The E3 Saxo Classic on Friday was truly a classic, with a podium for the ages - a final trio of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) having seven monuments between them, and two Grand Tour wins.
It really did look like a dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders, a week on Sunday, with the big three going clear on the Oude Kwaremont. In fact, if you ignored Van Aert, the eventual winner, it was the decisive move of last year's Flanders, which was won by Van der Poel.
It seems crass to talk about the next big thing in the aftermath of a truly brilliant race, as E3 was, but Flanders is what is at the top of everyone's minds.
As Van der Poel put it in his post-race interview: "In the end Wout van Aert was too strong in the sprint but I can live with second place and hopefully next week I can turn things around."
Pogačar echoed this: " I hope things will be different next week. I'll go home and do some good training, it's just a week to Flanders."
E3 is the beginning of a quartet of races that ends with the glory of Flanders: Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, then the Ronde next Sunday. However, this will be the last time that the big three face each other until they line up in Antwerp on the 2 April, so it was time well spent for all of them on what they could learn ahead of time.
Here's what the trio need to do to win big in Oudenaarde.
Wout van Aert
Wout van Aert will be hoping the hangover from his win on Friday is non-existent, as he heads straight into Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday before the big race a week after.
This time last year, he was in a similar position, having won E3 that time, but Covid prevented him from taking to the start line of Flanders, hampering his team's chances massively. Thinking back to a sombre pre-Flanders press conference attended by Christophe Laporte and Tiesj Benoot, one could see that with Van Aert's absence, Jumbo-Visma's plans had been shattered.
At E3, Van Aert was a different rider to the one he was in 2022, following, rather than initiating moves. Whenever Van der Poel took off, it was he that was there, but often he didn't follow through and pull, in the knowledge of overwhelming team numbers behind.
When the leading trio was eventually established, it was Van Aert who looked the most likely to be dropped, almost heading backwards on the Oude Kwaremont; a motorbike crash might have slowed Pogačar's surge in that moment and saved the race for the Belgian.
Van der Poel was the aggressor, and Pogačar tried to drop the pair, but Van Aert was able to cling onto the coattails of his rivals, in the knowledge of his superior sprint. Unlike at Flanders in 2020, this is exactly what transpired against his great Dutch peer, as he kicked past both Pogačar and Van der Poel to the line.
It might not come so easy at Flanders, with the other teams wise to his tactical approach. However, Jumbo have the strength in depth to play different options: Dylan van Baarle, winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was largely absent on Friday, as was Tiesj Benoot, winner of Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, with both leaving the race early. Christophe Laporte was active, as was Nathan van Hooydonck, and with Van Aert as the trump card, Jumbo-Visma will feel pretty secure going into the race.
As long as Van Aert can cling onto Van der Poel and Pogačar at their most explosive, he will be the favourite; his whole season looks like it is pointing to this point.
Mathieu van der Poel
As Mathieu van der Poel attacked again and again off the front on Friday, he looked like the strongest man in the race, as he had been at Milan-San Remo a week previously. However, unlike on the Poggio, he simply could not make his trademark powerful move to take the race away from his rivals.
The Dutchman's problem was that he could not shake off Van Aert, who had the beating of him in the sprint in Harelbeke. However, this might all be different at Flanders in nine days time, with the longer course perhaps working in Van der Poel's favour. This was definitely the case in 2020, when he beat his Belgian rival in a two-up sprint at the end of the race.
His Alpecin-Deceuninck squad looked strong, with Søren Kragh Andersen and Dries De Bondt looking like the perfect foils, he just has to make an attack that properly counts.
It would not be surprising if he was keeping his powder slightly dry for the big event. After all, he is a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders, so he knows how to taste victory in Oudenaarde. It could simply be that his sprint at the end of a 270km race is relatively better than one at the end of 200km.
Tadej Pogačar: Grand Tour champion, master of general classification, and cobbled Classic natural.
This is how it seems, anyway, with the Slovenian looking adept at his first try at E3, and just his third Belgian Classic ever, after Dwars and Flanders last year. Pogačar can certainly make the front group of the race, he is too good not too. He even came back from some iffy positioning earlier in the race to challenge at the very end.
His problem comes at the end, with any group he comes to the finish with likely to have a faster finisher in it, as he found with Van der Poel at Flanders last year, and with the same rider, plus Van Aert, at E3.
Instead of hanging on until the end, Pogačar might have to do something pretty ridiculous in order to make it to the finish alone. Like at Strade Bianche in 2022, when he attacked with 50km to go, the UAE Team Emirates rider might find that going from incredibly far out is his best chance of victory, as Philippe Gilbert did in 2017. You would not put it past him.
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