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E3 Saxo Bank Classic quick-guide: Five things to watch at ‘mini Tour of Flanders’

E3 Saxo Bank Classic is often called the 'mini Tour of Flanders' for its narrow roads, steep bergs, and highly competitive field. Here are five things to watch for Friday.

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The northern classics season clicks into high gear Friday at E3 Saxo Bank Classic in one of the most exciting, can’t-miss days of races on the calendar.

All the big names are there, from Wout van Aert and Peter Sagan to defending champion Kasper Asgreen and Milan-San Remo winner Matej Mohorič.

There’s often more to see than meets the eye in one of the most intriguing and challenging courses on the classics menu. Narrow roads, steep bergs, and fresh engines add up to a thrilling race.

The challenging and demanding course might be a notch below “monument” status, but it packs a mean and prestigious punch.

Also read: Harelbeke the harbinger of the classics

The long-running Belgian classic is a favorite among the peloton’s cobble-bashers, and anyone who’s first across the line at Harelbeke puts a very fine feather in the classics hat.

This year’s race sees a few minor tweaks, but it lives up to its billing as the “mini Tour of Flanders,” and will not only provide a spectacular race but also some telling signs of what everyone can expect in the next few weeks.

Here are five things to watch for Friday:

Whoever wins Friday will win big again

Friday’s race is usually a harbinger of bigger things to come.

Last year, when Kasper Asgreen blasted to victory at E3, it was obvious to the entire peloton he was on fire. Barely a week later, he played giant-killer and beat back Mathieu van der Poel to win Tour of Flanders.

Success at this race usually means big things across the northern classics. Sometimes that can be in the same season, like Asgreen did last year, or others might pick up one here and then another one later.

Some 15 riders have won both races, a relatively higher percentage considering the race is still a relative newcomer to the international calendar.

The winners include: Arthur Decabooter, Noël Foré, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, Walter Planckaert, Jan Raas, Eric Vanderaerden, Eddy Planckaert, Johan Museeuw, Andrei Tchmil, Peter van Petegem, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Niki Terpstra, and Kasper Asgreen.

Nine rider have pulled off the Harelbeke-Flanders double in the same season: Foré in 1963, Planckaert in 1976, Raas in 1979, Museeuw in 1998, Van Petegem in 1999, Boonen in 2005, 2006 and 2012, Cancellara in 2010 and 2013, Terpstra in 2018, and Asgreen in 2021.

Narrow roads are one of the trademarks of the race. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

The race is a confirmation of classics talent

A win here puts your name on the classics map.

The race is so hard and so prestigious among the small clique of classics riders that anyone who wins it will earn kudos inside the bunch.

The race is known for a few things. First, narrow roads. The route takes in even smaller, rural roads that the larger Flanders does, in part because the peloton is a bit smaller and because it simply traces over different geography.

Those narrow roads can prove treacherous, so riders fight to be at the front to avoid pileups that can end a classics campaign before it even starts. Plenty of riders have crashed at E3 and missed out on some of their bigger spring goals.

So that makes nerves and bike-handling imperative at Harelbeke.

Since the course does hit many of the same climbs and pavé sectors across the Flemish Ardennes as the Ronde features, it’s natural that riders who shine here can be players in the Belgian monument.

There are some unique exceptions.

Geraint Thomas is the only rider who won both E3 and the Tour de France. After his solo victory in the classic race in 2015, the Welshman claimed the yellow jersey in 2018. That’s something even Eddy Merckx couldn’t do. The Belgian legend won the Tour five times, but never won E3, finishing third in 1971 and second in 1972.

What’s sure is that anyone who can master Harelbeke is at the absolute peak of their craft.

Watch for the accelerations

Victory isn’t the only thing to watch for or to race for.

Riders will be sizing each other up throughout the race. Intelligence picked up Friday can be tucked away and stored onto a rider’s mental hard drive.

Experienced riders like Greg Van Avermaet will be seeing who’s fast and who’s not on the endless strings of bergs and curves. A smart rider will be able to later use that intel to follow the right moves if a rival pulls clear next week at De Ronde or at Paris-Roubaix.

Fast legs Friday almost always means faster legs in Flanders, even if those legs don’t carry a rider to victory at Harelbeke.

The race is nicknamed the “mini Tour of Flanders” for good reason. The route traces over much of the same terrain as what the top stars will see next weekend.

A win here typically bodes well for success at the Ronde, either in the same calendar year or in the future.

Keep an eye on Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl

Quick-Step is always a factor in the spring classics. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Any classics season typically revolves around the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl wheelhouse.

These are “their” roads and the team boasts an impressive legacy across the Flemish classics.

This year could be different, however, and it will be interesting to see how the team races Friday.

Injuries and illness have ravaged the ranks of the team, and Patrick Lefevere’s “Wolfpack” could be coming into Harelbeke on a limp.

Defending champion Asgreen is back, and so is 2019 winner Zdenek Stybar. Though the final roster isn’t released at the time of publication of this report, missing are classics guarantees Yves Lampaert and Tim Declercq. Julian Alaphilippe is steering clear of the Flemish classics this year.

Watch for Florian Sénéchal, second last year to Asgreen. The 28-year-old Frenchman seems on the cusp of a major classics victory, and he’s overdue.

The pressure is always on Quick-Step. Even when the chips are down, the team seems to manage to regroup the pack for the next big battle. Win or lose Friday, one can bet the “Wolfpack” will still bring some bite this spring.

The infirmary ward will say a lot about the future

Expect a lot of the unexpected this spring.

Illnesses and injuries have taken an overly big bite out of the peloton this spring. Riders continue to fall ill, with Thomas De Gendt (not a Harelbeke starter) the latest big name to succumb to illness.

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) seems so far immune to the rolling infirmary that the peloton has become in the opening months of 2022. His clean bill of health will put him in the front row of pre-race favorites.

Behind him, there are a lot of question marks.

A lot of riders will be coming into E3 either short on training kilometers or coming off a bout of something, so that means depth and finishing speed could be unpredictable.

Traditional favorites such as Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies), Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën), Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech) have all faced health issues of some kind coming into the Belgian classics.

Even Milan-San Remo’s blazing winner Matej Mohorič is not in full condition. He crashed at Strade Bianche and missed Tirreno-Adriatico, but still managed to hang with the favorites over the Poggio. The punishing demands of E3 Saxo Bank Classic make this race much harder and more demanding than the Italian monument even if it’s 100km shorter.

No one will be able to “fake it” on Friday. Only muscle and guts will put someone at the front of the bunch.