Riders fine tune Tour of Flanders preparation
There have already been cobbled Classics this season, but it’s only now, with less than two weeks to go until the Tour of Flanders, that the cobbled classics season really gets going.
Starting with the Three Days of De Panne on Wednesday the Flemish races come thick and fast, with E3 Harelbeke on Friday and Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday the headline events prior to the Ronde.
>>> E3 Harelbeke 2018 start list
Many riders consider the Tour of Flanders as the single most important event of the season, so for them it is essential that good form is established going into the big day.
Their best bet at measuring their progress will be at the E3, which, with its very selective route featuring fifteen climbs, including the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, is the race that most closely resembles the Tour of Flanders.
In recent years it’s been a reliable indicator of form - last year, for instance Philippe Gilbert was second here prior to his epic long range solo win at Flanders.
In fact, on only one occasion in the past six years has the winner of the Tour of Flanders preceded that result with a finish any lower than fourth at the E3 Harelbeke.
Ghent-Wevelgem’s unique characteristics
In contrast to the E3, there has been no correlation recently between success at Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders - aside from Peter Sagan’s double in 2016, no rider who went on to win the Tour of Flanders in the past five years has finished inside the top eight of Ghent-Wevelgem, with Gilbert skipping it altogether last year.
That’s partly because Ghent-Wevelgem is a very different beast to those races, and pretty much any other race on the spring calendar.
On one hand it is a spring Classic pregnant with potential chaos. It’s signature climb, the Kemmelberg, can produce drama on either of its two passes 75km and 34km from the finish, both on its ascent as well as its infamously treacherous descent.
Crosswinds can have a significant impact too, as was the case during a truly epic edition in 2015, while the addition last year of three brief dirt road sections between 60km and 50km from the finish adds another level of unpredictability to the race.
On the other hand, it is also a race that can simply culminate in a large sprint.
A long stretch of flat after the last ascent of the Kemmelberg provides ample time for the peloton to catch any attackers and force a bunch sprint, as was the case in the 2015, 2012 and 2011 editions.
That encourages a lot of top sprinters to ride, which this year includes Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Emirates) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb).
Any one could be a winner if the conditions favour conservative racing.
A tougher women’s Ghent-Wevelgem
The women’s Ghent-Wevelgem is also seen as a vital precursor to the Tour of Flanders, although it, too, has a poor record predicting how the latter race will shape-up - last year Coryn Rivera became only the second rider to finish in the top three of both since Ghent-Wevelgem was first held in 2012.
Last year’s race was also unusual in that it ended with such a large group making it together to contest the finish, in a sprint won by Lotta Lepisto. Usually the two laps featuring the Kemmelberg and Montaburg climbs are enough to ensure breakaways, weather in the form of a group or a solo rider, to be successful.
The introduction the dirt roads first seen in the men’s race last year, as well as an additional ascent of the Baneberg, should spice things up enough to swing things back into the attackers’ favour.
Therefore, although the full start list is yet to be confirmed, it seems safe to assume that the likes of world champion and 2016 winner Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans), the on-form Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and the Sunweb trio of Rivera, Lucinda Brand and Ellen van Dijk will all by vying for victory.
Classics elite threatened by younger generation
So far it’s been a relatively quiet season for the three established superstars of classics racing in the men’s peloton, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).
Between them the trio have won just three races in total so far this year, with all of them looking somewhat off their best form.
Instead, younger riders have been stealing the headlines - Michael Valgren (Astana) was the surprise winner at the season opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, while Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) demonstrated his spectacular talent to win Strade Bianche.
Along with the likes of Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), they’re part of a new generation of Classics specialists that has been emerging steadily over the past few years, without yet reaching the level of the aforementioned trio.
Both Ghent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke will be an intriguing litmus test as to whether any of them are ready to topple the old guard.
Sky leadership up for grabs
With Michal Kwiatkowski opting to ride neither the E3 nor Ghent-Wevelgem, it remains unclear which Sky rider will emerge as team leader at both races.
Although Ian Stannard has been allocated the number ending in ‘1’ to indicate team leader, he has yet to show any real form all season to suggest he is capable of winning either race. Łukasz Wiśniowski, on the other hand, starred at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to finish second, but lacks the Briton’s established pedigree.
Then there’s Gianni Moscon and Dylan Van Baarle to consider, both of whom have ridden well in domestique roles this season, and have been building their form ahead of this run of cobbled Classics.
Sky have a wealth of options, but none make for an outstanding candidate heading into these races. The road will ultimately have to decide.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.
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