E3 Saxo Bank Classic 2021 – Preview – Ciclismo Internacional

E3 Saxo Bank Classic 2021 – Preview

By David Hunter

Harelbeke > Harelbeke 204km

Mini-Flanders is a fair description of E3.

Lots of familiar hills, plus cobbles, narrow roads and a furious peloton looking for glory.

Weather

It’s going to be windy, very windy. We’re talking about a normal wind of 30km/h, but gusting up to 50km/h. Coming from the south-west means lots of opportunities to split the race.

Key Points

I do love the Taaienberg. It might only be around 600m at 5%, but it’s a climb that always makes me get very excited. Usually the riders can smash up the gutter, but in 2019 the organisers put barriers up forcing the riders onto the cobbles. With 80km to go, this normally kicks off the finale of the race.

The Eikenberg is 1.2km at 4.7%, which doesn’t sound much, but the length of the climb means damage can be done.

The Paterberg is 400m at 11%, it is a joy to behold. Positioning at the foot is crucial, if you are too far back it’s game over.

You just can’t beat the Oude Kwaremont. This is the only race where it comes after the Paterberg, giving it the respect it deserves! Steep at the bottom, but serious damage can be done at the top. Unfortunately it looks like a strong headwind for the climb, what a shame.

Tactics

The race starts with 50km of cross/tailwind, followed by 50km of mainly headwind. The headwind should mean teams don’t try anything early in the race, but the race can split at almost any point in the last 100km. This is going to be fun.

All teams will be thinking the usual, how do we beat van der Poel and Van Aert?

Clearly this isn’t very easy. The racing needs to be on from early on, in order to try and drop all the domestiques from Alpecin-Fenix and Jumbo-Visma. This won’t be easy, E3 isn’t usually a race that blows apart early on. The key to beating the big two is to have numbers in the front group, forcing them to cover moves and waste energy. The problem is that we’ve not seen a team that’s been able to really do this either last season or this season, is it even possible? Deceuninck – Quick Step look strong, but DQT don’t have Alaphilippe, which will make life very difficult for them. To beat the big two without their main man is going to take a tactical masterpiece.

The teams might cling onto the hope that the race isn’t too selective. In previous years we’ve seen relatively large groups together in the closing stages. If we have a group of 10-15 riders together after the Kwaremont, it could be possible to upset the odds, similar to what happened in Gent-Wevelgem. We’ll have to wait and see, beating van der Poel and Van Aert is just bloody difficult.

Professional Insight

For this race I’m joined by Tiesj Benoot of Team DSM.

Contenders

Mathieu van der Poel – Sanremo wasn’t his day, it’s a hard race to win. This race is much better for him, the tougher the better. As usual, we head into a race wondering when he’ll attack. He’s clearly no fool and if he senses teams are starting to outnumber him, he’ll put in an effort to drop the weaker riders. The Paterberg is a brilliant climb for him, we all know he’s capable of an insane number of watts on a steep gradient. He knows that dropping Van Aert will be very difficult, but after Flanders he won’t mind going to the line for a two-up sprint.

Wout Van Aert – both he and van der Poel are very similar in these races. Van Aert’s current form is out of this world, I find it strange when people claim van der Poel is going better than him. He’ll be happy if we get a hard race, but he might need to be a little braver in the key moments. In Sanremo he had an opportunity to attack and bridge over to Kragh and Stuyven, but he hesitated, and his chance was gone. Sanremo is pretty unique in that respect, winning can come down to a split-second decision, the Belgian races usually offer longer periods where the race can be won. Given his current form, Van Aert will approach this race with lots of confidence.

Deceuninck Quick Step – no Alaphilippe, that means a change of plan compared to previous races. They have Asgreen, Lampaert, Ballerini, Štybar and Sénéchal. This gives them many options, but they lack a rider with the explosivity required to follow the big moves, which certainly is a big problem. Quick Step need to make the race hard from early on, to win this race they must get numbers up the road forcing others into chasing. If the race is all together for the Paterberg, they won’t be winning.

Trek-Segafredo – another team with multiple options. Stuyven, Pedersen, Theuns, Kirsch and Simmons are all more than capable of hanging around until deep into the race. Stuyven is fresh from winning Sanremo, his confidence will be sky high. Pedersen is going well, but I don’t think he’s been climbing as well as I’ve seen him. This race can sometimes end in a sprint, but given the weather conditions it’s very unlikely this year. I hope Pedersen is used in an attacking role, similar to when he was 2nd in the Tour of Flanders. Theuns and Kirsch are brilliant in the crosswinds and Simmons is their joker, a rider capable of many things despite his young age. Can they use their numbers to win the race?

Ineos – Pidcock, Narváez and Van Baarle should be their main men. Pidcock really is a sensational talent, to go that well in Sanremo was special. Narváez has impressed this season, but hasn’t got any results to brag about. I am very interested in Van Baarle, he has started the season in tremendous form. He skipped the opening weekend in order to try a slightly different approach for the upcoming races. Ineos could well have numbers in the front group, they look dangerous to me.

AG2R – they arrive with Van Avermaet and Naesen, two very strong cards to play. They haven’t quite got it right yet this year, but both are very strong on home soil. They don’t have the team to dictate the race, but having two men in the final front group would give them the upper hand. Can Oli eventually land a big one?

DSM – Benoot and Kragh are their chosen sons. Tiesj was sick at the end of Paris-Nice and had some time off his bike, but that could be exactly what he needed after a demanding start to the year. He has a very good record in this race, he always seems to be in the mix but is yet to finish on the podium. Kragh was in great form in Sanremo, he starts as one of the men to watch in this race. Similar to the other teams, having multiple riders in the front group is the key to success.

UAE – they might have Kristoff, but it should be all in for Trentin. He was 3rd back in 2015, he is a rider who usually does well in this race. Sanremo was good for him, he was able to follow the moves on the Poggio and his current form looks good. Unlike many of the other contenders, his team looks a little weak to me. This doesn’t mean he can’t challenge for the win, but it’s going to be difficult.

Prediction Time

I don’t think the other teams have worked out a way to beat van der Poel and Van Aert, they look too strong. In the two-up sprint I’ll take Wout Van Aert as my winner.

David Hunter

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