Preview: Big names, big, cobbled climbs on tap for E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem

Buckle up for a massive weekend of racing as Belgian classics season kicks definitively into gear with E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem

Cobble-bashers take center stage this weekend as northern classics season kicks into gear with E3 Harelbeke on Friday and Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

E3 Harelbeke provides a litmus test of who’s on form ahead of next week’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and Gent offers up a prize for riders who will likely steer clear of the more rigorous demands of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.

The dozens of big names showing up to each race and forecasted mild weather should provide wide-open, thrilling action both days. And while they are not bona fide monuments, both races carry weight within the peloton. The major stars eventually tick these off in their respective palmares, and the races also represent chances for up-and-comers to enjoy success.

There’s nothing “semi” about these races. While the big peaks come with Flanders and Roubaix, there’s no hiding this weekend.

E3 Harelbeke: The first big battle

The 57th edition of E3 Harelbeke starts Friday with Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) the big favorite to win his fourth title in five years. Hot off his second place at Milano-Sanremo, Cancellara will be fully amped to pound the pavé.

Other favorites include Peter Sagan (Cannondale), second last year, and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who skipped Milano-Sanremo following a family health issue.

Final startlist for E3 Harelbeke >>

Boonen and Cancellara have been stingy with Harelbeke. Over the past decade, the pair has dominated the race, with Boonen winning five editions, the last in 2012, and Cancellara owning three of the past four.

The only riders to break their two-man hegemony were Kurt-Asle Arvesen in 2008 and Filippo Pozzato in 2009. Arvesen is now a coach at Sky and Pozzato, starting for Lampre-Merida, is hoping to see a return to form in the northern classics. In 2009, after winning Harelbeke, he was second at Roubaix and fifth at Flanders.

Sagan nearly cracked the code in 2013, however, finishing second to Cancellara.

“If I’ll be able to repeat the same performance of last year I will be happy” Sagan said Thursday in a press release. “I don’t want to predict any result or to promise anything. These are though races with strong contenders, I just need to perform at my best. I said many times I like Belgian races and I want to aim high. This is my goal and I’ll try to chase it. I’m really concentrated and the disappointment for Milano-Sanremo is set aside.”

For Cancellara, the most important five weeks of the year started Sunday at Sanremo, where he was second.

“I am feeling good. I am ready for the challenge,” he said prior to the Italian monument. “It’s over just being in the peloton. Now, from Sunday on, there are five races that are counting. There is a list of races that I have to perform. I have to be good on one day.”

Harelbeke is the second of those five events, which culminate on April 13 at Paris-Roubaix.

No less than 17 climbs are featured in Friday’s 212-kilometer route, including the famed Oude Kwaremont, which, with more than a kilometer of the bumpy stuff, is always decisive. That’s where Cancellara blew the race wide open last year, and all eyes will be on the climb.

Most of the hellingen are packed in the middle meat of the course, with the final cobbles on the Tiegemberg just under 14km from the finish.

If Cancellara wants to win again, he will likely try to drop everyone again on the Kwaremont. Sagan and Boonen, who won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne earlier this month, are clearly both faster in a reduced bunch.

That tactic will equally come into play for Boonen, who will be keen to get rid of Sagan if he can.

Boonen has already won Harelbeke a record five times, and looks to be on his best form in years. That could set the stage for a classic showdown between the peloton’s best two classics superstars, Boonen and Cancellara, on one side, and Sagan on the other.

Everyone will be watching those three, perhaps opening the door for other teams to go screaming straight through. Omega Pharma brings its full fleet of classics specialists, with riders such as Zdenek Stybar, Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra, and Matteo Trentin all waiting in the wings.

A healthy Sep Vanmarcke will lead Belkin into the meat of the classics. Already fourth at Omloop and third at Kuurne, Vanmarcke seems poised for a big win.

BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet, third in 2008, and Daniel Oss, third last year, will be trying to play off those favorites.

The Harelbeke startlist is an embarrassment of riches. Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb, who punctured right at the base of the Poggio last weekend at Milano-Sanremo, is hungry for revenge.

Of all the racing over the next few weeks, Harelbeke ranks just behind Flanders and Roubaix. The big riders will be coming out guns blazing.

Gent-Wevelgem for the fast men

Milano-Sanremo might be called the “sprinters’ classic,” but Gent-Wevelgem also draws a top field of sprinters and fast finishers.

Although the route tackles its share of cobbles, including the infamous Kemmelberg, Wevelgem will see the likes of Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) and Degenkolb step up.

A shift from the Wednesday between Flanders and Roubaix to the weekend before Flanders, as well as a tougher course, at 233km, has seen more top riders target Gent in recent years.

With fewer climbs than Harelbeke or Flanders, wind can also play a big factor as the peloton fractures under the pressure of the attacks.

The demands of the race typically see a reduced group coming in to challenge for the flowers. Former winners include Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bernhard Eisel, and Óscar Freire.

Defending champion Sagan will have his hands full to neutralize attacks and mark the wheels of the favorites.

Nearly all the teams bring the same riders to Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, though there are some exceptions, including Mark Cavendish, who will line up for Omega Pharma in Gent, but not Harelbeke.

Sky is fresh off two big rides, with victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with Ian Stannard, and third at Milano-Sanremo with Ben Swift. Swift, however, is not expected to start, opening the door for Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas, back from injury at Paris-Nice.

Garmin-Sharp also enters the classics on the heels of some strong recent results, including Farrar’s second place at Dwars. Jurgen Roelandts will be keen to carry the team colors at Lotto-Belisol for Harelbeke and Tony Gallopin will have a shot at Gent.

Women’s Gent-Wevelgem

Gent-Wevelgem organizers added a women’s edition in 2012, held on a 115km course. Lizzie Armitstead won the inaugural edition and Kirstin Wild took the flowers last year. Unfortunately, the date conflicts with the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, part of the World Cup series, in Italy, splitting many of the top stars between the overlapping events.

Wild will start for the Dutch National Team, but Armitstead is not in Boels Dolmans’ lineup on the preliminary startlist. Grace Verbeke (Futurumshop.NL-Zannata), the 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen winner, and 2012 Drentse 8 winner Chloe Hosking (Hitec Products) will be at the start. Lauren Hall and Ruth Winder are among the eight-rider U.S. National Team.