Five days after Milano-Sanremo, the Classics season heads north to Belgium, with the E3 Harelbeke on March 28th bringing together many of the top names in the UCI WorldTour.
A little over 212 kilometres long, the E3 Harelbeke features 17 cobbled climbs, the last - the Tiegemberg - coming just 14.1 kilometres from the finish. And that is not the only challenge awaiting the peloton. Whilst the short, sharp climbs of Flanders always make it tough for the pack to stay together, the exposed nature of much of the course and possible rough weather will all help ensure only the strongest riders will be in a position to battle for victory in the first Belgian cobbled Classic of the 2014 UCI WorldTour calendar.
All three winners of the E3 Harelbeke in the last five years - Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma - Quick Step) and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), who won it in 2009 - are taking part. Of the three, Cancellara is the best placed in the individual rankings of the UCI WorldTour, in seventh place with 84 points.
Second in Milano-Sanremo, and as last yearâ€™s winner and with three victories to his name already in the E3 Harelbeke, the Swiss rider is one key top pre-race favourite. A victory would propel him into the WorldTour lead ahead of the current top rider in the individual ranking, Paris-Nice winner Carlos Alberto Betancur (AG2R La Mondiale). However, Tom Boonen, who has no less than five victories in the same Classic in his palmares and who won the E3 Harelbeke for four successive years, from 2004 to 2007, is unquestionably Fridayâ€™s other top contender.
The list of favourites does not stop there, of course. All of last yearâ€™s top five - Cannondaleâ€™s Peter Sagan, Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Sebastian Langeveld (Garmin-Sharp) - will once again be present alongside Cancellara and Boonen at the startline in Harelbeke. Double Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing), Belgian Classics specialist Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), former Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Sharp) and Lotto-Belisolâ€™s one-day specialist Jurgen Roelandts are also names that cannot be ruled out.
In the UCI WorldTour nations classification, Australiaâ€™s leadership with 336 points is by a big enough margin - they are 70 points ahead of their closest pursuers Spain - to make it impossible to dislodge them in a single event. However, after establishing a very strong lead on home soil in the Tour Down Under, the UCI WorldTourâ€™s opening event, Australia have gained few points since January, and the gaps are closing.
Concerning the UCI WorldTour teams classification, the situation is far more unstable, with the top two squads, leaders Movistar Team and AG2R La Mondiale, separated by just two points. A further six squads are less than 70 points behind. Should the Spanish or French team fail to impact on Fridayâ€™s E3 Harelbeke, then, there are plenty of candidates waiting in the wings to move into the top place overall.