The E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, the second race of Flemish Cycling Week, is an excellent barometer for who will be strong for the April 6th Tour of Flanders. Many of the favorites for De Ronde will line up for the E3, including Tom Boonen, who won the event last year, for the fourth year in a row. The E3 features 12 hellingen, and some of them are the same as those used in the Ronde. Of the 12 climbs, six are cobbled, including the 12.5% average gradient Paterberg climb, 38 kilometers from the finish line.
A fans eye view of the E3 Prijs from several different locations on the race course. Poor Paolo Bettini, who suffers a mechanical while trying to keep pace
As in any hilly, cobbled classic, the strongest rider usually wins. On a flat stage in a race like Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice, a weaker rider can win if he conserves his energy and waits until the finish to make his move. In the E3, if you're not strong, you get dropped by those that are stronger. Tactics are as important as in any race, but a rider needs good form and good tactics to win. Perhaps that is why Paolo Bettini, realizing that his form isn't good enough to stay with the strongest riders, has decided to skip all of the cobbled classics this year. "The Cricket" will return for sure, but not until later in the spring at the hilly Wallonian classics.The Paterberg climb is as steep as 20% at one point, with an average of 12.5%
Besides Boonen, there are several riders to watch in the quest for the semi-classic win. Leif Hoste, perennial second fiddle in the Ronde, will hope for a win in the E3 Prijs to boost his morale ahead of Flanders. "Tony Sparticus," Fabian Cancellara, finished second last year and is always a threat in a cobbled race, especially considering his early spring thus far. Alessandro Ballan will be active after finishing 2nd in the Monte Paschi Eroica, Phillipo Pozzato will hope to make up for his near miss at last weekend's Milan-San Remo where he finished second, and Nico Eeckhout, third place in yesterday's Dwars door Vlaanderen, will try to make it to the top step of the podium for his continental Topsport Vlaanderen team.
1972 winner Hubert Hutsebaut beats the world champion, the great Eddy Merckx. The E3 was one of the few one day Belgian classics that Merckx never won.
Darkhorses for the win include Marcel Sieberg, who was 2nd at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in 2007 and is riding in 2008 for the High Road team. Vladimir Gusev, regaining his form after breaking his collar bone in the Tour of California, is a cobbles-style rider when healthy, and Thor Hushovd, though not a climber, has always maintained that he wanted to become a contender in the cobbled classics. Juan Antonio Flecha, the classics pride of Spain, will be in contention like he always is in the Flemish Cycling Week races. Finally, Flecha's teammate Oscar Friere, though a bit fragile, is a decent climber with a vicious finishing kick. He is riding well after the recent Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo races, and if he can hang on during the climbs, he could emerge victorious if the race finishes in a sprint.
Boonen will hope to add a thumb to his salute in 2008, making five straight victories for the famous Belgian in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen
Weather for the day calls for mostly cloudy skies after a night of rain and wind. Muddy conditions could well be present out on the course, lending another level of difficulty to the already though course. The parcours of the E3 will continue the build up to the most important race of Flemish Cycling Week, the Tour of Flanders. Riders will be keen to try their luck in the E3, to put the peloton and the cycling world on notice regarding who should be considered the real favorites for the Ronde. On with the cobble classics!