Fabian Cancellara will have circled E3 Harelbeke on his calendar for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s the start of his final cobbled Classics season and he’s got his eyes on some final success before he retires.
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Having won this race three times in his career, Cancellara knows this race like the back of his hand and has already shown he’s in great form heading into the cobbles, having won Strade Bianche and the Tirreno-Adriatico time trial.
Only two riders have won more E3 titles than Cancellara and one of them is his long-time rival Tom Boonen, who’s won this event five times.
Sure, he’s not in the same shape as he was back in 2007 when he won his fourth consecutive title, but write him off at your peril.
Like Cancellara, Boonen missed the cobble season last year after crashing at Paris-Nice so will also be looking to test his form ahead of the Tour of Flanders on April 3.
Peter Sagan didn’t really enjoy this race last year, unable to keep up with eventual winner Geraint Thomas on the final climbs.
His suffering was most likely a one-off last year. Having won the race in 2014, Sagan is more than capable of getting up the hills and over the cobbles.
The world champion is yet to win a race this season, but he definitely wouldn’t mind putting a marker down by winning the Belgian race.
Greg Van Avermaet
Greg Van Avermaet is another rider who didn’t much enjoy his experience in Harelbeke last year, trailing Thomas by 6-44 on the line after a couple of crashes hampered him.
He won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February to break his one-day duck and has been on fine form ever since.
Fifth place in Milan-San Remo was a fantastic performance, as was winning the overall at a reduced Tirreno-Adriatico. Now he’s got the winning mentality it’s hard to see him not competing for the E3 title.
The babyfaced Belgian has been around for quite a long time but has always flown a bit under the radar on his preferred parcours.
Last year, though, Keukeleire finished ninth at E3 – his highest ever finish – and went on to finish sixth in Paris-Roubaix.
The fans around Harelbeke love the Orica-GreenEdge rider, who hails from Bruges, and the 27-year-old will want to repay their support by putting in a good performance on Good Friday.
Alexander Kristoff won the Tour of Flanders in 2015 off the back of a fourth-place finish in Harelbeke. The climbs are similar to (and sometimes the same as) the Ronde, so the Norwegian will hope to get a good recce before trying to retain his Flanders title.
His attack in Flanders with Niki Terpstra shows that he knows the nuances of riding on the Belgian cobbles and his excellent start to the season means he’s right in form for the Northern Classics.
Now that Van Avermaet has got a big one-day win, LottoNL-Jumbo‘s Sep Vanmarcke goes back to being the nearly man in the Classics.
Yes, he won Het Nieuwsblad himself in 2012, but he’s had a whole host of high finishes in the big one day races, including second and fourth in Paris-Roubaix and third at the Tour of Flanders.
He’s not really had the strong build-up to the cobbled season as the likes of Kristoff and Van Avermaet, but he’s a good shout for a top five finish in E3.
Ian Stannard arguably has the hardest job in the race this year, having to step into the shoes of last year’s winner. With Thomas concentrating on stage races, two-time Het Nieuwsblad winner Stannard has his chance to shine in the bigger Classics.
It’s hard to see him winning the race, but then again we said the same of Thomas 12 months ago.
A bit of a wildcard choice, but Daniel Oss was incredibly impressive in both E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem last season, earning him a place as a ‘one to watch’ this year.
The Italian is an absolute powerhouse and a key performer in BMC’s successful team time trial squad. He took advantage of Van Avermaet’s misfortune last year by claiming a 10th-place finish at E3.
He followed it up with eighth in a chaotic Ghent-Wevelgem and 11th in the following week’s Tour of Flanders. If Van Avermaet misses out again, BMC will be confident in Oss as his backup.