The first clash of titans – It’s Van der Poel versus Van Aert at E3 Saxo Classic

The opening showdown of the season between two of the sport’s best Classics riders will take place tomorrow – will one of them come out on top, or will another rider spoil the fun altogether?

E3 Saxo Classic (formerly and commonly known as E3 Harelbeke) is one of the races with the closest parcours to the Tour of Flanders, which takes place one week later. With this in mind, there’s no better stage for the world’s best Classics riders to assess each other’s form ahead of arguably the most prestigious one-day race of the year. Performances at E3 will make it abundantly clear who is ready for the bergs of De Ronde, and on the steep climbs and slippery cobbles, there will be nowhere to hide for those who aren’t.

While it’s not considered a major Classic, E3 holds a particular significance this season as the first time that Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel will go head-to-head on their favoured terrain. The rivalry between the Visma-Lease a Bike rider and the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider dates back years, from the cyclo-cross field, to stages of Grand Tours, to chasing Monument wins, Van der Poel and Van Aert have been through it all, and they’re about to embark on another season of searching for every way possible to get the better of one another.

Things are especially interesting this year when considering the varying preparations that each rider has made for the upcoming Classics block. Van der Poel made his season debut at Milan-Sanremo last week, where he was integral to the victory of his teammate Jasper Philipsen. The Dutch rider’s performance on the Poggio climb as he closed the gap to a flying Tadej Pogačar and then subsequently chased down nearly every move in the approach to the finish in Sanremo was proof of Van der Poel’s form and should have his rivals feeling nervous ahead of the upcoming one-day races.Wout van Aert during Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne 2024 (Image: Getty)

Wout van Aert, on the other hand, hasn’t raced for almost one month, instead spending time at altitude in Tenerife, planning specifically to target the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – two races in which victories have eluded him, despite the Belgian coming close to victory on plenty of occasions. Earlier in the season, Van Aert’s third place in Omloop het Nieuwsblad and win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day have been proof enough that the Visma-Lease a Bike rider is serious about the Classics this year. Since E3 has one of the toughest finales of them all, it will be a true test as to whether his altitude camp has paid off.

Of course, neither of these riders will be able to win a race like the E3 Saxo Classic alone, and it’s important to look at the teams they will have supporting them when it comes to predicting who will come out on top. On paper, Visma-Lease a Bike have a breathtakingly strong Classics squad this season: joining the Dutch team has been transformative for the American rider, Matteo Jorgenson, who recently won Paris-Nice. Jorgenson will be an asset to Van Aert on Friday, as will riders like former Paris-Roubaix winner, Dylan van Baarle, last year’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Tiesj Benoot, and Omloop het Nieuwsblad winner Jan Tratnik.

Alpecin-Deceuninck, on the other hand, don’t have as many prolific winners in their ranks and a notable omission from the squad is Jasper Philipsen, the team’s sprinter who likely will find the parcours of E3 too challenging. Despite not having the same headline names as Visma-Lease a Bike, though, Van der Poel will be supported by some loyal and experienced domestiques who have a crucial understanding of the roads of Flanders. Michael Gogl, Søren Kragh Andersen and Oscar Riesebeek will be important players in Van der Poel’s bid to win E3, and it may be that having a team completely dedicated to him will be an asset to the Dutch rider. They don’t have as many options as Visma-Lease a Bike, but Alpecin-Deceuninck’s strategy for this race will be clear from the get go.Mathieu van der Poel before Milan-Sanremo 2024 (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

It should also be considered that there are plenty of other riders in the peloton who will fancy their chances at the E3 Saxo Classic. While all talk is about the clash of two superstars, teams like Soudal–Quick-Step will also want to make themselves seen in this race with riders like Kasper Asgreen, Julian Alaphilippe and Gianni Moscon. Likewise, the team of Lidl-Trek have been a force to be reckoned with so far in 2024, and both Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven showed impressive form in Milan-Sanremo last week. Bahrain-Victorious shouldn’t be counted out either, with Fred Wright and Matej Mohorič making a formidable pairing, and there’s also UAE Team Emirates to keep an eye on with the likes of Tim Wellens and Nils Politt. Riders such as Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny), Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty), Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) and Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers) are also going to put up a fight to the likes of Van Aert and Van der Poel.

Whatever happens on the famous climbs of Belgium in the E3 Saxo Classic tomorrow, by the end of the race, we’ll have a much clearer idea of which teams and riders are going to be able to challenge for victories in races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in a few weeks’ time. Van der Poel versus Van Aert is just one piece of a complicated puzzle that makes up the E3 Saxo Classic – it’s time to strap in for a wild couple of weeks on the cobbles.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix

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