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Preview: Van Avermaet primed for E3 victory

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Cycling continues in Belgium this week despite terrorist attacks in Brussels on Tuesday and a level four terror alert, the highest on the scale. On the cobbled roads and climbs west of Belgium’s capital of Brussels Friday, the country’s new king, Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing, is a favorite to rule the E3 Harelbeke.

 

Classics specialists face their biggest exam of the 2016 season in E3, an opening act for the bigger races: Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and Paris-Roubaix.

Van Avermaet stands above the rest, given his season to date, and he is looking for a major classics win. He won the first big one-day race, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, at the end of February, and continued his march with a stage win over Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan and the overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico.

Wednesday, as Belgium still reeled from the terrorists attacks, Van Avermaet showed no signs of weakening. He launched solo with 9 kilometers remaining and only succumbed to the group’s chase and Jens Debusschere’s (Lotto – Soudal) victory in the finishing sprint in the final 250 meters of the Dwars door Vlaanderen.

“It was a special day for us with what happened [Tuesday],” Van Avermaet said in a BMC press release. “Every Belgian guy was really motivated to try to show that we have to fight against it. I was hoping to win on a day like that. I feel pretty confident for the next two races. E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem are even more important than today so I hope to recover well and hopefully win.”

Twin terrorist attacks at the airport and a metro station Tuesday left 31 people dead and more than 250 injured. Flanders Classics decided to hold Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen race 24 hours later after security forces assured the safety of the cyclists and fans.

The threat level remains at four, or a serious threat of an imminent attack, but racing will continue in Belgium only 55 miles from its capital.

“We will take some precautions,” E3 Harelbeke director Jacques Coussens told Het Nieuwsblad. “We prohibit all backpacks, handbags or any other item that could be used to hide something. We will also have 25 extra security workers and screen images from cameras in place.”

Gent-Wevelgem, which this year celebrates its 59th edition, covers 206km in a loop east of Harelbeke. It crosses many of the famous cobbled sectors and climbs that are featured in the Tour of Flanders a week later. In 2015, Sky’s Geraint Thomas escaped with Etixx Quick-Step rider Zdenek Stybar and Sagan, and then attacked them to win solo.

Thomas is giving more attention to stage racing this year, as he’s skipping E3 Harelbeke and will focus on the Tour de France. Sagan, the reigning road world champion, should feature again this year given his recent near-misses in Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo. The same for goes for Stybar, who already scored an aggressive solo stage win in Tirreno-Adriatico.

Three-time E3 winner Fabian Cancellara of Trek-Segafredo traveled seven hours by car from Switzerland to reach Belgium, which closed its airports following Tuesday’s attacks. That, along with his recent Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico time trial wins, underscores how serious he is in his final season.

Expect Cancellara to attack, like Thomas did in 2015, perhaps with Sagan or Van Avermaet. Etixx could do so with Stybar, but also Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra. Boonen is racing to reach top form after a serious crash that resulted in a skull fracture last year in Abu Dhabi. Sky’s roster includes Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, and former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski.

If the race returns to Harelbeke in a small group, classics/sprinter types Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto – Soudal), and Milano-Sanremo victor Arnaud Démare (FDJ) should shine.

The Harelbeke forecast shows rain in the early morning, giving way to a partly cloudy afternoon.