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E3 Harelbeke preview: Big guns ready to fire in ‘mini Flanders’

With Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday and the Ronde on March 2, E3 Harelbeke is the official start of Flanders Week. Buckle up!

If the intense racing action at Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen is any indication, Friday’s Record Bank E3 Harelbeke should be even better.

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Why? Because all the top northern classics favorites will be lining in up for the revered classic dubbed the “mini Tour of Flanders.” Fought over narrow farm roads and many of the hallowed bergs to be featured next week at Ronde van Vlaanderen, a strong showing Friday bodes well for bigger things to come.

Now in its 60th edition, Harelbeke is an ideal warm-up for the monument favorites, and a top-five here usually tips who’s on form for the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.

Big guns ready to fire

Despite its relatively youth — E3 debuted in 1958 compared to the Ronde in 1913 — Harelbeke has grown to become of the most important races on the Belgian calendar. Now part of the WorldTour, Harelbeke’s 206.4km distance, with its mix of cobbled sectors and narrow roads, is a serious challenge for the peloton’s elite classics riders.

Five-time winner Tom Boonen (Quick-Step) headlines the favorites and is entering the final days of his illustrious racing career. With such a deep Quick-Step team that also includes an on-form Philippe Gilbert, Dwars winner Yves Lampaert, Niki Terpstra, Matteo Trentin, Jack Bauer, Iljo Keisse, and Zdenek Stybar, it will be interesting to see if Boonen decides to avoid risks and keep his powder dry (and his cards close to his chest) for his last hurrahs at Ronde and Roubaix. Quick-Step certainly has the numbers to swamp every move and put riders in position to win. With pressure on for victory, Quick-Step will be the team to beat.

It’s been Sky, however, that’s won the past two editions, yet neither of their former winners will be racing Friday. Milano-Sanremo winner and last year’s champion Michal Kwiatkowski is lining up next at the Vuelta al País Vasco as he goes all-in for the Ardennes classics, while 2015 E3 winner Geraint Thomas is racing this week at the Volta a Catalunya ahead of a run at the Giro d’Italia. Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe will fly team colors, instead.

All eyes will be on Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), a winner in 2014 and two times runner-up, to try to blow up the race. Some are questioning the depth of Sagan’s classics team, but when he’s strong (which is just about all the time), he doesn’t need much help when he’s on a good day. Clearly on form, Sagan will be the rider of reference in the bunch.

It will be interesting to see if Quick-Step races negatively, and tries to mark Sagan, or takes the race directly to the Slovakian to isolate him and then attack.

There are plenty of others waiting in the wings. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac), John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Alexander Kristoff (Kastusha-Alpecin), and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) are among the other favorites in what’s an all-star start list.

Who can win?

Harelbeke is a dress rehearsal for the northern monuments, and all the major captains are hitting their spring peak. This will be a dogfight, and the strongest will scraping to get into the late, race-breaking moves.

In the past 10 years, there’s only been one large group sprint, in 2012 when Boonen won his fifth and record-setting title. Typically, the race is marked by small groups of two or three riders. Three-time winner Fabian Cancellara had the horsepower to ride away from the entire group in 2011 and win solo.

This year’s route features 15 bergs, and five sectors of pavé, but it’s been the inclusion of very narrow farm roads over the past few years that has increased the tension and nerves (and crashes) inside the peloton. Starting and ending in Harelbeke, the course loops east, then back west, with things heating up in the final hour or so of racing.

The Taainenberg inevitably splits the bunch, with Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont back-to-back at about 40km to go to form the decisive move. The Kamemelkbeekstraat and Tiegemberg are the final obstacles, and usually the decisive attacking zone within the final 30km. By then, the race is a tug-of-war from elite attackers and a desperately chasing reduced bunch.

Expect Quick-Step to mass at the front, and try to put multiple men into any promising, late-race moves. As the team revealed in Dwars on Wednesday, abundance in numbers is a advantage in any one-day race. Sagan and Van Avermaet each look to have the legs to try to break Quick-Step’s stranglehold.

Forecasters are calling for warm, spring-like temperatures, in the low 60s, and almost no chance of rain. Northeast winds of up to 15mph will be kicking up in the afternoon, and could prove decisive.

With Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday and the Ronde on April 2, this is the official start of Flanders Week. Buckle up!