Flanders predictor E3 Harelbeke makes WorldTour debut Friday

Boonen, Cancellara to face off in Belgian cobbles race with new date, WorldTour status

It’s a Belgian WorldTour race featuring the renowned cobblestone climbs of the Kappelmuur and Kwaremont — and a race where former winners Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen will again be the pre-race favorites.

No, it’s not the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which in 2012, for the first time in recent years will not feature the iconic Kappelmuur climb in Geraardsbergen. Rather, it’s E3 Harelbeke, a Tour of Flanders warm-up race that, for the first time in its 55-year history, has been granted the UCI’s highest status as a WorldTour event.

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In addition to its switch to WorldTour status, E3 Harelbeke (formerly known as E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke) will be held on Friday rather Saturday, allowing racers a day of recovery before Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem semi-classic.

The 2010 calendar move of Ghent-Wevelgem, from the Wednesday between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix to the Sunday preceding Flanders, proved harmful to Harelbeke. Last year several top riders skipped the “mini Tour of Flanders,” which was part of the UCI Europe Tour, in order to field teams at Ghent-Wevelgem, a WorldTour event.

One of those riders skipping E3 was four-time Harelbeke winner Boonen, who missed the race for the first time since 2002 and was a vocal critic of the date change.

After winning in dominating fashion last year, Cancellara also complained about the scheduling conflict, and the UCI WorldTour committee listened. Those listed on the March 15 preliminary start list include Boonen and Cancellara; Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing); Heinrich Haussler and Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda); 2009 Harelbeke winner Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia); and Bjorn Leukemans and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM).

North Americans on the preliminary start list include George Hincapie (BMC), Svein Tuft (GreenEdge) and Jacob Rathe (Garmin). Tyler Farrar, who finished fifth at the 2010 Tour of Flanders, is not listed as one of Garmin’s starters or reserve riders.

Races like Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen (“Straight across Flanders”) and E3 Harelbeke, which use many of the same cobbled climbs as the Tour of Flanders, are often predictors of how De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix will play out.

At 203km, Harelbeke is 52km shorter than De Ronde, featuring 13 cobbled climbs, or hellingen, rather than the 16 climbs on tap at the Tour of Flanders. At the midpoint of a large circuit originating and finishing in Harelbeke, the peloton will tackle the first cobbled climb, the Kappelmuur, which has traditionally featured late in the Tour of Flanders, often proving decisive. The last six climbs of Harelbeke come rapid-fire within the final 40km, with the vicious trio of the Paterberg, Kwaremont and Knokteberg setting up the final climb, the Tiegemberg, with its summit just 13km from the finish.

In 2010 the top two finishers at Harelbeke, Cancellara and Boonen, finished in the same order one week later at De Ronde. In 2011 Cancellara was unbeatable at Harelbeke, finishing alone with a one-minute gap, and went on to take podium spots at Flanders and Roubaix. And last year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen winner, Nick Nuyens, went on to win De Ronde. (Nuyens will miss the cobbled classics this year due to a hip fracture sustained during the opening time trial at Paris-Nice.)

With its similar course and star-studded WorldTour field, it’s safe to say that every rider on the podium in Harelbeke will immediately be considered a favorite for the following weekend’s Tour of Flanders.

Velo editor Neal Rogers is in Belgium for E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Three Days of De Panne and the Tour of Flanders.