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Your New Favorite Race: E3 Harelbeke

E3 Harelbeke is the cobbled gateway to Belgium's biggest classics races. It features ample cobblestone climbs, and thrilling race action.

Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. Great news: There are tons of cycling races all season! Less-great news: Like trying to pick an ice cream flavor at Ben & Jerry’s, tons of choices can be overwhelming. So, we’ll try to help out by giving you quick, fun overviews of major races. Stay tuned for more previews.

Need to pick Your New Favorite Team? Here are 11 teams you should follow in the 2017 season >>

Your new favorite race: E3 Harelbeke, March 24

Why should you care about this race? The cobblestone threshold to cycling’s biggest spring classics, E3 Harelbeke is the perfect way to get a first look at the contenders who want to win Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the other Belgian classics in the next 14 days. As such, E3 is sometimes pigeonholed as a “mini” Flanders — a humorous moniker, I think, since it’s 206.1 kilometers long. The route includes 15 designated hills, which help decide the race’s final selection. Last year, world champ Peter Sagan attacked on the penultimate hill, the Karnemelkbeekstraat, a grinding 1,530-meter brute, and he was followed by Michal Kwaitkowski, who went on to win. Unfortunately, the Polish rider won’t return to defend his title in 2017.

Most dramatic edition in recent memory? Maybe we didn’t see it at the time, but 2014 E3 was a changing of the guard for top classics riders. Sure, Peter Sagan had already arrived with a 2013 Gent-Wevelgem win, but with five-time winner Tom Boonen and three-time winner Fabian Cancellara chasing oh-so-close behind Sagan’s winning breakaway, E3 2014 felt a bit prophetic. Plus, the action was exquisite. Sagan was caught on the back foot when Geraint Thomas attacked the Oude Kwaremont, but he put in a massive effort to bridge to the move. Cancellara’s group chased furiously, but couldn’t shut down the gap. Boonen put his faith in two Quick-Step teammates, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra, who joined Thomas and Sagan at the front. Vandenbergh attacked early in the final sprint, but he was covered, and Terpstra couldn’t match Sagan’s acceleration — perhaps another bit of foreshadowing, given the Belgian team’s recent dry spell at major classics.

Your race’s defining feature: Like all of the races in this entertaining two weeks of racing, E3 is lousy with sharp little cobbled bergs and paved hellingen that can blow apart the race. Some of the less-heralded hills like the Tiegemberg — 1000m at 6.5 percent and the final challenge at E3 — don’t make headlines or get beers named after them. But a hill like that, or Karnemelkbeekstraat, is a potential launchpad for a rider with good legs. It’s tempting to consider the cobbled Oude Kwaremont (2.2km at 4.2 percent) as the essence of E3, but for me, this race showcases all Flemish hills, large and small. Feeling a bit intimidated? Well, if you can’t ride the brutal parcours, let’s try to help you pronounce a few of those names:

E3-Prijs Harelbeke: AY-tree pries HAREL-beye
Oude Kwaremont: OW-duh k-WARE-mon-teh
Tiegemberg: tee-HEM-berghhhhh

But the thing is … As a WorldTour race with increasing prominence, E3 is great for spectators. The racing is about as aggressive as it gets, but that means the potential for crashes is high, and positioned only days before Tour of Flanders, there’s a risk that a top favorite will be knocked out of the classics, which is what happened to Fabian Cancellara in 2014. Fingers crossed for all of our favorite cobble-bashers. We want to see every star at the start on April 2 for de Ronde.

Ladies first? Sorry women’s cycling fans, you’ll need to wait until Gent-Wevelgem for the next major race of the women’s calendar. Coincidentally, E3 has a bad reputation for sexist race posters, notably in 2011 and 2014 — maybe top women’s teams would boycott? Fortunately, organizers learned their lesson and didn’t offend with the 2016 poster. This year’s poster, although very weird, shouldn’t ruffle any feathers either:

Who are you betting your beer money on this year? Sagan is on top form right now, tearing apart the race at Milano-Sanremo, only to be beaten in the sprint by a bike throw. However, if you’re averse to a chalk pick, consider Olympic champ Greg Van Avermaet, whose BMC Racing team is certainly stronger than Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe outfit.