E3 Harelbeke comes second in the sequence of races held in the Flanders area after Dwars Door Vlaanderen. The race starts and finishes in Harelbeke over 203 kilometres. The race which has been part of the UCI Europe Tour was upgraded to the World Tour status on 1 Sep 2011.
The first E3 Prijs Vlaanderen took place in 1958 although there had been similar events in the area since 1955. The competition was first held at the time of the construction of the E3 (now A14/E17) motorway between Antwerp and Harelbeke and the route for the first year was from Harelbeke to Antwerp and vice versa. The race has also been known as the GP E3 Harelbeke.
The E3 is a semi-classic which is considered as a preparation race for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The route is shorter but many of the climbs are tackled. More importantly, the route includes Muur van Geraardsbergen. The route takes a large lap around East Flanders including 12 hills. The race starts from Harelbeke’s Grote Markt and travels east, the first 110 km flat with cobbles around Oudenaarde and Zottegem. A 20km stretch between 70 and 50 kilometres remaining features no less than five sharp ascents in the forms of the Berg Stene, Boigneberg, Eikenberg, Stationsberg and finally the Taaienberg (also known as Boonenberg) which has 18% maximum gradient.
The race then heads through Ronse ahead of three explosive efforts on the Oude Kruiskens, Kapelberg and Paterberg. An elite band of contenders will have had plenty of opportunity to size each other up ahead of two key tests of the Kwaremont and the Knokteberg. All that remains on the run back to Harelbeke is the 13th hellingen – the Tiegemberg (1km at 6.5% avg) – just prior to 10km to go banner.
The race has been kind of a playground for Tom Boonen who holds the record for the most wins in the race with five victories, coming in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2012. Rik Van Looy won the race four times in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1969, and Dutchman Jan Raas took three successive victories between 1979 and 1981 after finishing second in 1978.
This year Boonen is not in great shape, so his teammate Sylvain Chavanel could be a good bet. One can never rule out Fabian Cancellara in the spring classics and he will surely have some say in the race. Jurgen Roelandts had a good Tirreno Adriatico so he will definitely fancy his chances. The same could be said for Thor Hushovd who will love to announce his comeback on the scene with a victory in World Tour race. Team Sky who eschewed both Paris-Nice and Tirreno to prepare for classics in Tenerife will be eager to demonstrate the success of their method. They will have a double card to play with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas. And of course, one should not forget that there’s only one favorite in a race when Peter Sagan is racing.
The dark horse of the race is Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana) who had a decent showing at Dwars door Vlaanderen and was on the podium of this race in 2009.
Other outside contenders could be Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Belisol), Yoann Offredo (FDJ), John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM).