Held just nine days before the former and 16 before latter, classics specialists use the E3 to fine tune their preparations and strike a psychological blow to their rivals.
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That’s exactly what Fabian Cancellara did back in 2013, when he attacked alone with 35km and went on to win by over a minute over the rest of the field for his first victory of the season, before going on to put in similarly dominant performances to win the Flanders-Roubaix double.
And this isn’t the only time the E3 has in recent years functioned as a springboard to win both cobbled monuments; in fact, in four of the past 10 years the same rider has won all three races. Unsurprisingly, it’s the two greats of this era that are the cause for this striking statistic – Tom Boonen in 2005 and 2012 and Fabian Cancellara in 2010 as well as 2013. Boonen misses out this year due to injury, so all eyes will instead be on Cancellara – now 34, is he still capable of the destructive performances that have characterised recent springs?
As well as its timing, the E3 also features the kind of parcours riders planning ahead for the monuments are looking for. It is essentially a watered-down Tour of Flanders, with the same roads and climbs used (including the pivotal Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont), but lasting only 215km rather than 264km.
Not that the race is easy – 215km is still a very long distance, and there are 17 climbs in total. By the time the final climb is reached (the Tigemberg, 20km from the finish), only a small sample of the strongest riders will still be in contention.
E3 Harelbeke 2015: Ones to watch
Fabian Cancellara, Trek-Factory Racing
His extraordinary run of four consecutive podium finishes at Milan-San Remo may finally be over, but there’s still evidence (in the form of a time trial victory at the Tirreno-Adriatico) that Cancellara remains as strong as ever. History dictates that he’s favourite for the win.
Sep Vanmarcke, LottoNL-Jumbo
For a while Vanmarcke has looked like Belgium’s next classics star, and with Boonen missing this year’s campaign through injury, this could be his breakthrough year. He’s arguably been the strongest rider over the cobbles this year, but hasn’t a win to his name… yet. The tough nature of the E3 will suit him.
Peter Sagan, Tinkoff-Saxo
Victory last year felt at the time like Sagan confirming his place alongside Cancellara and Boonen as the peloton’s elite classics riders, but he failed to register a top five at both Flanders and Roubaix. He has since failed to rediscover his best form, although has finally ended a 260-day barren spell by winning a stage at the Tirreno-Adriatico. He’ll be eager to build on that here.
Zdenek Stybar, Etixx-QuickStep
In the absence of Boonen, Stybar looks like Etixx’s best bet to lead the classic squad, although they’re bound to use the likes of Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh in attacking roles. Victory at Strade-Bianche confirmed the Czech rider’s class.
Ian Stannard, Sky
The E3 proved to be the beginning of the end for Stannard last year, when a DNF was followed by a serious crash at Ghent-Wevelgem that led to a long spell in the treatment room. If his luck holds up this time round, he’ll be a serious contender, while teammate Geraint Thomas has a good recent record at this race.
Greg Van Avermaet, BMC
The 29-year old has been one of the in-form riders of the spring, but only has one win to show for it (stage three at the Tirreno). The E3 route suits him very well, and he’ll be confident of forcing a selection of one of the many bergs.
E3 Harelbeke 2015: Route
When: Friday, March 27
Category: UCI WorldTour
E3 Harelbeke 2015: The teams
Ag2r La Mondiale
Trek Factory Racing
E3 Harelbeke 2015: TV Guide
British Eurosport will not be broadcasting live coverage, but will air highlights at 16:15.
E3 Harelbeke: Recent winners
2014: Peter Sagan
2013: Fabian Cancellara
2012: Tom Boonen
2011: Fabian Cancellara
2010: Fabian Cancellara
2009: Filippo Pozzato
2008: Kurt Asle Arvesen
2007: Tom Boonen
2006: Tom Boonen
2005: Tom Boonen
E3 Harelbeke: Last year’s top 10 (2014):
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale in 4-56-30
2. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
3. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky
4. Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at same time
5. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Belkin at 1-30
6. Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto-Belisol at same time
7. Borut Bozic (Slo) Astana at 1-40
8. Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Sharp
9. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing
10. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing at same time