Preview: E3 Harelbeke will be a taste of things to come

Friday's 211-kilometer course, dotted with cobbled sections and steep ascents, will tell us a lot about the classics season

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CHICAGO (VN) — We won’t know who will win the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) after Friday’s E3 Harelbeke, but we’ll have a good idea who’s on form and who has monumental aspirations, as the Harelbeke course is a shorter version of the big classic and a traditional proving ground.

At 211 kilometers, Harelbeke isn’t as long as upcoming cobbled races such as Gent-Wevelgem (235.5km) or the Ronde (256km), but it features enough of the region’s infamous steep climbs — many of which are used a week later — to offer shades of relief to the unlimited speculation as to who may be going well headed into Monuments Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

After all, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has won this race a record five times, including last year, which began his spring fling through the classics in which he also claimed victories at Flanders and Roubaix. He’s the all-time wins leader at Harelbeke, ahead of Belgian Rik Van Looy, who won four times between 1964 and 1969. Boonen took four consecutive wins, from 2004-2007.

Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) has also won, in 2010 and 2011. The race is in its second year as a World Tour event.

Looking at the start list and knowing the resumes of its recent winners, this will be a solid beginning to one of the biggest weeks of bike racing on the calendar.

The 56th edition of Harelbeke promises to be a gem. Up-and-comer Peter Sagan (Cannondale) looks to fine-tune his form before his stated goal of a Flanders win. Boonen hopes to regain his magic of last year leading into the bigger races, while Cancellara seeks to atone for the opportunities lost due to a broken collarbone sustained last year at Flanders.

The course begins in Harelbeke’s Grote Market and heads east for about 100km of flat roads, with cobbled sectors sprinkled in. The race begins to sharpen after the town of Brakel, with a flurry of short and steep bergs. Many of those uphill sections will reappear the following week at Flanders.

There are 12 “hills” on the course, which could certainly spring a winning group. The Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont are on the docket, and can easily splinter a group: the Paterberg is 500m of cobbled pain, at 12.5 percent gradient, and the longer Kwaremont — cobbled for 1500m of its 2200m — averages about five percent. The final climb, the Tiegemberg, comes 13km from the finish in Harelbeke.

Last year, Boonen won in a close sprint over Oscar Freire (Katusha) with Sky’s Bernhard Eisel placing third.

“I am happy,” the big Belgian proclaimed last year after taking the sprint. “I am very happy.”

Knowing what we know now, it’s easy to see why Boonen was happy: He would prove untouchable for the next two weeks, though his stiffest competition was out with a broken collarbone.

Could this year see a similar result, as Boonen looks to get back on track? Could Eisel make good on the Sky dedication to its classics riders, sparing them the early season stage races in favor of a training camp on Tenerife?

Will Sagan move on from his second-place finish at a frozen Milano-Sanremo last Sunday and inch closer to his first Monument? And what of Cancellara, who tore through this race in 2010 to win by a minute, solo? Is either of BMC Racing’s stars ready to deliver at Harelbeke?

Only time, and the cobbles of course, will tell. Friday will give us a winner, but we’ll learn much more.

Leberg (850m at 15 percent) — 55km

Oude Steenweg (900m at 9.3 percent) — 98km

La Houppe (3440m at 3.3 percent) — 118km

Berg Stene (1560m at 7.3 percent) — 130km

Boigneberg (2180m at 5.8 percent) — 135km

Eikenberg (1200m at 5.5 percent) — 141km

Stationsberg (460m at 3.2 percent) — 145km

Taaienberg (1250m at 9.5 percent) — 149km

Berg Ten Houte (1100m at 6.3 percent) — 152km

Kanarieberg (1100m at 7.7 percent) — 157km

Kapelberg (1260m at 7.1 percent) — 168km

Paterberg (362m at 12 percent) — 172km

Kwaremont (2200m at 4.2 percent) — 175km

Knokteberg (1530m at 5.3 percent) — 184km

Tiegemberg (1000m at 6.5 percent) — 196km

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