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E3 Saxo Bank Classic: Harelbeke, the eternal harbinger of cobblestone crushers

No race better predicts success at Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix than Harelbeke.

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No race portends the coming storm at Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix better than Friday’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

Despite its new name, many refer to the race as Harelbeke, the rough-hewn Flemish town where the race starts and finishes.

Over the years, the challenging one-day race has emerged not only as a very important title on its own, but also a very accurate harbinger of success on the major northern monuments.

Its list of winners is loaded with some of the biggest names in classics racing. Curiously enough, it’s one of the few races that Eddy Merckx never won despite racing it six times.

Tom Boonen holds the record number of victories, with five. Rik Van Looy, one of Merckx’s early career rivals, won four editions in the 1960s, and Fabian Cancellara and Jan Raas won three apiece.

Called a “mini Tour of Flanders” for its narrow roads and challenging route, this year’s 203.9km course loops over many of the famous bergs and sectors featured in the real Flanders in 10 days’ time.

So it’s no surprise that any rider who goes well at Harelbeke will be on a near-full boil, and will naturally shine at Flanders and Roubaix. But how well?

Cancellara and Boonen are kings of the E3 cobbles

We dug into the statistics and came away with some surprising numbers. We only went back to 1995 — remember, last year’s race canceled — so our window of comparison is during the past 25 years.

Also read: Van der Poel vs. Van Aert will be even better than Cancellara-Boonen era

Since 1995, some 17 of the 25 winners at Harelbeke hit one of the top-3 podiums at either Flanders or Roubaix. That’s significant in that nearly 70 percent of all Harelbeke winners in 25 years end up with at least one subsequent monument podium on the stones.

Some 10 winners E3 since 1995 won either Flanders or Roubaix, so that means there is a 40-percent chance that the winner Friday will also come out on top in Oudenaarde or in the Roubaix velodrome (assuming the “Hell of the North” is contested on its scheduled date).

Even more surprising is that there have been three riders in the past 25 years who won Harelbeke and either Flanders or Roubaix and also hit the podium at the accompanying monument.

In 2006, Boonen won in Harelbeke and Flanders and finished second at Roubaix to arch-rival Cancellara. Greg Van Avermaet was second in Flanders and won Roubaix in his magical 2017 season that also included Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. In 2018, Niki Terpstra hit a purple patch, with victories at Harelbeke and Flanders, and third in Roubaix.

What could be better than that? Sweeping all three, of course.

Only two riders have managed that cobblestone treble, and they are none other than Cancellara and Boonen.

Boonen pulled it off in 2005 and 2012, while Cancellara matched the mark in 2010 and again in 2013.

So if you’re reading this and there’s still time to change your wager in the office pool, whoever wins Friday at E3 Saxo Bank Classic will have very good chances in the next two weekends. You can be on it.