by Fabio Valente
The little Tour of Flanders, as the E3 Harelbeke is known, marks the beginning of one of the most exciting weeks of the cycling season, which includes also Gent-Wevelgem, Dwaars door Vlanderen and Paris- Roubaix. The race, whose first edition dates back to 1958, takes place on the last Friday of March and takes its nickname from the similarities it has with Ronde van Vlaanderen: both are pavè classics and share the same little roads up the Flanders to cover a route of more than 200 kms. After a belgian domination (20 wins in the first 20 editions), the race has opened also to foreign winners; in spite of this, belgian champion Tom Boonen still holds the record for most wins there, with 5. Filippo Pozzato, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Michal Kwiatkowski and Geraint Thomas are the only active riders to have won an edition of E3 Harelbeke.
Not having seen much changes since its first edition, the E3 Harelbeke route has its start and finish in Harelbeke. The 61st edition of the race will be a 206.5 km long one, with 15 climbs to be faced, most of them coming in the second half of the race. The organizers’ choice looks to be an interesting one to make the race a hot one with chances of late attacks coming often in the last parte of the race. The first true and tough obstacle will come with 72 kms to go and its name is Taaienberg: 650 metres on cobble, with an average gradient of 9.5% and an highest one of 18% are a chance to shape the peloton, even if still far from the finish line. The riders will then have to deal with a hellish section which consists of Boigneberg, Eikenberg, Stationsberg and Kapelberg before facing the two beasts named Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont: a tough combo which reaches gradients of 20% on tricky, uneven cobblestones. The race, here, is in its crucial point. Two almost innocuous climbs come next, after 20 or so kms of flat terrrain to the finish line in Harelbeke. The race will explode in the Paterberg-Oude Kwaremont section, if you ask me.
You know, we will have that kind of Flanders weather: cold and light rain. Temperatures will hardly rise over 3-4 °C while rain drops will be present since the early morning, making the cobbles sections some slippery and dangerous ones. Rain should end before the end of the race but still its action will affect also the roads in the second part of the route. Given the amount of twist and turns, riders will find head, tail and crosswind but none of them should be a key element in the plot of the race.
Team strenghth and contenders (prices from bet365)
It may look as a battle between two contenders, with some secondary riders trying to play their chances in the right moment, but I don’t think the Sagan-GVA duo will be so dominant in this race. Both start E3 Harelbeke as the biggest favourites but lots of outsiders and strong classics riders will try to ruin their fight. Starting from last year winner, Greg Van Avermaet (8/1), I would say he is not in his best shape coming into Harelbeke. He disappointed a lot in Omloop, KBK, Strade Bianche and Milano Sanremo, not finishing any of them in the top15. Maybe E3 will be a different story, but I’m not too confident in a win for him. Team BMC can have minor chances with Jurgen Roelandts (80/1), Stefen Kung (100/1) and Alberto Bettiol (125/1).
About Peter Sagan, the world champion riding for Bora-Hansgrohe is odds’ favourite at 5/2, after some good but not too convincing performances in Strade Bianche and Milano Sanremo (both top10). He knows this race very well, ending in 2nd place in 2016, and as always he will race for the win. He misses Oss and Burghardt in the team, which would be a huge problem for almost everyone, but not for him. After his tactical errors in Strade Bianche, he will be ready to jump on every move on Friday, or maybe attacking himself on some of the toughest cobble sectors and climbs.
After winning all five belgian races so far in 2018, Team Quick-Step starts this E3 Harelbeke with all eyes on, even more if looking at their line up, which includes at least four riders capable of winning the race. I’m talking about Philippe Gilbert (16/1, 2nd at Le Samyn this year and 2nd in E3 last year), Niki Terpstra (25/1 and winner at Le Samyn), Zdenek Stybar (25/1 and has showed good legs so far) and Yves Lampaert (40/1). Again, all will be decided by Quick Step’s tactical choices: they have the right cards to take home this one too, will they be able to?
Third on the finish line in Harelbeke last year, Oliver Naesen (16/1) will lead the AG2R Team on Friday. The belgian champ has not had the best start of 2018, but his targets come now, starting from E3 Harelbeke. He will enjoy the support of powerful riders like Vandenbergh, Bagdonas and Gougeard, all here to help their only captain. If he follows the right move, he has a chance to steal a win, even if not the fastest in a little group sprint.
Team Lotto Soudal comes to Harelbeke with an all-belgian team, whose most shining diamond is without doubt Tiesj Benoot (10/1): the fresh winner of Strade Bianche is on an amazing form and bookies know it. Finding a move like the one he did in Siena will be almost impossible tomorrow, but I’m sure Tiesj will be up there. Lotto can rely also on Jens Keukeleire (50/1), whose form is a bit unknown though after his crash in Milano-Sanremo.
When talking abour belgian races and cobblestones, there is a man you can never miss between the favourite ones: Sep Vanmarcke (10/1). The Drapac-Education First captain rides on cobbles like we walk on an even, flat road but his proverbial bad luck often kept him away from winning big races. Since I started following cycling I have seen Sep starting races as one of the favourites and ending them rounding the podium or lying in the grass after an unlucky crash. That’s life, but I think we will see him fighting for the win also in this 61st edition of E3.
Two great horses lined up by the Astana Team are Michael Valgren (40/1) and Alexey Lutsenko (50/1). The dane, winner of this year Omloop, will try to carry his great form into Harelbeke, maybe looking for another long-range move to surprise the favourite ones. Lutsenko instead could look to me capable of following the powerful moves of Sagan and the others: I would not be surprised to see him riding a smart race and ending with a top result in Harelbeke.
Good chances for a top result stand also for Team Mitchelton Scott, which lines up among others Matteo Trentin (16/1) and Luke Durbridge (50/1). The italian is their best card as he is fast in a sprint and also a very good climber: only question is his form, as he comes to Harelbeke with about no good results in this first part of 2018. Durbridge, after his injury in January, is recovering pretty well and was very lively in De Panne too, but I don’t think he will repeat or better his 4th place in Harelbeke of 2017.
Even if not lining up his strongest team, Team SKY has the cards to ride this race as a protagonist. Both Ian Stannard (66/1), whose form is unknown to me though, and Gianni Moscon (28/1) look great for a race like E3 Harelbeke. Moreover, the brit team has Dylan Van Baarle (40/1), who showed how much he likes this kind of races last year, with Cannondale: the dutch could be an interesting man for an attack in the second half of the race. Still, the best option for a good result for SKY is Moscon to me, who could even try a solo attack bringing with himself a little group of riders into the finish line.
Team Sunweb has Michael Matthews (33/1) but I fear the lack of racing this year will be a key factor for the aussie, who starts just his 3rd race of 2018 here in Harelbeke. Same could be said for John Degenkolb, for Trek-Segafredo (50/1): the german said on socials he is more than confident for this race, but his recent results say the very opposite. Trek will probably play the Jasper Stuyven card (16/1) and I think it will be the correct choice: the belgian has all is needed to win a race like E3: form, power, climbing ability and bravery.
About other teams, Bahrein Merida said Sonny Colbrelli (18/1) will be their leader but they will try something with Heinrich Haussler (80/1) too. Both can aim for a good result, even if in different scenarios (a sprint or a bunch move for Sonny, a little group or solo attack for Haussler). Team UAE Emirates has Alexander Kristoff (40/1) as their captain but I don’t think he stands great chances for a win tomorrow: he will hardly keep the pace of the attacks and his hopes will rely on a bunch sprint on the finish line. Team Groupama FDJ will start with almost a single card in Arnaud Demare (40/1): even if the french started 2018 pretty well and can deal with cobbles, I think an hard race will exclude him from fighting for the win. Only a not very likely end in a big sprint could give him great chances.
From Continental Teams, I would like to spot the names of Alex Kirsch (Veranclassic, 350/1), Pim Lightart (Roompot, 150/1), Yoann Offredo (Wanty Gobert, 200/1), Bryan Coqard (Vital Concept, 100/1), Adrien Petit (Direct Energie, 150/1),
I think we will see a small group of a few riders contending the win in Harelbeke after escaping from the peloton, or what is left of it, on the last climbs of the race. These riders will then go into a full TT mode to preserve their lead in the last 20 flat kms. I will avoid the Sagan-GVA duo as I will try to find value elsewhere. My picks are Sep Vanmarcke EW at 10/1, Gianni Moscon EW at 28/1 and Zdenek Stybar EW at 25/1. Adding a bit of Matteo Trentin EW at 18/1 just in case of a sort of sprint. Outside bets: Alexey Lutsenko EW at 50/1 and Heinrich Haussler EW at 80/1.
Thanks for reading!