Harelbeke, harbinger of the classics

The E3 BinkBank Classic is the gateway to a crush of cobbled one-day races in Flanders. It's not as prestigious as De Ronde, but still is coveted by top pros.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — The preambles are over. It’s time for the Flanders classics. Friday’s rechristened E3 BinckBank Classic is set to push things into overdrive.

Long known as the Prijs Vlaanderen or simply as Harelbeke, the 204km race distance is not quite monument status, but the event carries enough cache and prestige within the bunch that it’s one of the most hard-fought races of the season.

Only big names win E3, and Friday’s 62nd edition of the race should see a highly competitive field racing for the win and the elusive momentum to go into Flanders week.

A strong ride at E3 normally bodes well for big things in the northern classics. Eight riders have won E3 and Flanders in the same year. Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) pulled off the double last year, and Fabian Cancellara did it in 2010 and 2013. Others have won gone on to win Paris-Roubaix in the same season, most recently Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) in 2017.

A long list of favorites

The favorites? There are many. It’s more a case of the usual suspects. Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Zdenek Stybar (Deceunick-Quick-Step) are all likely candidates. Based on who’s been going well in the early races, add Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) to the list. Behind them are another dozen who could pull the rabbit out of the hat.

“The key to the classics is to be aggressive and have multiple options, so our riders will be protecting Greg [Van Avermaet] and setting him up as best they can for the finale,” said CCC Team director Fabio Baldato. “E3 BinckBank Classic is typically a mini Tour of Flanders and is a race that suits Greg’s strengths. He won in 2017 and was on the podium last year, so we hope to see him back up there again on Friday.”

The big thing to watch is how Deceuninck-Quick-Step will manage the race. If they cannot have riders in all the key moves, then this could be a very different spring classics than last year. So far, they’ve been quite adept at playing their numbers game. In these harder, longer races, the team could be missing the experienced hand of defending champ Terpstra, now on Direct Energie.

Belgian cycling fans turn out in droves to watch E3, as it often reveals the top favorites for Tour of Flanders. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The course

Though it’s called the “mini Tour of Flanders,” it falls short of the 250-kilometer distance that makes “De Ronde” so difficult. The race is typically around 200km long — about one hour of racing shorter than the longer and more arduous monument classic.

The race hits many of the same bergs as Flanders, so that’s why it’s such a good course to use as a measuring stick for would-be Flanders favorites.

There have been some tweaks to this year’s course, but it largely follows the same blueprint across a string of narrow, tricky roads. It features several of the steeper bergs in quick succession, making positioning and aggressiveness keys to victory.

“Course-wise, it is the toughest Flemish spring race,” Benoot said.

“The removal of the Eikenberg is a serious change,” he continued. “That way, there is some more time after the Taaienberg, always one of the crucial points in the race, to move up. Once you start the Kortekeer climb, it is difficult to gain positions. The narrow passageways, the hills, and the cobbled sections make it a race where there are almost no moments to recover. That is to my advantage because such kinds of races really suit me.”

Ideal racing conditions

Weather will be the peloton’s friend, at least on Friday. Forecasters are calling for partly cloudy skies, light winds, and temperatures in the high-50s. That’s about as good as it gets in Flanders in late March.

Thomas the only Tour/E3 winner

Geraint Thomas (Sky), winner in 2015, is the only E3 winner to also win the Tour de France. That can only mean that Eddy Merckx never won Harelbeke, and that makes the race one of the few major events on the international calendar that Merckx never won. Formerly called E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Merckx was third in 1971 and second in 1972, the only two times he raced it.