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E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem: Stories to follow and riders to watch

Here's our inside guide to the two marquee men's and women's cobblestone races.

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Rejoice, for the cobbled classics are here.

After the amuse-bouche of February’s “opening weekend,” the northern classics hit full pace this week with Friday’s E3 Saxo-Bank Classic and the men’s and women’s Gent-Wevelgem.

With the E3 Classic making for a condensed Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem notorious for its off-road tracks and mammoth distance, this week is set for some serious drama. Here are Jim Cotton and Andrew Hood‘s top tips for who to watch and what to watch out for at this week’s marquee one-day races:

Storylines to watch:

Trek-Segafredo women’s team hit its stride at Alfredo Binda.

Andrew: The top thing I’ll be watching is if Deceuninck-Quick-Step has the strength to play its tried-and-true tactical card of swarming the zone. As in any classics season, the “Wolfpack” brings many cards to play, but I’m still not sure they’ll have the horsepower to go long and deep, especially at these heavier races at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. The first is a “mini-Flanders” and G-W is much harder now that the distance hovers around 250km. I’m still not convinced that without Alaphilippe that anyone else on DQS can match “VanderWout” when the big flares start coming.

Also Sunday in the women’s race, I’ll be watching to see if Trek-Segafredo can carry its momentum out of Italy. These northern classics are now at the center of the team’s program, and we haven’t seen much yet from Lizzie Deignan due to a cold. With the prospect of Paris-Roubaix Femmes being postponed, I expect them to hit the accelerator, and make the most of this weekend.

Jim: The men’s races will really be all about whether teams can turn the tables on you-know-who and the other you-know-who. But one thing I’m interested to keep tabs on is whether the grizzled veterans can finally click back into gear. Greg van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Alexander Kristoff, and John Degenkolb all have the pedigree but just haven’t had the legs to keep with the young whippersnappers so far this season. The “old guard” knows how to win these heavy classics and should be peaking after 10 or 15 days of early season racing, so I hope to see them shine. C’mon grandads!

For Gent-Wevelgem women’s race, the SD Worx vs. Trek-Segafredo face-off takes center stage, but there’s much more to the classics than these two. Movistar, Liv Racing, and Ceratizit-WNT all bring riders with form and experience to the cobbles Sunday, and it will be good to see if one of these secondary contender teams can break the stranglehold that the two big players have on the classics so far.

Dark-horse contenders:

It would be too easy to talk about Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert again. So who are our dark-horse contenders for both E3 and the men’s and women’s Gent-Wevelgem?

E3 Saxo Bank Classic

Tom Pidcock could pull a massive surprise. Photo: Nico Vereecken / Photo News

Andrew: Kasper Asgreen. This guy has a huge engine, but it seems like he’s been on idle so far in 2021. Since we cannot go to the race and gossip with all the DS’s and riders, it’s been harder to get a handle on who’s going well and who isn’t. If Asgreen has been holding back, we could see him pop over the weekend.

Jim: Seeing as we’re going dark horses I’m going far off the grid with Antony Turgis. Who? That French fella who always pops into the top-10 having been overlooked. Second at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, 10th at Milano-Sanremo, and with Niki Terpstra at his side at Total Direct Énergie, I won’t be surprised to see at least a top-3 from Turgis on Friday. For another pick with a very slim chance – Tom Pidcock. Sure, he’s a neopro with little experience of senior cobblestone racing, but the kid is capable of anything, and E3 is a little shorter than the likes of Flanders and Roubaix may give him room to bring his full swagger to the stones.

Gent Wevelgem women’s

Marianne Vos has been on the move at Strade Bianche and Alfredo Binda. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Jim: Can I call a rider as decorated as Marianne Vos a dark horse? Seems a strange thing to say, but given Vos is racing with a young new team rather than big hitters like Trek-Segafredo or SD Worx, I’m going to say she is. Northern classics aren’t Vos’ ‘thing’ compared to all-out sprints or hilly races, but she’s looked on top form and threatening as ever at both Strade Bianche and Alfredo Binda this year. While Trek and SD Worx are watching each other, I see “the boss” adding one more to her packed palmarès Sunday.

Andrew: For the women’s race, I’ll pick Ellen Van Dijk as my outsider. She’s not a five-star favorite against this deep field, but she has the after-burners to win out of a reduced group. The course should deliver a natural selection, and she’s among the strongest in these heavier races. She’s only finished once in the top-10, but if it’s a hard race, she’ll be at the front with chances for the win.

Gent-Wevelgem men’s

Jim: He’s not really shown himself yet, but I’m going Alexander Kristoff. If any race is going to be won by a rider with big guts and an even bigger engine, it’s Gent-Wevelgem, and the grizzled Norweigan has won it before and regularly finishes in the front groups. With Matteo Trentin as a foil, Kristoff can get away with missing the front selection and doing his trademark tactic of slowly but surely winching his way back. If not Kristoff, I would say Mads Pedersen repeats his 2020 win. He’s got the form and Trek-Segafredo has the momentum.

Andrew: For Gent-Wevelgem, a “dark horse” is a relative term. Go down the list of winners, and there’s not much slack on that list. Especially since the race moved to Sunday and organizers tacked on the extra distance, Gent-Wevelgem’s status and prestige have jumped accordingly. Who wins? A strong rider with a fast-finishing sprint. There are a half-dozen big-name riders who fit that billing. I’ll say Matteo Trentin — he’s due for a big win.