E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem Preview – A Team Approach

Until the Ghent-Wevelgem joined it on the same weekend, the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen was the traditional dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders. With over 200 kilometers of hills and cobbles—including many of the climbs to be used in the following Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, riders and teams felt it offered the best preparation and reconnaissance.

Now though, Ghent-Wevelgem takes the Sunday slot previously occupied by the Brabantsepijl—a race run on a less-demanding circuit. As a result, teams are now faced with the choice of doing both the E3 and the “new and improved” Ghent-Wevelgem—for a total of more than 400 kilometers of berg and cobble-filled racing—or choosing one race over the other. That’s a tough call considering the importance and prestige of both events.

For the past few days I’ve faced a difficult decision as well: do I write one or two previews for this weekend’s races? On one hand, a single preview might be more appropriate and perhaps less redundant as many of the favorites for Saturday will also be favored on Sunday. On the other hand, there are several key differences between each race’s start list—differences that could be a factor in the final results.

In the end, I’ve decided to take a team approach, previewing the prospects of the favored teams’ chances over the course of the weekend. I’ll start in an obvious place:

Quick Step’s heads into the weekend with what appears to be the strongest squad in both races. Tom Boonen was initially slated to start only Saturday’s E3 Prijs, but has reconsidered given his current form. After all, he’s won both races in the past, and the E3 Prijs 4 times! On Saturday he’ll have the team’s full complement backing him including Sylvain Chavanel, Stijn Devolder, and Carlos Barredo. On Sunday, Devolder will sit-out in favor of Wouter Weylandt, a rider capable of taking the win should things come down to a sprint. Aside from what could be an impressive display from Boonen, watch carefully for the roles played by Chavanel and Devolder—we could get our first glimpse of where they stand behind Boonen in the team’s hierarchy. If the last few weeks are any indication, Chavanel’s riding better than Devolder and should be given more latitude to play his own hand. Then again, this is Belgium—will Quick Step favor a Frenchman over a hometown hero?

Boonen and Quick Step’s main competition on Saturday should come from Filippo Pozzato’s Katusha squad, a team that has performed well over the past weeks on behalf of their longhaired leader. With experienced support from Sergei Ivanov—a former E3 winner—Pozzato can ride confidently; his main lieutenant knows the roads better than he does. Throw-in Stijn Vandenbergh and Laszlo Bodrogi, and you’ve got the makings of a deep squad. On Sunday, Pozzato will rest while Robbie McEwen joins the roster. Ghent-Wevelgem’s added more hills this year—possibly to attract more of the Ronde’s favorites—but making it a bit harder for the sprinters. Still, after a hard day in Harelbeke, it might be a race that ends in a bunch. If it does, look for Katusha to try and set things up for McEwen to take a win in front of his adopted home crowd.

Team Sky is another main contender, with both Edvald Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha slated to start both events. This line-up could change though, as Hagen’s reported to be suffering from Achilles problems. I have a hunch we might see the team ride for Flecha Saturday and Hagen Sunday. Flecha’s form has continued to grow since his win in last month’s Omloop Het Niuewsblad; a win in the E3 would make him a solid favorite for Flanders along with Boonen and Pozzato. As for Hagen, he won Ghent-Wevelgem last year, and might choose an extra day of rest before returning to defend his title. With a strong team including Michael Barry, former E3 winner Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Matt Hayman, and Ian Stannard, this squad has the capacity to win both races. And don’t forget Greg Henderson in the event of a sprint on Sunday; with Chris Sutton giving him lead-outs, a sprint win for the Kiwi is a very real possibility.

From Sky to Saxo Bank, the team of Fabian Cancellara and Wednesday’s winner of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Matti Breschel. Cancellara’s racing both events—perhaps a statement directed at Tom Boonen. Look for him to be involved more on Saturday as the race is more akin to next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. In fact, if he—and Boonen for that matter—do well in the E3, look for one if not both to be last-minute scratches in Ghent. As for Breschel, he’s generally listed as starting both days as well, but I found one site in which he’s been scratched from the E3 Prijs—perhaps saving him for a possible sprint on Sunday? With both Cancellara and Breschel in the fold, Saxo Bank is another candidate for double wins.

But wait, there’s another team with the firepower necessary to do the double this weekend—Rabobank with Nick Nuyens and Oscar Freire. Nuyens has been building nicely all season. He raced aggressively in the Omloop before a flat tire derailed his chances for the win then followed it up with an attacking ride in Wednesday’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Look for him to have the sole support of team Saturday, with Lars Boom and Sebastian Langeveld his lieutenants. On Sunday, Nuyens rests while Milan-San Remo winner Freire attempts to continue his impressive March with what would be his second win in Wevelgem. With Nuyens, Boom, and Langeveld all resting in favor of lead-out men and rouleurs, it’s clear where Rabobank’s ambitions lie.

Omega Pharma-Lotto’s taken an interesting approach to the weekend, leaving both Philippe Gilbert and Jurgen Roelandts at home on Saturday in favor of a start in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem, a choice that confuses me. Were I driving the car, I would have started Gilbert in the E3, thus giving him a chance to gauge his fitness against the other favorites in a race much more suited to his talents. On Sunday, I would put all my eggs in Roelandts’ basket, giving him a chance to see what he can do as the team’s protected rider. After all, he’s shown terrific form thus far—let’s see what he’s got, no? Instead, it appears Greg Van Avermaet will lead the team in Harelbeke. Van Avermaet displayed good fitness on Wednesday in Dwars; in Harelbeke he’ll be supported by Leif Hoste, a rider capable of a good ride, but seems more content to wait for Roubaix. As for Sunday, with both Gilbert and Roelandts rested, there will be a lot of pressure on the team to bring home the win in front of a home crowd. With such a stacked line-up, they’re certainly up to the challenge.

One of my big questions for the next two weeks is whether or not BMC is up to the challenge as well. At the beginning of the year we thought BMC would be challengers in several of the cobbled classics. But after a sub-par start to the season, many have doubts. Marcus Burghardt seems to be the team’s best rider at this point. He rode solidly in Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, finishing with the leading peloton. Burghardt’s finished in the top-5 in the E3 and won Ghent-Wevelgem in the past; similar results are well within his potential this weekend—he’s racing both events. Karsten Kroon joins him on Saturday while Alessandro Ballan joins him both days—the Italian needs to show something soon if he wants to be considered a favorite for next weekend’s main event. As for George Hincapie, he’s riding Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he won in 2001—but will skip the E3. At this point though, it’s hard to consider George a favorite this weekend—and possibly next as well. I’m hoping he’ll have good legs for Roubaix in two weeks—it’s a race where age and experience still mean something—but his current form doesn’t paint an optimistic picture. I hope I’m wrong.

As for the Cervelo TestTeam, they’ve lost a step thanks to the injury to Heinrich Haussler. On Saturday they take the line in Harelbeke hoping to propel Thor Hushovd to a good result on his way to his ultimate rendezvous with Flanders and Roubaix. After testing himself Saturday against his main competition, he’ll rest Sunday while former winner Andreas Klier, Roger Hammond, and Jeremy Hunt give it their best shot at Ghent-Wevelgem.

We would have expected HTC-Columbia and Liquigas to bring powerhouse squads to both races. Instead, the teams are riding Ghent-Wevelgem only—which certainly couldn’t have pleased the organizers of the E3 Prijs. That said, calling HTC’s roster for Sunday a “powerhouse” is a bit of an exaggeration. Marcel Seiberg and Matthew Goss—two young riders with serious potential—are the highlights of a classics team depleted by off-season transfers. Bernhard Eisel will be hoping for a sprint, but anything more than a top-5 placing might be out of his reach.

As for Liquigas, Peter Sagan has inexplicably been left off the list for Ghent-Wevelgem, a race he might have won. He’s on tap for Paris-Roubaix though, so we’ll soon get to see what he can do on the pavé. The team is bringing Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi, two men certainly capable of winning the race in a sprint—if they work together. Aleksandr Kuschynski finished 2nd here last year—he and Manuel Quinziato will be looking for a succesful breakaway.

Garmin and Astana also chose to skip Saturday’s E3 Prijs in exchange for fresh legs on Sunday. Garmin’s clearly hoping Tyler Farrar can climb better in Flanders than he did last Saturday in Italy when he was dropped in Milan-San Remo. With Matt Wilson, Johan Vansummeren, Martijn Maaskant, and Robert Hunter supporting him, Farrar will be a force to be reckoned with in a field sprint. As for Astana, Maxim Iglinsky and Enrico Gasparotto have been riding very well as of late. Iglinsky finished third behind Pozzato and Boonen in last year’s E3. He won’t have another chance this year, but he clearly rides well in Belgium and is an early dark horse candidate for Flanders. As for Gasparotto, he won a stage in DePanne a few years back—he’s someone to watch for as well.

And the rest? Acqua Sapone brings Luca Paolini to both races—he’s been progressing nicely and is just the kind of rider to pull a surprise in a race like Harelbeke—if the favorites spend too much time staring at one another. Milram’s Niki Terpstra will be looking to build upon his great result in Dwars door Vlaanderen with another top result in Ghent-Wevelgem. La Francaise des Jeux brings Anthony Geslin, Yoann Offredo, and Frederic Guesdon to Harelbeke on Saturday and adds Yuheni Hutarovich—a talented sprinter—to the squad for Sunday. Without Geert Steegmans, Radio Shack will be hoping Geoffroy Lequatre can continue to impress, while Vacansoleil hopes Bjorn Leukemans and Borut Borzic can land solid results Saturday and Sunday respectively.

And last but never least, Nico Eeckhout and his An Post team will be racing on Saturday in the E3—never, ever count him out.

So I guess it’s prediction time, huh? Here you go!

I think a break gets away in Harelbeke, likely containing several top favorites. I see Nick Nuyens coming through for the win, as he’s perhaps a bit more desperate to prove himself in front of his home fans. It’s been a while since he’s won something important; if he gets a chance Saturday he’ll have no choice but to take it. Boonen will lead whoever’s left home for 2nd place on the day—look for Flecha, Burghardt, and Pozzato to be up there too. And don’t forget Luca Paolini.

On Sunday, I have to go with Oscar Freire for a second winning performance in a major race this season over Bennati, Farrar, Borzic, and Breschel. Ivanov, Iglinsky, and Quinziato will do their best to make a break succeed, but in the end the sprinter’s teams will prevail.

And while I’m at it, look for Alberto Contador to storm to a win in this weekend’s Criterium International, directly throwing sand in the face of Lance Armstrong and The Shack. He better take a rest soon though; he’s been riding at a high level for a while now and will need to rest before building peaking again for July.

That’s all for today—thanks for reading! Who are your picks for this weekend’s races?

Share your comments below. I’ll post a live feed tomorrow if I find one—look for me on Twitter as well if my schedule permits.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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