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E3 Harelbeke is best barometer for northern monuments

Friday's race will be telling in terms of who fares well in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

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If you’re making bets for the upcoming northern monuments, wait until the conclusion of Friday’s E3 Harelbeke before putting down your wager.

“After Friday, you know more about your own team and the true contenders,” said EF Education First–Drapac sport director Andreas Klier. “It’s a difficult parcours. There is no place to hide at Harelbeke.”

The 61st edition of the so-called “Little Tour of Flanders” officially opens Flanders week, and has emerged as one of the most important races not only to win, but to measure form going into the much bigger prizes at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. [related title=”More on E3 Harelbeke” align=”left” tag=”E3-Harelbeke”]

The 206-kilometer route features 15 bergs on a course that traces much of the same terrain the peloton will see next weekend at Ronde van Vlaanderen. A strong performance Friday bodes well for the remainder of Flanders week.

After some early season hints of who’s on form, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in late February, and a string of other one-day races across Belgium, all the favorites are hitting their peak form. Everyone knows it’s time to step up and perform.

“My entire season is measured in five or six races,” said Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Oliver Naesen, who was third in last year’s Harelbeke. “If I do not perform well in March and April, no one will be happy with me.”

A victory Friday doesn’t necessarily translate to success a week later at the Ronde, but Harelbeke is the best indicator of who is strong, who is peaking at the right time, and who might be misfiring. Teams also use Harelbeke to hone their selection for the upcoming monuments, and will often swap out riders between Harelbeke and Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem to select the strongest starters for Flanders the following weekend.

“Harelbeke is an honest race,” Klier said. “Everyone is racing at the maximum. You will be able to see who is the strongest and which teams will be ready to win Flanders.”

Whoever is flying at Harelbeke is clearly on top form at the right time, and it serves as a harbinger of what lies in store over the next 10 days of racing. Last year, Naesen announced his intentions with a big attack on the Oude Kwaremont with 40km to go, drawing out Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors). Gilbert later won Flanders with a similar long-distance move, while Van Avermaet, who crashed while chasing at Flanders along with Naesen and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), went on to win Roubaix.

“If you are not in top form [by Harelbeke], you’re not going to win Flanders,” Naesen said. “I’ve been training hard since November to be ready for these big dates on the calendar. Everyone is at their peak, or at least that is the hope.”

This year’s Harelbeke could even be more important in trying to read the tealeaves before Flanders and Roubaix. So far, the 2018 classics season has been fairly well distributed, suggesting that one rider is not poised to break out and dominate, such as Van Avermaet in 2017. Sagan has looked strong, but he has yet to win a big race in Europe. Van Avermaet has been even more discreet.

Quick-Step has been sublime in warm-up races across Belgium, winning La Samyn, Dwars door West-Vlaanderen, Nokere Koerse, Handzame Classic and Driedaagse Bruges-De Panne. Gilbert has been a key factor, but has yet to win a race.

Relative newcomers won the Belgian openers, with Michael Valgren (Astana) taking Omloop and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) winning KBK. Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) took an overdue win at Strade Bianche, while Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who is starting Flanders next week, registered an emotional victory at Milano-Sanremo.

There’s parity across the peloton that reveals just how deep the classics have become. They’re no longer the realms of just two or three top Belgian teams.

“The classics are much more professional today than 15 years ago,” Klier said. “I don’t think there will be a single rider starting Friday who hasn’t trained 100 percent. Everything is at the maximum in terms of preparation. These races are ridden more professional, and they are even more brutal.”

That’s not to say that E3 Harelbeke is simply a dress rehearsal. The race has emerged as one of the most important prizes for classics riders, slotting in just behind Flanders and Roubaix in importance. Tom Boonen holds the record with five wins, while Sky won the previous two editions, with Michal Kwiatkowski in 2016 and Geraint Thomas in 2015. Sagan won in 2014.

“Of course, you want to win Harelbeke and all the big classics,” Naesen said. “It is not just up to me to decide.”

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