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51st E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - 1.HC
Belgium, March 29, 2008
Superstar Tom Boonen goes for record five-in-a-row wins
By Gregor Brown
The attention is truly turning to the Belgian classics with this weekend's races: the 51st E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl. Wednesday's running of the Dwars door Vlaanderen opened the door, but now the full force of cobbles and dodgy weather can be felt coming through as the top hard men get into full gear for cycling's Monument, Ronde van Vlaanderen.
The E3 Prijs – starting and ending in Harelbeke, at 203 kilometres in length – is littered with hellingen (Flemish for 'painful hills'). While being a race worth winning in its own right – with past winners including Peter Van Petegem, Johan Museeuw, Mario Cipollini and Roger De Vlaeminck – it is a great tester and indicator for next Sunday's Ronde. Tom Boonen won in Harelbeke in 2005 and 2006 before going on rip the competition to shreds one week after on Ronde's small cobbled roads and climbs. In fact, 'Tommeke' Boonen lays claim to the last four editions of the E3 Prijs; last year he was the first rider to score that number of consecutive wins and this year he has the chance to top Rik van Looy to be come the most winning rider in the race's history.
The E3 Prijs Vlaanderen's distance is 60 kilometres shorter than Ronde, but packs many of the same torturous hellingen, like the Oude Kwaremont. The 10th of 12 climbs, with 1500 metres of cobbles at 4.2 per cent average gradient, leaves 34 kilometres and two paved climbs to go. It is the spot to sort out the potential winners from those who are just hanging on; last year, Paolo Bettini attacked here and on the following Knokteberg to form the winning foursome of Boonen, Marcus Burghardt, Fabian Cancellara and Manuel Quinziato.
Boonen will have to do without his Italian team-mate, Bettini, this year, and will rely on Gert Steegmans, Steven De Jongh and Carlos Barredo. However, the winner of two stages in Paris-Nice, Steegmans, is a likely non-starter due to a crash in Dwars. Quick Step's dominance, like in Milano-Sanremo, may not be felt so much and we could see CSC's Cancellara take his first Belgian win since 2004. The Swiss is running white-hot with wins in Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico and last weekend's Sanremo.
He will need to attend to the strong sprinters who can pass E3 Prijs' beatings: Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Tomas Vaitkus (Astana), Erik Zabel (Team Milram), Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC) and Baden Cooke (Barloworld).
Cofidis performed well in Dwars with Sylvain Chavanel and Nick Nuyens, but the French team's stars will be keeping their powder dry, opting to skip this event.
Finally, look for the usual hard men like Niko Eeckhout (Topsport Vlaanderen), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Serguei Ivanov (Astana), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Roger Hammond (High Road) Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) and Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto)
The weather forecast for this weekend is a maximum of 12°C with partly cloudy skies.
Cyclingnews will be covering the 51st E3 Prijs Vlaanderen live starting at 14:30 local European time (CEST)/ 8:30 (USA East)/ 23:30 Australia (EST) - also on WAP-enabled mobile devices at http://live.cyclingnews.com/wap/