The 2013 UCI WorldTour heads to Northern Europe this weekend for the first of the big-name Belgian Classics on the cobbles and steep hills of the Flanders region.
E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke will be held on Friday March 22 and Gent-Wevelgem two days later on Sunday March 24, with the passionate and well-informed Belgian cycling fans likely to pack the race routes and cheer on the riders, whatever the weather conditions.
Both races offer 80 UCI WorldTour ranking points to the winner, with other points awarded until tenth place, and so the two one-day Classics will shake up the season-long ranking.
France's Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) currently leads the individual rankings with 120 points after his fifth place at Paris-Nice and fourth at Milan-Sanremo. Australia's Richie Porte (Team Sky) is second with 113 points after his overall victory at Paris-Nice and Tom Slagter (Blanco Pro Cycling) is third with 111 points thanks to his early-season victory at the Santos Tour Down Under.
Team Sky lead the team ranking with 320 points. Omega Pharma-Quick Step is second and RadioShack-Leopard is third. Spain tops the nations ranking, ahead of the USA and Great Britain.
A taste of Flanders
E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke traditionally gives the riders a taste of what is to come in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which this year will be held on Sunday March 31.
The 209km route includes 15 short climbs or 'Hellingen' as they are known in Flemish. Each one stretches out the peloton, tests the riders fitness and so creates a gradually selection of the strongest riders.
Belgian national hero Tom Boonen used his fast sprint finish to win the 2012 edition of E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke, beating Spain's Oscar Freire and Bernhard Eisel of Austria. Boonen will wear number one this year but his chances of a record breaking sixth victory are slim after his winter was affected by a stomach problem and an elbow infection.
Chavanel is a far likely candidate for success but will face tough opposition from current world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team), Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Leopard), Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida).
The sprinter's Classic
Gent-Wevelgem is often called the sprinter's Classic due to the dominance of the fast finishers in the 75-year history of the event. However the two climbs of the Kemmelberg hill in the final 60km often leave the race finally balanced, with breakaways occasionally getting the better of the sprinters and their teams.
The 235km race route starts in Deinze and follows an anti-clockwise route. It passes close to the Belgian coast, where winds often split the peloton and spark echelons, and visits northern France before heading to the Kemmelberg circuit and then east to the finish.
Tom Boonen completed rare E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem double in 2012, beating Peter Sagan and Matti Breschel of Denmark with another sprint. Boonen will likely share leadership responsibilities with teammate Mark Cavendish this year and could help the British rider add the Belgian Classic to his already rich palmares of success.
Peter Sagan will be looking for revenge after losing Milano-Sanremo to Germany's Gerald Ciolek. He is currently fifth in the individual UCI WorldTour rankings with 92 points and so could top the ranking if he performs well in both races.