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E3 HARELBEKE

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27.03.2015 @ 14:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After yesterday's small appetizer, Dwars door Vlaanderen, tomorrow will be the day when the Belgian classics season kicks off in earnest. With a course similar to the one found a week later in the Tour of Flanders, the WorldTour race E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke has built up a reputation as being the perfect testing ground for the greatest specialists who will go all out for the victory one last time before the real showdown in Vlaanderen's Mooiste. It's time for the big dress rehearsal and to find out who may stand at the top step of the podium in a week's time in Oudenaarde!

 

Many of the classics riders got the chance to reacquaint themselves with the cobbles and the Belgian hellingen when the Dwars door Vlaanderen opened the crucial three-week cobbled classics season but when the next leg of the series takes place tomorrow, there will be much more at stake. While Wednesday's race was a playing ground for the lieutenants and for the riders just below the best, the biggest classics stars will face off in their first big battle in tomorrow's E3 Prijs Vlaanderen.

 

The Belgian race is the second in the series of cobbled races in Belgium that take place over a two-week period from the Wednesday after Milan-Sanremo to the Wednesday after the Tour of Flanders and it is the one that resembles De Ronde the most. Traditionally held around one week ahead of Vlaanderen's Mooiste, it has become the perfect testing ground for the favourites for Vlaanderen's Mooiste.

 

Held for the first time in 1958, it was originally named Harelbeke-Anvers-Harelbeke but took the E3 name from the E3 motorway (now A14) which was built in the mid-sixties. Right from the beginning, it was thought to be a shorter version that mimicked the Tour of Flanders and offered the riders the perfect warm-up for one of the sport's biggest events.

 

Although dominated by Belgians in the early years, it quickly gained a lot of prestige and the list of early winners contains big names like Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy, Freddy Maertens, and Jan Raas. As time has gone by, the race has gained a more international flavour and it has been won by most of the greatest specialists for the cobbled classics. Johan Museeuw, Peter van Petegem, Andrei Tchmil, Tom Boonen, Filippo Pozzato, and Fabian Cancellara are just some of the riders that have won the race within the last 20 years which is a clear indication of the importance of the event.

 

The Flemish races may be divided into two categories. Scheldeprijs, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and Ghent-Wevelgem are races that the sprinters may realistically target and which have a rather predestined format determined by their history and their names.

 

In the second category, the Tour of Flanders, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and E3 are races for the hard men and classics specialists. These are the true Flemish classics as they are designed in the same way. The course map is a complicated affair as the riders zigzag their way through a rather small area in the Flemish Ardennes, heading back and forth and often using the same roads numerous times. All the famous hellingen known from the Tour of Flanders are located in this small area and it is easy for the organizers to make changes from year to year, varying the climbs used for the different editions of the race.

 

Dwars door Vlaanderen falls in between those two categories as it is built much like the one from the second group but may also be won by the sprinters.

 

For many years, E3 was held on the Saturday before the Tour of Flanders where it combined with the Brabantse Pijl to form an important chance to prepare for next Sunday's big event. With the race being built up after the same formula as the Tour of Flanders and featuring many of the same climbs, it has always been an indispensable part of the calendar for every ambitious classics contender and the calendar date has made it a perfect opportunity to go all out one final time ahead of the race that counts the most. This has put the racing at a level that is almost on par with the one in De Ronde and so it was only natural for the UCI to grant the race WorldTour status for the 2012 season.

 

The increased status was given as part of a major reshuffle of the classics calendar that saw the race being moved to Friday while another WorldTour race, Gent-Wevelgem, took over Brabantse Pijl's slot the following Sunday. The two races now combine forces to form a solid block of WorldTour racing on the cobbles that both offer a lot of important points and give the riders the chance to prepare themselves for De Ronde.

 

However, the two races are very different and so are treated very differently by the classics stars. Even though Gent-Wevelgem may historically be number three in the hierarchy of the cobbled races (behind Paris-Robaix and the Tour of Flanders), it takes place in a different part of Belgium and is more suited to the sprinters than the Flanders favourites. Most of them do both races but while they hold something back in Sunday's race - except for a possible test of form on the Kemmelberg - they go all out in the E3 in a quest to go for glory. Gent-Wevelgem may have a lot of prestige but the real dress rehearsal for Flanders takes place tomorrow.

 

The race was long known as Tom Boonen's race. In his heydays from 2004 to 2007, he won four consecutive editions of the Belgian semi-classic. During his turbulent years in 2010 and 2011, he was, however, forced to give away the throne to archrival Fabian Cancellara who used stunning solo performances in those two editions to build up his major favourite role for the Tour of Flanders. In his magic 2012 season, Boonen was back to his best and it seemed only natural for him to add a fifth win in E3 to his almost all-inclusive list of classics victories that year. In 2013, however, Cancellara was back on top and the Swiss now seems to have taken over the dominant position in this race.

 

Last year, however, the Swiss was unable to repeat his win. The defending champion crashed just before the crucial climb of the Paterberg and so was unable to join the action when the quintet of Peter Sagan, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, Geraint Thomas and John Degenkolb attacked. The German was ultimately dropped and Cancellara’s desperate chase never allowed him to get back into contention. Despite repeated attacks from the Omega Pharma-Quick Step pair, it came down to a sprint from the front group and here Sagan used his speed to take what would be his only classics win in 2014, with Terpstra and Thomas completing the podium. Sagan will be back to defend his title and Terpstra and Thomas will both be there to try to do a little bit better than they did 12 months ago.

 

The course

As said, the E3 follows the same format as races like Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the Tour of Flanders, and Dwars door Vlaanderen. With the Tour of Flanders being the exception, all those races have one of the cities in the Flemish Ardennes as their centre and they zigzag their way through the very tiny area of all the famous climbs. They cover several hellingen and pave sections before they return along flat roads to the start and finishing city. The narrow roads, steep climbs, and uncomfortable surface typically turn it into a race for the hardmen as the gradual selection means that only a handful of riders are usually left in contention by the time they return to the start and finish area. Compared to the most recent edition, the distance has been increased from 212 to 215.3km but the number and order of the hellingen is completely unchanged. The difference is made in the end where an extra 3km of flat roads have been added to make room for a finish at the E3 arena. However, the finale is almost identical to what we have seen in the last few years and we can expect the race to unfold in much the same way, with the key points being the same.

 

E3 Prijs Vlaanderen is intimately linked to the city of Harelbeke that acts as its race centre. From the start, the riders head along flat roads in an easterly direction towards the Flemish Ardennes but at it is customary for these classics, the first part of the race is flat. This means that the riders will stay away from the hilly zone as they pass the finishing city of the Tour of Flanders, Oudenaarde, and continue in a northeasterly direction all the way to the city of Burst. After 32km, they will get a chance to test their climbing legs on the Katteberg (600m, 6.7%, max. 8%) and 10km further up the road, they will do the Leberg (700m, 6.1%, max. 14%), with the Holleweg and Haaghoek paves coming in between those two ascents. The cobbled Paddestraat comes after 50km but this early part of the race will mainly serve to make the race longer and harder and allow an early break to take off.

 

Having reached Burst after 62.5km of racing, the riders turn to the right to continue in a southerly direction to the city of Overbolaere. Turning right, the riders head back towards Harelbeke in a westerly direction and having travelled a bit further south, they go straight through the heartland in the Flemish Ardennes. It is now time for them to zigzag their way up and down the many hellingen as the real race is about to start. Along the way, they will pass through Geraardsbergen but the famous Muur won’t feature on the course.

 

The first small appetizer comes 115km from the finish when the riders go up the La Houppe (3440m, 3.32%, max. 10%) and by now, the nervousness and battle for position will have started. It is still too early for the main contenders to launch an attack but it is important to be in a good position as a crash on these narrow roads can hold you back and mean that you will never see the front again. This automatically forces the pace to go up, meaning that the early break will gradually be pegged back, and we may see riders try to bridge across on these early hellingen.

 

The next one is Berg Stene (1560m, 7.3%, max. 10%) which comes 106km from the finish and is quickly followed by the cobbled Varentstraat that leads almost immediately into the Boigneberg (2180m, 5.8%, max. 15%). At this point there is no time for recovery as the hellingen come in very quick succession. 4km after the Boigneberg, the riders climb the first cobbled climb, the Eikenberg (1200m, 5.5%, max. 11%), with the cobbled Stationsberg (460m, 3.2%, max. 5.7%) which is a rather easy one, coming 5km further up the road.

 

The first acceleration from the race favourites may come on any of these climbs but as the Eikenberg is the hardest, it is where the action is most likely to kick off. If we haven't done so yet, we will be guaranteed to see the first big selection happen on the cobbled Taaienberg (650m, 9.5%m, max. 18%) which is one of the hardest climbs in the region. Among the many hellingen, it is Tom Boonen's favourite and he rarely passes it without going straight to the front to power all the way up from bottom to top, stringing out the group and drawing clear a select group of favourites. In his absence, it will be left to others to make that first move and Sep Vanmarcke has often taken on that role.

 

After the Taaienberg, 87km still remain. Unfortunately, the ascent is followed by a longer flat section and depending on the level of cooperation between the race favourites, we may see some kind of regrouping. At this time, however, the gradual elimination process has started and from now on, the number of contenders will only be whittled down with every passing climb.

 

In fact, this is a very good place to launch attacks and the racing is usually very aggressive at this point until some kind of group has formed. Most of the favourites will be isolated at this point and this is a very good time to go up the road in an attempt to anticipate the accelerations from the major favourites before the major regrouping takes place.

 

A bigger group is likely to have gathered when the climbing resumes with 72km to go on the Knokteberg (1530m, 5.3%, max. 13.3%) which is quickly followed by the Hotondberg (1200m, 4%, max, 8%) but none of these climbs are very difficult. A short flat stretch precedes the Rotelenberg (1100, 3%, max. 6%) which comes 60km from the finish and it leads almost immediately into the harder Kortekeer (1000m, 6.4%, max. 17%). From its top, however, there is a 12km flat section until the next climb, meaning that the race favourites are likely to keep their powder dry at this point.

 

The real finale starts with 46km to go when the riders hit the Kapelberg (900m, 4%, max. 7%). This is not where it is going to happen but the climb is a small appetizer from the Paterberg-Oude Kwaremont combination that will decide the race and be the place for the favourites to make their moves. The two climbs are the final ones in De Ronde where they come in the reverse order and both are simply brutal.

 

First up is the short, very steep, cobbled Paterberg (700m, 12%, max. 20%) which is where the final selection in the Tour of Flanders has often been made and last year it was here that the decisive group was formed in this race. It starts with 42km to go and from the top, only 3.5km remain until the riders reach the cobbled Kwaremont (2200m, 4.2%, max. 11%). This is an entirely different story as it is much less steep but a long, gradual uphill. This is where Cancellara launched his race-winning attack in 2013.

 

At this point, the main selection will have happened and after the top of the Kwaremont, we can expect that only a handful of riders remain in contention. The final 37km mostly consist of a long flat run back to Harelbeke but the section offers a few opportunities to form late attacks to make a selection. The first one comes 30km from the finish on Karnemelkbeekstraat (1530m, 4.9%, 7.3%) while the cobbled Varentstraat comes when 24km remain. The final challenge is the Tiegemberg (1000m, 6.5%, 9%) with 19km to go and those three obstacles will all be difficult at the end of a very long and hard race.

 

The new finale is almost completely flat and a bit more technical than it has been in the past. Having followed a big road, the riders turn left just before the 5km to go mark. The next turn comes with 3.8km to go and then there are another two turns with 2.8 and 1.5km to go. The final left-hand turn comes with just 600m to go. Most often a rider arrives solo at the finish or a small group decides the race in a sprint in the centre of Harelbeke but one thing is guaranteed: at the end of 212 brutal kilometres in the hardest Flemish terrain, only the strongest will be left.

 

 

 

The weather

The weather always a huge impact on the Belgian classics and it is often the combination of wind, rain and cold that decide how selective the race is going to be. This year the riders have had lots of rain for their races in Southern Europe but it seems that their journey to the north has provided them with nicer conditions for the cobbled races.

 

At the moment, Friday is forecasted to get off to a very sunny start but as the day goes on, it will get cloudier and towards the end of the day there is a 25% risk that the riders will face a shower or two. It won’t be very cold though as the temperature will reach a pleasant 11 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a westerly direction which means that the riders will mainly have a tailwind in the flat opening section before they turn into a headwind. In the hilly zone, they will zigzag their way through the Flemish Ardennes, meaning that the wind will be coming from all possible directions but importantly, there will be a headwind on the way back to Harelbeke. Entering the city, they will turn into a cross-headwind before they make two turns that will see them face a tail- and a crosswind for the final few kilometres.

 

The favourites

Some of the riders may have tested themselves on the cobbles in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Dwars door Vlaanderen but for riders like Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, the E3 Harelbeke marks their first battle on the pave. The WorldTour race is the first Belgian event that has gathered an all-inclusive list of contenders for the Tour of Flanders and this turns it into the big dress rehearsal for the biggest classic in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium.

 

Despite its status as dress rehearsal, there will be no holding back for the favourites in this race. With more than a week to the big goal, the riders can allow themselves to dig very deep for this race which is both prestigious in its own right and a very important test of the condition. Furthermore, there are prestigious WorldTour points on offer and a disappointing performance in this race will raise serious questions for ambitious Flanders contenders. The racing will be just as fierce as it will be one week later and the main difference is the fact that this race is a bit shorter which opens the door for a few more riders.

 

Cobbled races can both be decided in bunch sprints and turn into a race for the hardmen. History proves that E3 always is a race for attrition that suits the real classics specialists. In recent years, the only edition which has ended in a bunch sprint, was held in 2012 when Tom Boonen emerged as the fastest in the final dash to the line. That race was held on a summerlike day which made it hard to make a difference but in general, not even very good weather conditions have been enough to prevent a selective race.

 

Tomorrow the riders will have rather pleasant conditions and so the race may not be as hard as it has been in the past. Furthermore, there will be a headwind in the flat run back to Harelbeke and this increases the chances that a bigger group will sprint for the win. However, last year’s race was held in very similar conditions and back then only four riders arrived at the finish together. With all the classics stars being eager to make this race hard, it will be a surprise if a bigger group arrives at the finish to decide the race in a bunch sprint.

 

Most of the climbs will probably be tackled at a pretty high pace and there will be a fierce battle for position in the run-in to most of them. However, the race favourites will probably make their moves on the three key ascents. The first accelerations will come on the Taaienberg but after that climb, a regrouping usually takes place. This opens the door for some of the lieutenants and the outsiders to try to escape before the peloton again gets organized but due to the fierce battle for position, it will be hard to make a difference. The big attacks will be made on the Paterberg and the Kwaremont and from there it will probably be a big pursuit between different groups back to the finish. The final three hellingen and the pave sectors may be used to make late attacks.

 

One of the riders who will make the big attacks on the three key climbs, is Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian is knocking on the door for a big classics win but until now he has come up short. However, he has an impressive consistency in the biggest races on the cobbles. Last year he finished in the top 5 in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgen, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and this year he was again in the top 5 in Het Nieuwsblad. In many of those races, he was even set back by bad luck at crucial points and it speaks volumes about his talent for these races that he can present such an impressive string of results.

 

Already last year Vanmarcke gave indications that he was the strongest on the hellingen but when it came to the biggest races, he always came up slightly short in the finale. Furthermore, he has often had a tendency to play a bit too much with the muscles in the early part of the race which has taken away the energy and power he has needed for the crucial part of the races.

 

This year, however, he has clearly taken another step forward. In the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he was the strongest rider but was set back by an impressive amount of bad luck which made it impossible for him to join the front group after he had initially forced the selection himself. Since then he went on to ride a very impressive Strade Bianche which should actually be too hard for him. However, he was very close to making it to the finish with riders who are much better climbers than him, and this is probably the biggest proof of his progress.

 

Since then, he has been pretty anonymous and flown a bit under the radar. He had a very quiet Tirreno-Adriatico and as usual he decided to skip Milan-Sanremo. Hence, he hasn’t really been a contender in a major race since Strade Bianche but there is no reason to suggest that he is not firing on all cylinders.

 

We expect Vanmarcke to be the strongest rider on the hellingen and it is definitely possible for him to take a big solo win in Harelbeke. However, he has more cards to play as he is also very fast in a sprint. Of course he won’t win a sprint from a bigger group but at the end of hard race he can beat the most. He needs to make the race hard and he will definitely be among the riders to create the selection.

 

His main advantage is his lack of team support and he could find himself up against several riders from Etixx-QuickStep, Sky and BMC in the finale. Maarten Wynants is his best domestique but he is unlikely to be at the pointy end after the main climbs in the finale. Furthermore, he will have to gauge his efforts a bit more carefully. If he does so, he should be the strongest rider in the finale and this makes him our favourite to win the race.

 

Peter Sagan goes into this race as the defending champion and he will be keen to boost his confidence ahead of the Tour of Flanders by taking another victory in this WorldTour race. On paper, the race suits Sagan down to the ground as he is very good on the hellingen, has the explosive skills to make the selections and is one of the fastest riders among the race favourites. Last year he used a combination of those skills to win the race and they will again make him a big contender.

 

However, Sagan is no longer the rider he once was. In 2013, he was destined for greatness as he was almost able to match the mighty Fabian Cancellara on the climbs and it seemed to be just a matter of time before he would be unbeatable in these races. Last year, however, his performances were far from stellar. In this race, he was actually dropped by Niki Terpstra, Geraint Thomas and John Degenkolb and had to make a late acceleration on the Kwaremont to get back in contention. In the Tour of Flanders, he was not among the strongest on the hellingen either.

 

This year he got his season off to a bad start as he was far off the pace in Strade Bianche but it seems that he now back on track. He rode strongly in the hardest stages of Tirreno-Adriatico and finally broke his drought by taking a stage win. He was one of the strongest on the Poggio in Milan-Sanremo and he seems to be at a higher level than he was one year ago.

 

Sagan has had a hard time in the longest races and so the shorter distance of the E3 usually suits him well. If he is back to his best level, he won’t be far off the likes of Vanmarcke on the climbs and so he should be part of the finale. His main asset is his fast sprint and this year there is even a chance that he can rely on Matti Breschel to keep a small group together in the finale. Sagan could easily be the fastest rider in a small group that sprints for the win and this makes him one of the big favourites.

 

John Degenkolb took the biggest win in his career when he beat Alexander Kristoff in Milan-Sanremo and he is heading to Belgium with lots of confidence. Most may regard him as more of a contender for Paris-Roubaix than for the Flemish classics but don’t be fooled by the German’s climbing abilities. When Geraint Thomas made the decisive selection on the Kwaremont in last year’s race, Degenkolb and Terpstra were the only riders who could stay with him and even though he later ran out of power, it proves that he is incredibly strong in these races.

 

This year Degenkolb seems to have stepped up his level a further notch. He seemed to be at ease on both Cipressa and Poggio in Milan-Sanremo and there is no reason to suggest that he can’t go with the best on the hellingen in Flanders. He is usually very hard to beat in a sprint after a hard race and in this race, Alexander Kristoff is probably the only rider who can hope to do so.

 

Degenkolb’s main weakness is his lack of team support. Last year he could rely on Dries Devenyns in the finale but surprisingly Giant-Alpecin decided not to renew the Belgian’s contract. No one wants to go to the finish with Degenkolb and this makes the tactical situation difficult for the German. At the moment, however, he is incredibly strong and he may be good enough to keep things together himself.

 

Fabian Cancellara has usually used this race to prove that he is ready for the big classics. Last year he was clearly one of the strongest riders in the race and there is little doubt that he would have been in the front group if he hadn’t crashed just before the Paterberg. This year he hopes for more luck and for an important confidence boost after his string of monument podiums was broken at Milan-Sanremo.

 

Last year’s classics clearly proved that Cancellara is no longer the rider he once was and he can no longer rely on his brute force to just ride away from all his rivals. Nowadays, he has to use his experience and race tactics a lot more but in the Tour of Flanders he proved that he can still come away with the biggest wins.

 

This year he seems to be at a decent level. He didn’t look like one of the strongest on the Poggio in Milan-Sanremo where it was his teammate Fabio Felline who joined the attacks, but it may have been a deliberate choice to save it all for the sprint. In Strade Bianche he was off the pace but in Tirreno-Adriatico he showed that his condition is very good when he beat Adriano Malori in the final time trial.

 

This year Cancellara is unlikely to be strong enough to take a solo win but he has proved numerous times that he can beat big sprinters at the end of a hard race. He is very likely to be part of the finale and in a sprint, the likes of Sagan cannot be sure that they will be faster than the Swiss.

 

Without Tom Boonen, Etixx-QuickStep have to rely on different tactics for the cobbled classics as they no longer have the options of waiting for the sprint. However, they are still the strongest team in the race and they have numerous cards to play.

 

Their best weapon is probably Zdenek Stybar who just gets stronger and stronger. This year he has clearly taken another step which was highlighted by his emphatic victory in Strade Bianche. In Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he was clearly one of the strongest and it was only a lack of attentiveness that prevented him from playing a big role in the finale.

 

Stybar doesn’t look as strong as he did at the start of the year but he was still at a solid level in Milan-Sanremo where he tried a few attacks and he should be among the fastest on the hellingen. When a select group emerges in the finale, Etixx-QuickStep are likely to have strength in numbers and then they will start to attack. Stybar both has the speed to win a sprint and the strength to go to the finish alone and this makes him an obvious contender.

 

Last year Geraint Thomas made the big acceleration on the Kwaremont and ended the day on the podium in Harelbeke. This year he hopes to do even better and nothing suggests that he won’t be up there. He has had an amazing start to the season and has been climbing better than ever before, winning the Volta ao Algarve and shining on the climbs in Paris-Nice. Last Sunday he delivered an impressive performance in Milan-Sanremo and he will be one of the best in the cobbled classics.

 

However, Thomas has lost a bit of weight and while it is an advantage in the mountains, it may not be the best idea for the cobbled classics. On the other hand, he is clearly stronger than he was 12 months ago and there is no doubt that he will be among the best on the hellingen. Furthermore, he is part of a strong Sky team that may have strength in numbers in the finale. His main weakness is the fact that his main rivals are faster than him. He has a solid sprint but compared to the contenders in this race, he is not among the fastest.

 

Greg Van Avermaet is a perennial contender in these races but he is still missing that big win. This year he has clearly continued his steady progress. He did well in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad even though some riders were stronger than him in that race, and he did an impressive Strade Bianche. Later he took an impressive win in Tirreno-Adriatico and in Milan-Sanremo he was the only rider who could make the difference on the Poggio.

 

Furthermore, Van Avermaet seems to be better at gauging his efforts and save his shots for the important moments. He is very fast in a sprint but has had an unfortunate tendency to come up short against riders who should actually have no chance against him. He is usually strongest in the really long races and he may have a better chance in the Tour of Flanders but he will definitely be among the best.

 

Niki Terpstra is the second big Etixx-QuickStep card. In 2014, the Dutchman was impressively strong at this time of the year and he was among the two best riders on the key climbs in the finale of this race. This year he seems to be at the same level. He was very strong in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and was the key force when Etixx-QuickStep crushed the opposition in the Ronde van Zeeland.

 

In addition to his strength, Terpstra’s main asset is his team which may allow him to take off from a small group in the finale. That’s how he won Paris-Roubaix last year and it may again be his best option in this race. On the other hand, he is not very fast in a sprint and this makes it significantly harder for him to win a race that ends with a long headwind section.

 

Lars Boom has never really managed to fulfill his potential in the Flemish races. He has always been strong in Roubaix and took a memorable victory on the cobbles in last year’s Tour de France. However, he has had a harder time on the hellingen. This year he looked very strong in his first races and he rode solidly in Paris-Nice too. However, he didn’t look too strong in Milan-Sanremo and his condition for his big goals is a bit uncertain. On the other hand, he missed these races last year and in the Eneco Tour he proved that he has improved his climbing a lot which will come in handy in this race. He will be on his own in the finale but with his good rouleur skills, fast sprint and aggressive mindset, he has the means to win.

 

Daniel Oss was extremely strong on the cobbles in 2013 but as he was set back by injury, he was unable to build on his potential in 2014. This year he will be back in his preferred races and he goes into the race as a man to watch. He was impressively strong in both Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo and these races suit him a lot better. He may lack the explosiveness to go with the best on the hellingen but he should be very close to the best and he has the right aggressive mindset to try an attack in the finale. He will of course mainly be riding in service of Van Avermaet but a part of the tactics could be to send Oss off. Furthermore, he is a fast sprinter who has options even if he has a few riders for company.

 

Ian Stannard took another emphatic victory in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and this obviously makes him one to watch during the next few weeks. Last year we missed the chance to see what he can do in these races as he crashed out of E3 before he had a much more serious tumble in Gent-Wevelgem that ended his spring campaign. This year he has had a solid build-up but he crashed in Milan-Sanremo and this may be a small setback even though he didn’t suffer any major injuries. Stannard is brutally strong but he is probably more suited to the flatter terrain in Roubaix and the flatter finale in Het Nieuwsblad where the cold conditions suit him really well. We don’t think that he will be able to stay with the very best on the cobbles and as he is not very fast in a sprint, it will be hard for him to win the race.

 

Alexander Kristoff has had an amazing start to the year and if Luca Paolini had stayed on the front for another 15m in Milan-Sanremo, he would probably have defended his title. That race also proved Kristoff’s amazing skill to handle the very long races. He was clearly on his limit on the Cipressa but on the Poggio he looked much more comfortable. That was very similar to what happened in last year’s Tour of Flanders where he found himself far back after the first attacks but made an impressive comeback in the finale where he was clearly the strongest rider in the race.

 

That race also proved that he can handle the hellingen reasonably well. However, he is usually not able to stay with the best when the big accelerations are made and this year he hasn’t been climbing too well. This race lacks the distance that will allow him to really shine and the rivals may simply not be fatigued enough to provide him with a shot at the win. However, he won’t be far off the mark and if it comes down to a sprint, he will clearly be the favourite.

 

A few years ago, Sebastian Langeveld was among the very best on the cobbles but last year he never really found his best legs for the classics. This year he seems to be back on track. He was riding well in Paris-Nice and he finished in the top 15 at Milan-Sanremo which didn’t really suit him. Due to his poor 2014 season, he has flown a bit under the radar but he may be able to capitalize from that underdog status. He is no fast sprinter and will have to arrive alone at the finish. If he makes it into the front group, however, he may not be watched and then he may know how to benefit from that situation.

 

A few years ago, it seemed that Jurgen Roelandts could turn into one of the very best on the cobbles but it seems that his progress has stalled a bit. Last year he missed the biggest races due to injury and we didn’t get the chance to see what he could do in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as he fell ill just before that race. However, he has been very pleased with his build-up in Tirreno-Adriatico and he looked strong in Milan-Sanremo. He is fast in a sprint but among the favourites there are definitely faster riders. He need to play his cards cleverly to win the race but he knows how to do so as he proved when he finished on the podium in the 2013 Tour of Flanders.

 

Edvald Boasson Hagen is still looking for the big one-day win and it now seems clear that he will never become a dominant rider on the cobbles. However, he is still one of the best as he proved in this race one year ago and this year he seems to be even stronger. He has gained a bit of weight which may not be a bad idea for the cobbled races and he is usually very strong on the hellingen. However, he is no longer as fast as he once was and can no longer rely on his sprint to win the race.

 

Finally, Filippo Pozatto deserves a mention. The Italian has been far off the pace in 2013 and 2014 but in the past he has proved that he can be one of the very strongest in these races. In 2012, he was very close to dropping an unbeatable Tom Boonen on the Paterberg in De Ronde and this speaks volumes about his talents for these races. He got back to a very high level towards the end of last season and this year he has been riding very strongly in most of the races. He looked strong in Sanremo and Tirreno and his only slight setback was a disappointing performance in Strade Bianche. 2015 may be the year when Pozzato returns to his best.

 

***** Sep Vanmarcke

**** Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb

*** Fabian Cancellara, Zdenek Stybar, Geraint Thomas, Greg Van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra

** Lars Boom, Daniel Oss, Ian Stannard, Alexander Kristoff, Sebastian Langeveld, Jurgen Roelandts, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Filippo Pozzato, Stijn Vandenbergh, Kris Boeckmans

* Luca Paolini, Oscar Gatto, Gerald Ciolek, Tyler Farrar, Sylvain Chavanel, Matti Breschel, Matteo Trentin, Marcus Burghardt, Yves Lampaert, Jens Debusschere, Stijn Devolder, Borut Bozic, Silvan Dillier, Jempy Drucker, Matthieu Ladagnous, Dries Devenyns, Heinrich Haussler, Davide Cimolai, Jens Keukeleire, Maarten Wynants, Bradley Wiggins, Luke Rowe, Johan Vansummeren, Marco Marcato, Bjorn Leukemans, Mauro Finetto

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