Sandwiched between Wednesday's Classic Brugge-De Panne, and Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem, the E3 Saxo Bank Classic awaits the men's peloton on Friday this week.
A classics testing ground ahead of the fast approaching Tour of Fladners, the route for the E3 Saxo Bank Classic comprises of 203.9 kilometres and 17 steep climbs.
Here's what we'll be watching out for...
QUICKSTEP-ALPHAVINYL HOPING TO REASSERT DOMINANCE
Over two months into the 2022 season, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl find themselves in an unusual position. For once, they don’t lead the win rankings, with UAE Team Emirates currently streets ahead with 20 wins to the Belgian team’s 14.
Although that’s more a reflection of how good UAE Team Emirates have been rather than a condemnation of QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, it is true that they haven’t yet been their usual selves in the cobbled classics, typically their happiest hunting ground.
Their success so far this year has instead come predominantly in bunch sprints with Fabio Jakobsen and Mark Cavendish, and the early season sub-World Tour stage races through Remco Evenepoel.
In the cobbled classics, by contrast, they’ve been notably off colour, especially at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where they only placed one rider in the 60, while Jakobsen’s win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is their only top three finish in their native Belgium so far this year.
The E3 SaxoBank Classic gives them a chance to reassert their authority as patrons of the spring classics. The tough parcours all but rule out a bunch sprint, so it’s up to the stalwarts Zdenek Stybar, Florian Senechal and defending champion Kasper Asgreen to deliver success while talismanic sprinter Jakobsen sits this one out.
Despite being off the pace during opening weekend, Asgreen performed excellently to finish third at Strade Bianche, so might be the man to deliver the win on Friday.
VAN AERT VERSUS THE WORLD
A renewal of the infamous Wout van Aert versus Mathieu van der Poel rivalry is on hold for now while the latter competes over in Italy at the Coppi e Bartali, so instead the main contest at E3 SaxoBank Classic will be between Van Aert versus the rest of the world.
Of the two, Van Aert came out on top at his only appearance in Belgium so far this season, February’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where no-one could get anywhere near him as he motored up the Bosberg and to the finish for victory.
Considering that Van Aert has been building his form gradually in order to peak for next week’s Tour of Flanders, he could be even better at the E3 SaxoBank, so all the eyes of his rivals will be glued to him.
Although being such an overwhelming favourite is often a significant disadvantage, and certainly hindered Van Aert at Milan-San Remo where others were reluctant to help chase with him, the selective parcours of this classic means the spectrum leans more towards brute strength and away from tactical nuance.
Add to the a very strong line-up of domestiques featuring the Christophe Laporte, Tiesj Benoot and Nathan Van Hooydonck, and everything looks to play in the Belgian’s favour.
CAN THE TOP MILAN-SAN REMO PERFORMERS CARRY FORM ONTO THE COBBLES?
Few would have picked out Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) and Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies) to finish first and second at Milan-San Remo last weekend, but their doing so was no fluke, and now they're hoping to carry their top form into the cobbled classics.
Although there isn’t a comparable descent on the E3 SaxoBank route for him to launch a similar move to the one that won him La Primavera, and although the Slovenian has seldom ridden the cobbled classics aside from one forgettable campaign in 2019, he does appear to have all the attributes to be a star in them.
By contrast, Turgis has in recent years become one of the most established riders for the cobbles, and has become one of the peloton’s most underrated members. Victory on Friday would earn him the attention he deserves.
The power Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM) produced with his attack on the Poggio on Saturday suggests that he might be in the form of his life, an exciting sign for someone who has long appeared on the brink of making it as a top classics star.
And Mads Pedersen’s less noticeable but similarly impressive ride to stay in contention on the Poggio confirms that he’s in fine fettle heading into his favoured cobbled classics, where he’ll team up again with Trek-Segafredo teammate Jasper Stuyven in what is one of the peloton’s most dangerous partnerships.
CAN THE OLD-TIMERS STILL COMPETE?
As newer names put themselves into the mix for victory in the cobbled classics, it’s getting harder for the seasoned veterans of many past spring campaigns to keep up.
More than most, Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) has found that to be the case in recent times, so much so that he is now relegated to an outside punt in for a race he won back in 2014 and twice more made the podium. Don’t underestimate him yet, though, as for the first time in a long time he was showing hints of top form before illness interrupted his spring.
Just as he’s at risk of being upstaged by his teammate Anthony Turgis, Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux’s Alexander Kristoff — who has tended to struggle at this particular classic — .is facing competition from Biniam Girmay, returning to the country where he won silver at the under-23 World Championships last year.
The signs are brighter for Greg van Avermaet following his podium finish at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and his Ag2r Citroen teammate Oliver Naesen, who was just one place behind him in fourth. Given their very impressive record at E3 SaxoBank Classic (Naesen hasn’t finished lower than eighth in any edition since 2017, during which time Van Aert has won once and been on the podium twice), this could be the race where they finally deliver a spring classic win for Ag2r Citroen.
And keep an eye out for Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-PremierTech), who has gone off the radar since missing recent races with illness, but always tends to be involved in these key cobbled classics.
PIDCOCK ABSENCE OPENS A POWER VACUUM AT INEOS GRENADIERS
Ongoing stomach problems for star man Tom Pidcock has complicated Ineos Grenadiers spring campaign, opening up a space for the squad’s other riders to potentially lead the classics squad, starting with the E3 SaxoBank Classic.
As a reliable performer and winner of last year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, Dylan Van Baarle seems the man most likely, and should be in the mix for a race he placed seventh at last year.
A more outside-the-box option would be Ecuadorian Jhonatan Narvaez, but the way he rode at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (where he was part of the three-man group only caught on the finishing straight) and Strade Bianche (where he finished sixth) was mightily impressive
Also riding for Ineos on Friday will be veteran Brits Luke Rowe (riding his seventh E3 SaxoBank for the team) and Ben Swift, and their much younger compatriot Ben Turner, who also looks like a star for the future — but perhaps isn’t ready to lead just yet.
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