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50th E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - 1.HC
Belgium, March 31, 2007
Belgian Classics in high gear
Boonen aims for record-breaking victory
By Gregor Brown in Gent, Belgium
The Belgian Classics season is rolling into high gear, with the Dwars door Vlaanderen last Wednesday and the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen to run this weekend. Both races are perfect warm-ups to the mother of all Belgian one-day races: the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Saturday's race, starting from Harelbeke, not only offers the perfect opportunity for the favourites to sharpen their axes but also offers a chance for rides to fire a warning shot at his rivals by going for a win.
The parcours are dotted with hellingen (Flemish for 'bergs' or 'hills'), some cobbled and some paved, before the race rolls into its destination Harelbeke, after 203 kilometres of all-out racing.
The E3 Prijs Vlaanderen's distance is roughly 50 kilometres shorter than next weekend's Ronde, but will feature many of the same torturous hellingen, like the Oude Kwaremont. The climb, with 1500 metres of cobbles at 4.2 per cent average gradient, leaves 34 kilometres and two paved bergs to go, Knokteberg and Tiegemberg, and could provide a perfect launch pad for a race winning attack.
Last year, Tom Boonen snatched his third consecutive victory for Quick.Step at the event, with an average speed of 42.3 km/h over the 200 kilometre course. By winning, clad in his World Champion jersey, he equalled the consecutive wins record shared by Dutchman Jan Raas and Belgian Rik van Looy. Given his win in Wednesday's Dwars, 'Tommeke' looks on form to be the first rider to accomplish four consecutive victories, which would also equal van Looy's record for all-time wins.
And if Boonen fails there is a list of Quick-Step riders who could cover for the Belgian. World Champion Paolo Bettini is likely to race, and, although suffering from a cracked rib, he could repeat Boonen's feat of winning in the rainbow bands. Other likely candidates from the Belgian super-squad are Peter Van Petegem, Kevin Van Impe and Gert Steegmans. All three had strong showings in Dwars and any, especially Van Impe, could vie for victory this Saturday.
A threat to Quick-Step's perceived strangle-hold could come courtesy of Team CSC. The Danish squad was firing in Dwars, with Stuart O'Grady, and Matti Breschel taking top ten finishes while Fabian Cancellara also showed strong form. O'Grady has been hot all spring, with his near miss in Belgium on Wednesday similar to that he experienced at last weekend's Milano-Sanremo. The results show O'Grady is on the verge of something special and he could prove a big threat on Saturday, provided the Australian can conquer the 12 hellingen without difficulties.
Nods go to Discovery Channel, Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile) and Lampre-Fondital's Alessandro Ballan and Daniele Bettini.
American's Discovery Channel is edging closer and closer to a victory which has eluded the squad this season: it was up there in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, had Allan Davis and Yaroslav Popovych within a whisker in Sanremo and recently, in Dwars, was firing with Stijn Devolder taking sixth place. The latter will get help from a 'refreshed' George Hincapie and an in-form Tomas Vaitkus.
T-Mobile's big Burghardt was everywhere in Dwars, and if the German can focus his strength, he could produce something special on Saturday.
Lampre Fondital's Italians, Bennati and Ballan, are building for the squad's run at Ronde and Paris-Roubaix. Ballan had a bit of bad luck in early March but is now finding his form again evident by the solid domestique work in Sanremo.
The weather for this weekend is forecasted to be a maximum of 12 degrees Celsius, with the chance of rain, which will make for a true Belgian affair.
Cyclingnews will be providing live coverage of the 50th E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, starting 14:30 local time (CET)/08:30 (USA East)/05:30 (USA West)/00:30 (Australia East).