With the spring classics in full swing, it’s now time to look to Belgium, specifically to the 2022 E3 Harelbeke taking place tomorrow before the Gent Wevelgem on Sunday. Despite their positions geographically and on the calendar, these races are indeed very different. In terms of hilly terrain, the E3 Harelbeke (currently named E3 Saxo Bank) is certainly more difficult than its most famous counterpart. However, in terms of distance, the Gent Wevelgem takes the cake at nearly 250km to slightly over 200. Therefore, the way these races are ridden and won is also different. E3 is rarely decided in a big sprint finish, unlike the Gent Wevelgem, which is more unpredictable.
I will leave the preview of the Gent Wevelgem to later, in an attempt to avoid a blunder similar to last week’s. When I wrote the preview of the Milano Sanremo, Mathieu Van Der Poel wasn’t yet listed as a participant so I didn’t include him as one of the favorites. The Dutchman went on to finish 3rd in the first Monument race of the season.
Keeping in my mind what is written in the first paragraph, pure sprinting ability tends to take a backseat to puncheur-like skills in the E3 Harelbeke. Additionally, Quick Step has won the last three editions of this race, taking five out of the 6 last top-2 places. Unsurprisingly, Wout Van Aert was the exception.
- Soren Kragh Andersen (Team DSM)
I was impressed with the Dane in the Milano Sanremo and he certainly has the characteristics as a rider to win the 2022 E3 Harelbeke. He’s a strong puncheur trying to recover from a subpar 2021. Not outside of the realm of possibility for him to take advantage of the fight between Jumbo and Quick Step to sneakily come away with the win.
- Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo)
The Dane already has 3 victories this season and four 2nd places. He was also 6th in the Milano Sanremo, arriving with the best, in the second group, two seconds behind Mohoric. He already matched his win total from last season and we’re still in March. Pedersen is in great form and will surely be looking to repeat his Gent Wevelgem success of 2020 this upcoming Sunday. Do not overlook him for a victory here.
- Oliver Naesen (AG2R Citroen)
Between him and his teammate, former Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, I went for Naesen because he seems to have a standing yearly appointment with the top-10 of this race. He’s been 3rd, 4th (2x) and 8th in the last 4 editions of this race. The 2022 E3 Harelbeke will likely not be any different. I believe the experienced Belgian has a big spring classics win in him, and it might come at a race where he is always near the top.
- Kasper Asgreen (Quick Step Alphavinyl)
It’s always difficult to pick from Quick Step’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to the spring classics. Stybar has left me disappointed in recent races, and I think Ballerini and Senechal aren’t as quick as Van Aert to fight for victory in a sprint. Therefore, and with a shocking lack of creativity I admit, I pick Asgreen, last year’s winner, from Quick Step’s contingent. He spent a big portion of the second half of last year’s race alone in front, was caught, but still had the strength to attack 5km away from the checkered flag to claim an extremely impressive victory. If anybody has the experience and the ability to impose his will on Jumbo Visma’s all-star lineup, it is certainly the three-time consecutive champions Quick Step, and reigning champion Kasper Asgreen.
- Wout Van Aert (Jumbo Visma)
The additions of Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte to Jumbo Visma’s classics’ team is just too good. Often it was “everybody against Van Aert”. In 2022 that strategy will be much more difficult courtesy of Jumbo Visma’s transfer moves. This was clear in the Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the year and will be clear in the 2022 E3 Harelbeke. Given the characteristics of the the race, however, don’t be surprised to see some of the team’s domestiques having some freedom to follow the attacks that will inevitable occur to try and leave Van Aert behind. It is difficult to control a race like this from start to finish, hence, a rider like Benoot, who has the quality to win the race himself, can be used to follow opponents’ attack and allow Jumbo Visma to control the race in a slightly different way.
Yesterday the Classic Brugge-De Panne kicked off the Flemish portion of the WorldTour classic’s season, with Tim Merlier from Alpecin Fenix taking the win in front of Dylan Groenewegen and Nacer Bouhanni.
Traditionally a classic for the sprinters (except when the wind decides otherwise like 2020), yesterday was no exception. Quick Step tried to bring Mark Cavendish to the line as they had done with Sam Bennett last year, but the chaos of the final kilometers rendered any team’s strategy useless. A lot of riders crashed during the technical (some would say crazy) last 15km, including pre-race favorite Pascal Ackermann.
Olav Kooij, Jumbo Visma’s young Dutch sprinter was the first to go in the sprint, too early though, but he still had enough in the tank to finish 5th and add another impressive result to what has been a breakout season for him. The same can be said for Max Walscheid. The transfer to Cofidis seems to have sparked a return to the past for the German fast man. He has had more impressive results in the past week than in the 3 years prior. He adds a 4th place in this race to a 2nd place in the Nokere Koerse and to the victory in the GP de Denain.
Merlier, Groenewegen and Bouhanni continue their good seasons with podium finishes at this race. The Belgian adds the Brugge-De Panne to the Nokere Koerse and a stage in the Tirreno Adriatico, while the Dutchman continues on his path to return to his 2019 form that saw him win this very race. Bouhanni is still looking for his first victory of 2022 but a 3rd place here, adding to his silver medals in the Milano Torino and the Clasica de Almeria, makes for a decent start of the year for the Frenchman.