What to keep your eye on at this weekend's cobbled Classics...

Tour of Flanders dry run at the E3 Harelbeke

Can’t wait for the Tour of Flanders? Then be sure to tune into the E3 Harelbeke on Friday.

Of all the Belgian cobbled Classics that precede the Ronde, the E3 is the one that most resembles it. Both races share some of the region’s most famous bergs, with the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg playing particularly crucial roles in both.

>>> Iconic Places: The Kemmelberg in Ghent-Wevelgem

Of course E3 Harelbeke isn’t as difficult as the Ronde – at 204.6km in length it’s about 20 per cent shorter, and features fewer climbs in total, but it’s still one of the toughest and most exciting of the spring, and will attract all the top Classics stars.

Held only nine days before Flanders, it’s also a great barometer of a contender’s form. In four of the past five years, the winner of Flanders has finished no lower than fourth at the E3.

Crosswinds and the Kemmelberg at Ghent-Wevelgem

Crosswinds split the peloton in the 2015 Ghent-Wevelgem

Ghent-Wevelgem is considered an easier Classic than the E3 these days, and does indeed produce large bunch sprints at more regular intervals. But the last two editions demonstrate the two factors that can shake things up: crosswinds, and the Kemmelberg climb.

>>> How to ride in the wind

The 2015 edition was one of the most memorable in the race’s 87-year history thanks to the gale force winds that blew the race to pieces, causing huge splits very early on, nearly blowing some riders of their bikes altogether, and resulting in the riders arriving at the finish line exhausted and in dribs and drabs.

Last year, the winning selection was made on the Kemmelberg, the race’s most famous climb for the difficulty of its cobbled slope and eerie atmosphere of the overhanging trees that surround it, as well as its infamously treacherous descent.

Positioned 34km from the finish, it’s often dismissed these days as being too far from the finish to really effect the race, but last year proved that the combined strength of powerful enough riders – in that case, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke – can be enough for attacks over it to survive to the finish.

Peter Sagan vs Greg Van Avermaet

Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet will battle it out in the Classics once again this year (Watson)

If the first weekend of cobbled racing this season was anything to go by, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) are the ones to watch in the rest of this spring’s northern Classics, with the former winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the latter Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Theirs is a rivalry that has grown over the past few years, with Van Avermaet being the rider Sagan appears to have most difficulty getting the better of in a head-to-head showdown. Van Avermaet’s out-sprinting of Sagan at Het Nieuwsblad last month the sixth time he has beaten him into second over the past twenty months.

Both are on the start list for E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem, and will be eager to land a psychological blow over the other.

Sky looking for E3 hat-trick

Geraint Thomas wins the 2015 E3 Harelbeke (Watson)

The E3 Harelbeke is a race Sky have enjoyed considerable success at recently, with Geraint Thomas winning with an impressive solo move in 2015, and Michal Kwiatkowski outfoxing Sagan to win last year’s edition.

Neither rider will be present this year, but Sky still boast the formidable duo of Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe.

There’s a sense that we haven’t yet seen the best of either rider this spring as they gradually build up their form, but, if the last two years are anything to go by, this Friday’s E3 could be the moment for them to lay down a marker.

Sprinters eye up Ghent-Wevelgem

Peter Sagan and Fernando Gaviria in Tirreno-Adriatico

Both line-ups for the E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem look very similar, with most of the top Classics stars opting to compete in both, but there are some  sprinting specialists opting to skip the former and only ride in the latter.

Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) are the three most notable names riding just Ghent-Wevelgem, joining John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) (who are riding both), meaning there will be plenty of teams attempting to keep things together for a sprint.

The aforementioned Kemmelberg and potential crosswinds could make their task difficult, but each rider is, if on top form, capable of winning.

Can Quick-Step Floors get it right?

Quick-Step have been unable to capitalise on their numbers in recent years

A familiar theme in the spring Classics of recent years has been Quick-Step Floors’ failure to translate their strength in depth into wins.

The omens don’t look great – their highest placed rider in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad/Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne weekend was fifth from Matteo Trentin in the latter, and they’ve haven’t won either E3 Harelbeke or Ghent-Wevelgem since 2012.

That said, they are still bringing very strong squads to both races, with multiple cards to play. The rouleur Niki Terpstra, puncheur Zdenek Stybar, and quick sprinters Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin, with the addition of the even quicker Fernando Gaviria for just Ghent-Wevelgem and Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert for E3 Harelbeke.

Women’s Ghent-Wevelgem

The women’s Ghent-Wevelgem also takes places this weekend, a key race on the calendar as the fourth leg of the Women’s WorldTour, and the last cobbled event in the series before the highlight of the Tour of Flanders.

Since its inception in 2012 it’s proved to be a selective race fruitful for solo attacks, with Lizzie Deignan winning the inaugural edition with a lone attack of 25km, and Floortje Mackaij and Chantal Blaak claiming the past two editions by taking off the front alone.

The race may end with a long, 41km flat run-in to the finish, but the severity of the climbing prior to that (and, potentially, the weather) tends to do break the race into pieces early on, with two ascents of the Kemmelberg and Monteberg and one ascent of the Baneberg concentrated within just 34km.

Last year’s winner Blaak is part of a very strong Boels-Dolmans team that also includes world champion Amalie Didereksen and Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen, while the on-form Lucinda Brand (Sunweb), quick sprinter Jolien d’Hoore (Wiggle High5) and Marianne Vos (WM3 Energie) are among the other major riders to look out for.