 2018 Terpstra, so while not impossible, it’s also not a high probability. Benoot, once touted as the new Boonen, may actually be the new Sep Vanmarcke. As to the old Sep Vanmarcke, you can copy and paste what was written about Benoot’s chances to apply to him.

Speaking of Terpstra, the 2019 version does not have the backing of the team that is killing one day racing but has the support of the strongest pro-conti team to try to defend his victory. The problem for Terps is that if he gets away, he’ll have his old team chasing, and those 4 or 5 riders have more power than his team’s new sponsor.

Can E3 come down to a reduced-bunch sprint? It’s not an impossibility as there are 20 kilometers to the finish from the final climb. The last time it happened was in 2012 when Boonen took the victory from a bunch of close to 50 riders. On the outside possibility of that happening, there are several stronger sprinters who can win in decreasing order of probability: Matteo Trentin, Alexander Kristoff, Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, Sonny Colbrelli, and Edvald Boasson Hagen. Trentin also seems the most adept of this group at making a split, so if it does come down to a very reduced sprint, so long as he doesn’t get situational dementia like he did at MSR, he could be dangerous.

What to make of Trek’s paper hardmen of Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen? Stuvyen has been invisible thus far, and while Pedersen looked good at Tirreno, he couldn’t break the top 100 in the Belgium opening weekend. Pedersen has always been a little inconsistent-- look to his DNFs at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem last year, before his 5th and 2nd respectively at Dwars and Ronde or his less than stellar performance in the lead up to his win at the Tour de l’Eurometropole in the Fall. Stuyven on the other hand has been consistent previously and consistently getting better, leading many of us prognosticators here at PdC picking him to win his first monument this year. His lack of form thus far is more concerning, but it only takes one big victory to make us forget about everything leading up to it.

Speaking of surprising lack of form, both Gianni Moscon and Michael Valgren were slated to have big seasons this year after both took huge steps forward (at least on the bike) in 2018. Neither has lived up to those expectations. Valgren caught a Dimension-Data virus early in the season (which is looking to be a terminal illness that every rider contracts when joining the team) while Moscon has said he’s had a “strange feeling” this season since a crash at the UAE Tour (perhaps that strange feeling is the development of a conscience?).

Dark horses? Anyone interested in dark horses? Here are several: Stefan Kung, Soren Kragh Andersen, Luke Rowe, and Alberto Bettiol. My biggest dark horse, which perhaps really isn’t anymore after finishing 5th at MSR, is Matej Mohoric. He’s unlikely to be marked, will try to win if he makes the front selection, and may be able to get away.

Rankings

Frog princes: All of Deceuninck - Quick Step

Battletoads: Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen

Kermits: Wout Van Aert, Tiesj Benoot, Niki Terpstra, Sep Vanmarcke

Froggers: Matteo Trentin, Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen, Matej Mohoric, Stefan Kung, Soren Kragh Andersen, Luke Rowe, Alberto Bettiol, Michael Valgren, Sonny Colbrelli, Arnaud Demare, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Alexander Kristoff, Jens Keukeleire, Owain Doull, Mike Teunissen

Pepe the Frog: Gianni Moscon