Who’s strong and who’s wrong: the tale-tell signs from Harelbeke

Changes to parcours to make 'mini-Flanders' more challenging makes it a perfect barometer of strength prior to the cobbled monuments.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Want to pick the winner at Tour of Flanders for the bike shop betting pool? Take a closer look at the highlight reel from Friday’s E3 BinckBank Classic.

With about 30km to go Friday, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) did just that. He looked around to see who was with him. By then, the pack had disintegrated over the Paterberg and Kwaremont. In the deepest throes of the first major throw-down of the Flemish classics, he was sizing up the riders he knew were going to be his rivals over the next few critical weeks.

A mechanical later torpedoed Sagan’s chances, but that instant late in the race revealed who were the strongest riders heading into the heart of the Flemish classics season.

At Harelbeke, there is no place to hide. And on Friday, the cycling world got an X-ray vision of who will be fighting for the podium at the next “big three” over the coming weekends at Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

“I think if you see one rider very strong here, you will see him strong at Flanders and Roubaix also,” said 2015 Flanders winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates). “If you’re not in shape now, it’s difficult to make it in shape in one week.”

Months of training camps, preparation, preambles, and warm-up races are over. Harelbeke marked the start of the “real” classics racing season.

“Every race is serious now,” said Deceuninck-Quick-Step superstar Philippe Gilbert. “It’s the moment to be in good shape now because now we race every two or three days. The big period is coming. I think we are ready.”

Friday’s intense racing peeled back any layers of pretense. When Sagan looked around, he saw some familiar faces — Greg Van Avermaet, eventual winner Zdenek Stybar and Wout van Aert were all there — but also a few surprises. Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) all proved they were riders to be reckoned with this spring classics.

“The guys who are top-10 are usually top-10 throughout the rest of the classics,” said Bahrain-Merida’s Heinrich Haussler. “This race is so hard that you’re not up at the front by chance or by luck.”

Harelbeke has long been called the “mini Tour of Flanders,” but the race has actually become more challenging and difficult over the past decade. The race used to be slotted in the Friday ahead of Flanders, but the race calendar was tweaked a few years ago, and Gent-Wevelgem was moved from its mid-week slot into Sunday, and Flanders was moved back one week. That meant race organizers have incrementally made Harelbeke a bit harder, with a few more climbs and heading out over narrower roads.

Because it’s shorter — this year distance was 203.9km compared to Flanders’ 267km — the race action is more compact and intense. While part of winning a monument is pacing and measuring the efforts, Harelbeke is pure power. So that helps reveal whoever had the jets Friday will be throwing down the turbos at Flanders and Roubaix.

Haussler, who was second in Flanders in 2009, actually said Harelbeke can be the more challenging race. And the most telling of who is truly on form.

“I’d say this race is the hardest classic,” Haussler explained. “It’s harder than Flanders because the final starts so early, and it’s only five hours of racing that everyone goes all in.

“It’s not like Flanders, where it’s waiting, waiting, waiting,” he continued. “The guys that are up front today will be up front for the whole classics. It’s not like you made the front because you had good positioning. It’s because you have the power to make it up there on the climbs.”

Though most agree Harelbeke is a decent barometer, German sport director Andreas Klier pointed out that the longer distances of Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix, all three more than 250km each, truly separate the wheat from the chafe.

“With the changes of the parcours over the past years, making it more difficult and harder, the big difference between this race [Harelbeke] and Flanders is the distance,” Klier said. “If you win at Harelbeke at 200km, that does not mean you can win at Flanders at 250km. After today’s race, we’ll know better where we stand … if you fail here, it is not a good indicator for the upcoming races.”

The take-aways Friday after the dust settled in Harelbeke were obvious: Van Avermaet and van Aert are undeniably very strong. It was hard to measure up Sagan because he sat up with what he said was a mechanical problem with his rear derailleur. And Deceuninck-Quick-Step looks to have the depth and firepower to set the tactical tone across the major races. The big question will be if someone has the pure strength and power to single-handedly derail the DQS train. We got more than a few hints Friday.