Deceuninck-Quick-Step plot to continue winning streak
These days it feels as though the question we should contemplate heading into a spring Classic is not which rider is going to win, but which Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider is going to win.
The Belgian team has somehow been even more dominant this spring that last, with last weekend’s Milan-San Remo victory their fifth Classic victory this month.
All eyes will therefore be on them during Friday’s E3 BinckBank Classic (formerly known as E3 Harelbeke) and Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem, and they’re bringing an intimidatingly strong line-up to both.
For the former, Philippe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Zdenek Stybar all vie for leadership, with Bob Jungels and Florian Sénéchal (who won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Le Samyn respectively) providing potential wildcard options.
Gilbert, Lampaert and Stybar are also due to ride Ghent-Wevelgem, although the rest of the line-up suggests the team are preparing for a sprint finish – Elia Viviani returns to a race he narrowly missed out in last year, with Fabio Jakobsen providing back-up.
Peter Sagan returns to the cobbles
By his lofty standards, it’s been a quiet start to the season for Peter Sagan.
There was an early opening victory in a sprint at the Tour Down Under, but illness subsequently slowed his progress and he was off his best form at Tirreno-Adriatico.
However, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider began to look something like his usual self at Milan-San Remo, where he played a key role in forming the decisive selection on the Poggio and sprinted for fourth place in the finale.
That performance suggests Sagan will be right in the mix for this week’s races, his first appearance in Belgium of the season having skipped the cobbled Classics so far.
There’s a pretty good chance he’ll win one of them, too – in only two seasons since 2013 has he failed to do so, and he is just one Ghent-Wevelgem victory from breaking the all-time record.
E3 BinckBank Classic provides warm up for the Ronde
With the Tour of Flanders just over one week away, the E3 BinckBank Classic is seen as perfect preparation for riders hoping to win the Ronde.
The frequency of difficulty of the cobbled ‘berg’ climbs are comparable, with the likes of Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg featuring in both races – although extra reserves of strength will be required next week, with the Ronde’s route consisting of an added 60km of racing compared with E3’s 204km.
Consequently, there tends to be many correlations between the result here with the Tour of Flanders. Last year Niki Terpstra won both, a double also achieved by the likes of Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem, while on only one occasion has the winner of the Tour of Flanders finished outside of the top four at E3 since 2012.
Expect therefore to see the favourites for the Tour of Flanders come to the fore on Friday, including defending champion Terpstra, 2017 winner Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), the on-form Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) and young talents Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
A sprint likely at Ghent-Wevelgem… or is it?
With its flatter parcours, Ghent-Wevelgem is a race that leans more towards sprinters, reflected in the provisional start list.
As well as Viviani, the likes of Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and 2014 winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), will all join the cobbled specialists in the hope that the race will end with a bunch sprint.
However, there are plenty of complications that could spoil those hopes. For one thing, there’s the race’s length, which, at over 250km, is one of the longest of the season outside of the Monuments.
Then there’s the three brief gravel sections first introduced for the 2017 edition, which, along with the 10 climbs that are tackled – most prominently the horribly steep Kemmelberg, which is climbed twice – can together shatter the race to pieces prior to the flat 35km run-in to the finish.
Added to all this is the threat of the wind. Crosswinds have the potential to wreak havoc in Ghent-Wevelgem, the most spectacular example being the unforgettable 2015 edition, in which fewer than 40 riders finished, with some literally blown off their bike.
There will therefore be plenty for the purer sprinters to worry about, and ample opportunities for the puncheurs and rouleurs to claim victory for themselves.
Stellar field at the Women’s Ghent-Wevelgem
Since being introduced in 2012, the women’s Ghent-Wevelgem has been one of the highlights of the spring, and boasts another stellar line-up for its 2019 edition.
Defending champion Marta Bastianelli (Virtu Cycling) is a good shout for a repeat victory, having been on stellar form this spring with victories at Omloop van het Hageland and Ronde van Drenthe, the latter demonstrating how she does not have to rely on a bunch sprint to win Classics.
Jolien d’Hoore leads the line for Boels-Dolmans, and will be difficult to beat in a sprint. The Belgian has finished second in both the past two editions, and will be eager to at finally win a race so well suited to her attributes.
Others to watch include Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv), who claimed her first victory of the season at last weekend’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda; the Sunweb duo of Lucinda Brand and Coryn Rivera; and Trek-Segafredo, who boast an exceptionally multifaceted team with rouleur Ellen van Dijk, puncheur Elisa Longo Borghini and sprinter Lotto Lepisto.