E3 Saxo Bank: Flanders Week kicks off with clash of cobble titans

Route details and the favorites who will spice up the 'Little Tour of Flanders.'

Photo: Chris Auld/VeloNews

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65th E3 Saxo Bank Classic
When: Friday, March 24
Distance: 204.1km
Where: Harelbeke-Harelbeke
Defending champion: Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)

Flanders Week opens Friday with E3 Saxo Bank Classic in what’s one of the juiciest targets for the cobble-eaters in the elite men’s peloton.

The preambles are over. It’s showtime, with Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel lining up to take on Tadej Pogačar, Soudal Quick-Step, Trek-Segafredo, and Ineos Grenadiers for supremacy over the Flemish cobbles.

First raced in 1958, E3 Saxo Bank Classic is a unique race in that it’s not quite monument status or distance, but it’s emerged as one of the crown jewels on the calendar among the elite club of classics specialists.

Success Friday bodes well for the upcoming races, and stands alone on the merit of the difficulty of the race.

Also read: Wout van Aert barrels to 2022 E3 Saxo Bank Classic victory

Its palmarès are packed with a who’s who of legendary classics riders, and success on the narrow, twisting roads and rough pavé sectors is a harbinger of success in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.

Dubbed the “Little Tour of Flanders,” Harelbeke stands on its own as one of the marquee races on the calendar.

Friday opens the hallowed “Flanders Week” that also includes Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, next week’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, and is capped with De Ronde on April 2.

What to expect Friday? There are plenty of threads to follow.

Battle for pavé supremacy

In the gutter in 2022, with Van Aert leading the way. (Photo: Chris Auld/VeloNews)

Since the race is littered with decisive cobbled sectors featured in De Ronde, Harelbeke is one of the most prestigious races on the calendar. Some rank it above Gent-Wevelgem, though that race is notably more challenging now that it’s at monument distance.

After a few weeks of preludes and warmups, E3 is as real as it gets. All the big names will be at full strength in a quest for victory.

There will be a tug-of-war at both the individual level as well as among the teams.

Soudal Quick-Step will be out to prove it’s still king of the cobbles despite being outgunned lately by the rise of such teams as Jumbo-Visma and Trek-Segafredo.

Ineos Grenadiers will be punching above its weight with a team loaded with young guns, and there are another dozen teams with legitimate winners on their respective rosters.

Also read: Jumbo-Visma takes page from Quick-Step tactical book

The stellar lineup sees another popcorn-munching moment with Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tadej Pogačar lighting up the bergs.

Last weekend’s Milan-San Remo provided a telling preview of what lies in store for Friday.

Expect all three to go on the offensive to try to create a selection. With Pogačar racing for the first time, cycling’s most disruptive rider could rewire the Harelbeke playbook if he can handle the nervous battle for position on the narrow farm roads that feature so prominently at Harelbeke.

It’s the last chance saloon for a lot of riders, including Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmaercke, Alexander Kristoff, Zdenek Stybar, and John Degenkolb.

Only Sagan is officially retiring at the end of this season, but many of the experienced veterans will be out to prove they can still light up the bergs.

A new generation of riders, such as Biniam Girmay, Magnus Sheffield, Filippo Ganna, Stefan Küng, Matteo Jorgenson, and Jordi Meeus is out to prove they deserve a spot at the table.

Narrow roads, unrelenting bergs

Van Aert celebrates victory in 2022. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Harelbeke is often called the “Little Tour of Flanders” for good reason.

Though it’s not a monument distance of more than 250km, the race at 204.1km still stings. Wind and rain are always a factor, and the string of narrow farm roads leading to the key climbs is a trademark of the race.

Positioning is key for any of the classics, but Harelbeke’s route can see splits opening up simply because there isn’t enough pavement for everyone to squeeze through.

The 2023 route follows a familiar blueprint There are 17 climbs and five cobbled sectors, enough to present a real challenge to the world’s best classics specialists.

The Katteberg softens up the legs in what’s the first obstacle in the opening hour or so of racing, with the La Houppe and Kanarieberg lined up next to put everyone on edge.

The back half of the race is stacked up with a string of challenging hills and cobbles. It’s one after another, with Oude Kruisberg, Knokteberg, Hotondberg, Kortekeer, Taaienberg, Berg ten Stene, Boigneberg, Eikenberg, and Stationberg providing the rollercoaster ride.

Following a cobbled sector, the Kapelberg and the one-two Flanders punch of Paterberg/Oude Kwaremont are set up as race-breakers. That’s where the race was decided in 2022, and everyone will be fighting to be on the right wheels.

Tiegemberg with about 20km to go is the final obstacle for the mostly flat and fast run back toward Harelbeke, where a massive crowd is waiting to celebrate the winner.

The profile of the E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

Weather: Rain and wind in forecast

Forecasters are calling for typical Belgian spring weather.

The highs will be in the mid-50Fs (13C) with southwest winds from 15 to 25mph. There’s an 80 percent chance of rain for afternoon showers. Wind, rain, and cool weather, what’s not to love?

North Americans: Six starters

Magnus Sheffield, right, is back for another run at the classics. (Photo: Chris Auld/VeloNews)

There are six North Americans making the start, with three Canadians and three U.S. riders.

Magnus Sheffield lines up for Ineos Grenadiers, and he’ll be looking to confirm his spectacular classics debut in 2022. Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) makes his E3 debut and Kevin Vermaercke returns for Team DSM.

Hugo Houle lines up for Israel Premier Tech, with Derek Gee making his debut. Nickolas Zukowsky also debuts with Q36.5 Pro Cycling.

How to watch: Live streams

The race starts at 12h15 CET and is expected to finish about 17h00 CET.

Eurosport will broadcast the race live across its base. GCN+ will have live feeds.

Race organizers are also posting live updates on Twitter, and Het Nieuwsblad will have a live ticker.

Favorites for E3 Saxo Bank Classic

***** Van Aert, Van der Poel
**** Pedersen, Pogačar, Van Baarle
*** Asgreen, Girmay, Mohorič, Küng
** Alaphilippe, Bettiol, Meuss, Stuyven, Turgis
* Benoot, Jorgenson, Madouas, Sheffield

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