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Likened to being a mini version of the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Saxo Bank Classic is one of the best indicators of how key classics riders are going as the spring racing ramps up.
Last year’s win by Mathieu van der Poel was the first time in decades that a rider won De Ronde without finishing in the top 10 of E3, though that was because he went to Coppi e Bartali in an effort to get more race days in his legs quickly after taking time out due to his niggling back injury.
Despite skipping the Belgian race, Van der Poel actually won a stage of the Italian contest on the same day as his rival Wout van Aert rode to victory in Harelbeke. Van der Poel won’t be missing Friday and he comes to the race after winning Milan-San Remo last weekend.
- E3 Saxo Bank: Flanders Week kicks off with clash of cobble titans
- Wout van Aert quickly pivots to Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix
- #RIP Milan-San Remo: The ‘sprinter’s classic’ is no longer a sprinter’s race
More often than not, a rider that is unable to hit the heights at E3 will not have time to develop the form they need to win in Flanders.
VeloNews has selected five riders who look most likely fill out the top spots in Harelbeke on Friday.
Mathieu van der Poel
E3 debut: 2021
Best result: 3rd
It would be rude not to start with Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutchman had a slow start to his road season after winning his fifth elite world cyclocross title back in January, but he is firing on all cylinders now. On his way to victory at Milan-San Remo, Van der Poel looked to be in his comfort zone as he clung onto the coattails of the attacking Tadej Pogačar before he distanced everybody on the descent.
His morale will be seriously boosted by the performance and it makes him the clear favorite at E3 Harelbeke. Van der Poel has only ridden the E3 Saxo Bank Classic once before in his career during his 2021 classics campaign. On that occasion, he finished third at E3 and went on to finish second at the Tour of Flanders.
E3 debut: 2022
Best result: 5th
Biniam Girmay announced himself as a serious classics contender with his E3 debut last season. The Eritrean had already shown some serious promise with his silver medal in the U23 road race at the world championship in Flanders the year before, but this was at a different level. What made his performance even more impressive was that he had never even seen the course before, something that came as a surprise for his rivals.
He would quickly follow his fifth-place finish with a win at Gent-Wevelgem. A year on, Girmay knows his way around Belgium much better, but his rivals also know more about him. It will be interesting to see how well he can back up his 2022 ride, but he is certainly a favorite.
Wout van Aert
E3 debut: 2019
Best result: 1st
Like his long-time rival Van der Poel, Wout van Aert has less than a handful of appearances at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, but his record at the race has been consistently strong. He finished second on his first try, while 11th on his second attempt is so far his worst performance. Last year, just his third ride at the Belgian race, he took an emphatic victory as he and his teammate Christophe Laporte rode away from the rest of the pack.
Van Aert will be somewhat frustrated coming into the race, having finished third at Milan-San Remo last weekend after making it into the race-winning move. E3 will be a chance to reassert his authority on the classics on his home turf. He will be hoping for some better post-race luck compared to last year after he was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly before the Tour of Flanders.
E3 debut: 2023
Best result: N/A
Surprisingly, this year will be Julian Alaphilippe’s first-ever appearance at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic after choosing not to ride it in the build-up to his two previous tilts at the Tour of Flanders. After skipping the cobbles in their entirety last year, Alaphilippe is back and looking to finally convert his performances into success.
With De Ronde the main goal of his spring, it makes sense to put E3 on his calendar, in addition to his second appearance at Dwars door Vlaanderen next week. The “mini-Flanders” will give the Frenchman a chance to hone his cobbles craft before the big day. After a very difficult 2022 beset by injuries, Alaphilippe has had a solid — if unimpressive — start to the year but his form is still moving in the right direction, and he should be a factor Friday.
E3 debut: 2023
Best result: N/A
All eyes will be on Tadej Pogačar when he lines up in Harelbeke on Friday morning. The Slovenian showed last season that he is a dab hand at the cobbles, finishing fourth with a strong ride at the Tour of Flanders. Realistically, he could well have won the race over Mathieu van der Poel, but he made a rare error in the finale.
The Slovenian is coming back this year and is putting in the hard yards in the build-up to De Ronde by making his debut at E3. If his Flanders performance is anything to go by last year, he should take to the E3 cobbles like a duck to water. Pogačar has dominated nearly every day of racing he has started this season and Milan-San Remo last week was another rare moment when his efforts didn’t result in the victory.