E3, the no-limits highway

The E3 BinckBank Classic, the 10th event of the 2019 UCI WorldTour, has the unusual accolade of being named after the nearest highway to its finishing town, Harelbeke. However, the Flemish Classics specialists have no speed limit to worry about when it comes to contesting “the little Tour of Flanders,” as it is named by Belgian media.

Much younger than the Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres, which celebrated its centennial in 2013, the race created in Harelbeke has gone by a number of different names (Harelbeke-Antwerpen-Harelbeke from 1958 to 1969, Grote Prijs E3-Harelbeke from 1970 to 2002, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen from 2003 to 2010, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke in 2011, and E3 Harelbeke when it acquired the UCI WorldTour status in 2012 until this year’s rebranding as E3 BinckBank Classic). The curiosity is E3 which isn’t, and never has been, a sponsor. E3 was a series of secondary roads and highways created by European decree in 1950, to connect Stockholm in Sweden, to Lisbon in Portugal. Harelbeke is situated alongside the motorway section between Antwerp and Kortrijk. The bike race, with a U-turn in Antwerp, was created in the 1950s to celebrate the new highway. But there’s no E3 on Belgian road maps nowadays. Drivers use the A17 to reach Harelbeke. E3 is a symbolic name serving as a reminder of how the construction of the roads changed the lives of people – and of cyclists.

The E3 BinckBank Classic is a pure Flemish Classic using famous cobbled climbs such as the Kruisberg, the Taaienberg, the Paterberg and the Old Kwaremont. Tom Boonen is the record-holder of victories with five (in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2012) surpassing Rik van Looy (winner in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1969) towards the end of his career. The GP E3, as it remained commonly known, was a purely local affair with only Belgian winners in the first 20 years - with the exception of Germany’s Dietrich Thurau in 1977 – but strangely the winners’ list doesn’t feature the name of Eddy Merckx, who came second to his compatriot Hubert Hutsebaut in 1972. Australia’s Phil Anderson was the first overseas winner in 1985. GP E3 was the first Flemish Classic – or semi-Classic at the time – won in 1992 by Johan Museeuw who had already finished second to Edwig van Hooydonck in the Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres the previous year. It was also Andrei Tchmil’s first Flemish Classic victory, only two weeks before he claimed an epic Paris-Roubaix on a muddy course in 1994.

The race has become much more international in the 21st century with the development of the “holy fortnight”: the series of races leading up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres. The winners the past ten years have been Norway’s Kurt Asle Arvesen, Italy’s Filippo Pozzato, Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, Welshman Geraint Thomas (no wonder he won the edition of the Tour de France that featured the biggest amount of cobblestoned sections of the modern era), Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski and Dutchman Niki Terpstra, with Boonen and Greg Van Avermaet the only two recent Belgian winners.

This year’s “holy fortnight” has begun with a dream podium at the Three Days of Bruge-De Panne, uniting on stage the current crème de la crème of the world’s sprinters: Dylan Groenewegen, Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani. In the same region, it’s unlikely that the fastest men will finish in a bunch gallop in Harelbeke: the specialists of the “bergs” are in no mood to hide their form nine days ahead of the Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres. Being part of the UCI WorldTour means it’s a very important race for riders and teams of all horizons, not only for the local Belgian scene as in the times of celebrating the inception of a highway. The E3 BinckBank Classic may be a “Kleine Ronde” (a little Tour of Flanders) with 60km less to be covered (207 vs 267) but its prestige keeps growing.