E3 Saxo Bank Classic: Route, predictions and contenders
Will it be Quick-Step or Jumbo Visma that prove themselves as the Classics team to beat in the first race of Flemish Cycling week?
E3 Saxo Bank Classic is a race of many names. The first in a series of four races that make up Flemish Cycling Week, E3 has been named after various sponsors over the years, but is most commonly remembered as the E3 Harelbeke, due to its start and finish location. This year, the race takes place on Friday 25th March.
Another nickname for the race might describe it the most accurately, however. The race is dubbed ‘The little Tour of Flanders’ as it takes in a number of the same cobbles and bergs as the Monument which kicks off cycling’s revered ‘Holy Week’ nine days later.
This 64th edition of the race is 205.1km long and features seventeen bergs and five cobbled sectors. The twists and turns through the Flemish Ardennes that characterise the Tour of Flanders are also common in E3 and usually result in a similar style of racing, leading to teams viewing E3 as perfect preparation for De Ronde.
Related: Tour of Flanders 2022 Preview
The race departs from Harelbeke before heading out across East Flanders, passing through Oudenaarde, Zottegem, Geraardsbergen among many other small towns along the way. The parcours undulate for the first 80km or so with the Katterberg being the only climb to contend with, before the second half of the race begins and riders must tackle numerous bergs in quick succession.
E3 Route 2022
E3 has four key climbs that it shares with Flanders, including the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont. The Paterberg is a short, sharp nightmare – it is just 400m but hits gradients of 20% and has an average gradient of 12%. By contrast, the Oude Kwaremont is punishing because of its agonising distance: 2.2km long and topping out at 11.6% max gradient, its placement as the third from last climb in the race adds to its infamy. Fatigued riders will often be lost along its passage and drop out of contention for the final run-in.
That’s not to say that the remaining bergs are easy. Flemish Classics are a relentless grind of rising and falling between punchy climbs, and given the frequency with which the climbs – not to mention the cobbles sectors – occur, the peloton will gradually diminish as teams attack from the front.
Related: Tour of Flanders Elite Women Preview
Climbs like the Kortekeer, Kapelberg and Karnemelkbeekstraat will test the peloton’s mettle and by the time the race hits the final climb, the Tiegemberg, it’s likely that just a small group will remain.
From there, a flat 20km run-in to the line will see the race leaders try to maintain whatever gap they have over the chasers, as they look to one another and determine when to strike out.
Kasper Asgreen (Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix)
In 2021, a selection of seven riders held on over the final climbs including three from QuickStep. When Kasper Asgreen attacked with just over a kilometre remaining, no-one else could hold on and he soloed to victory. In the past, it has also gone down to a sprint among a reduced bunch.
Quick-Step AlphaVinyl have dominated at the last three editions of E3. The Wolfpack are the masters of Classics riding, using their impressive strength to keep a high pace and launch repeated attacks, gradually weakening the field. Last year’s champion Kasper Asgreen will return this year, alongside a squad featuring the 2019 winner Zdeněk Štybar. Both are capable of becoming only the eighth man to be a repeat winner of the race.
Team Jumbo Visma’s strengthened classics unit has been a revelation so far this season following the inspired signings of Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte. With Wout van Aert at the helm once more at E3, they will be considered the team to beat, despite Quick-Step’s prior dominance.
Related: Is Jumbo-Visma cycling's next super team?
Another team with a steadily improving one-day squad is INEOS Grenadiers. With Dylan van Baarle, who has performed well at the race before and won Dwars Door Vlaanderen in 2021, and the consistently strong Jhonatan Narvaez, the British side have a chance of taking victory.
Trek-Segafredo will hope that Jasper Stuyven can return from illness to lead the team alongside Mads Pedersen, who looked strong at Milan-San Remo. Young American rider Quinn Simmons may also fancy his chances on the cobbles.
Team DSM’s Søren Kragh Andersen’s blistering attack up the Poggio at Milan-San Remo may see other teams keeping a close eye on him; meanwhile Lotto Soudal will look to Victor Campenaerts to produce his first win of a season in which he has so far looked strong.
Related: Victor Campanaerts on Lotto-Soudal, points chasing and transitioning to the Classics
French side AG2R Citroen bring a team of Classics veterans including Greg van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen and Bob Jungels, all of whom might challenge for a podium spot on a good day. Their compatriots, Groupama-FDJ, could look to Stefan Küng to produce something special, having already shown good form on opening weekend at Omloop.
Related: WorldTour Men's Calendar 2022
BORA-Hangrohe’s Nils Pollitt and Movistar’s Alex Aranburu represent riders with strong outside chances, and it goes without saying that TotalEnergies will be hoping, once again, that Peter Sagan can make good on the faith they have shown him and return to winning ways.
Quick-Step AlphaVinyl have a many among their number that could take the honours in a race where they always thrive. However, despite the incentive for Kasper Asgreen to make it two wins in two, we can’t see them holding off the challenge from a renewed Jumbo Visma.
Wout van Aert has history with peaking slightly too soon and with E3 being ‘mini Flanders’ we expect the Belgian champion to take the opportunity to lay down a marker and win at race where his previous best was a second place in 2019, in the hope that he can carry his form all the way through to the real thing nine days later.