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Phinney in holding pattern as EF pedals into classics

American Taylor Phinney sat out of Friday's E3 Binckbank Classic due to knee soreness, but expectations are high for Belgian captain Vanmarcke.

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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — EF Education First pedals into the decisive northern classics season with quiet optimism that it can deliver a big win.

One key rider of the team’s classics group, Taylor Phinney, did not start Friday’s E3 BinckBank Classic. Team doctors said Phinney felt minor soreness in his right knee, and thus did not start the 204km race. Officials said Phinney’s classics campaign is not in danger, and he is likely to start Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

Phinney started but did not finish Wednesday’s Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne race.

With the team anchored around eternal classics hopeful Sep Vanmarcke, there was a confident buzz around the team bus Friday morning before the start of E3 BinckBank Classic that something good is on the way. [With 85 kilometers to go in E3, Vanmarcke crashed out of the race. -Ed.]

“There are a few guys from our team who can win,” said EF Education First sport director Andreas Klier. “I know that Sep is ready, I know that [Alberto] Bettiol is ready, and Sebastian [Langeveld] is pedaling faster than any other year. This gives me a little bit of optimism that we are not team number 19 [among the top squads], but we are also not Quick-Step.”

Klier is the first to admit EF Education First isn’t packing the same depth and firepower as a team like Deceuncinck-Quick-Step. But he also knows the team has a few aces up its sleeve.

Vanmarcke has shown some promising early form, and the team is backing him to win one of the monuments on the cobbles. Langeveld, who was third in the 2017 Paris-Roubaix, is also going well, as is Bettiol who went on the attack late in Milano-Sanremo.

Klier said the team is well-prepared for the important classics season and that the team will closely gauge its riders’ performances in Friday’s race.

“We will see how we go [Friday] and we will see about the tactics,” he said, adding that he expects a highly competitive classics campaign. “It is the usual suspects. I could pick 15 riders who can win. No one has really stood out. If you fail here [at Harelbeke], it is not a good indicator for the upcoming races.”

Klier, who won Gent-Wevelgem in 2003 when he was a pro rider, said the classics are one of the most important and entertaining parts of the entire season. Six months of work and preparation come down to a handful of days across the pavé and hills of Flanders and Northern France.

“There is some special tension in the air. Even the crème de la crème feel the pressure in these races,” he said. “Cycling is living in this country, and cycling is sport number 2, behind soccer. It’s in the air.”