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49th E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - 1.HC

Belgium, March 25, 2006

Classics stars on show in Harelbeke

By Jeff Jones

2005 winner Tom Boonen (Quick.Step)
Photo ©: AFP
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The Belgian classics season clicks into top gear with the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen on Saturday, March 25. The race is a perfect prelude for next Sunday's Ronde Van Vlaanderen, and most of the riders looking to do well in the Ronde will test themselves in Harelbeke. Held over a challenging 198 km course, the race features 12 of Flanders' notorious bergs, starting with La Houppe after 117 km and finishing with the Tiegemberg at 14 km to go, with very little respite in between. The old favourites of the Paterberg (km 160), Kwaremont (km 164) and Knokteberg (km 173) should be more than sufficient to break the race open.

Last year, Tom Boonen notched up his second success in a row in the E3 Prijs, beating T-Mobile's Andreas Klier in a two man sprint. The pair had escaped on the Taaienberg with 55 km to go, and impressively held off the chasing bunch all the way to the end. This year, Boonen is in good enough form to take three in a row, but it depends on how hungry he is before the Ronde. He'll have most of his teammates with him that will ride on Sunday week, so the E3 Prijs wil be a good dress rehearsal.

On the Davitamon-Lotto front, Gert Steegmans, Peter Van Petegem and Robbie McEwen are the men to watch, with Nico Mattan always a chance. CSC has hopes for Fabian Cancellara, in the absence of the injured O'Grady and Breschel. AG2R's Lloyd Mondory performed well to finish third in Dwars door Vlaanderen during the week, while Cofidis will be looking to the reliable Staf Scheirlinckx.

Credit Agricole's big men Thor Hushovd, Laszlo Bodrogi, Jaan Kirsipuu and Jimmy Engoulvent are all down to start, while Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert will lead the Francaise des Jeux team. Andreas Klier will be lining up for T-Mobile again, along with Steffen Wesemann and Serguei Ivanov. Lampre-Fondital will feature Alessandro Ballan, while Liquigas-Bianchi is bringing Milan-San Remo third place getter Luca Paolini.

Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) will hope to perform better than he did on Wednesday in Dwars door Vlaanderen, but teammate Erik Zabel might be one to watch in Harelbeke. Rabobank has Juan Antonio Flecha, Oscar Freire and Erik Dekker to fly the flag, and Discovery Channel has Stijn Devolder in rising form, along with Roger Hammond. Nico Eeckhout and Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Frederik Veuchelen will line up for Chocolade Jacques, and Baden Cooke, Frank Vandenbroucke and David Boucher for Unibet.com.

The weather should be relatively warm (16 degrees maximum) but with a strong sou'west wind blowing in a few rain showers during the day to make things interesting.

Live coverage

Cyclingnews will be providing live coverage of the 49th E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, starting 14:30 local time (CET)/08:30 (USA East)/05:30 (USA West)/00:30 (Australia East).