E3 K.O.?

Sporza is reporting this morning that the organizers of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen believe that tomorrow's edition of the race is likely to be its last. If true, the impending death of the E3 it is the predictable outcome of moving Gent-Wevelgem from the Wednesday between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix to E3's traditional weekend before Flanders. It took all of two years.

The sad irony, of course, is that Gent is doing to E3 what Roubaix was effectively doing to Gent in the years leading up to the date change. Namely, key riders, if not whole teams, are opting to sit out the lesser ranked race to keep their powder dry for the higher caliber event to follow.

It's understandable. As various iterations of the ProTour concept came in, placing more importance than ever on the top-tier races, more and more riders were giving Gent a miss to rest up (and stay injury free) for Roubaix. So Gent moved to the weekend, and promptly became the event rider rested up for, rather than skipped to rest up for something else. After a feeling-out year in 2010, this year the arrangement has effectively sucked the life out of the lesser-ranked E3's field quality. The evidence? Tom Boonen, a four-time E3 winner, is sitting it out this year in a desperate attempt to gain World Tour points for his faltering QuickStep squad. Filippo Pozzato is doing the same thing for Katusha. But at least QuickStep and Katusha will have teams there. Not so for BMC, HTC, and Sky, three teams that have factored heavily in classics racing this year. All of them are giving E3 a miss to focus on Gent.

The potential loss of E3 and smaller races like it would obviously be a great loss to racing. Not just for the many reasons that lower-tier events are important (fan access, fostering new talent, rider preparation, etc.), but also because they provide some of the best classics racing. Unlike races in the UCI's various super-league schemes with their guaranteed (and, in some cases, forced) participation rules, races like E3 only feature teams that lust for the classics. There are no grand tour-centric squads phoning it in, no herds of short-straw Basques climbing off in the first feed zone. You get a combination of hard-hitting top-tier classics teams, and, maybe more importantly, hungry second-tier squads like Landboukrediet, Topsport-Vlaanderen, and Veranda-Willems. For those teams, races like the E3 are the big races, and it shows in their aggression. But the races still need some big stars on hand to attract the sponsor dollars.

So can the E3 be saved? Possibly. First, it's worth pointing out that the organizer might be doing a bit of hand-wringing over the loss of Boonen. Yesterday's version of the E3 start list still boasted, among others, Cancellara, Hushovd, Haussler, Devolder, Nuyens, Hoste, and Langeveld. But let's assume the situation is as grave as organizer Bart Ottevaere asserts. For E3, taking Gent's former Wednesday slot is not an option. As Ottevaere rightly pointed out to Het Laatste Nieuws, E3 is not a course for a Wednesday. Unlike Gent-Wevelgem, it cuts eastward from the Flemish Ardennes, tickling the weekday arteries of the Brussels metro area. Sure, the Flemish everyman likes his bike racing, but Brussels is full of diplomats, foreign and domestic, who are likely to be far less impressed when their shiny black Benz is landlocked by the lycra set on the way to the meeting du jour.

The more workable solution would be to flip the two races on the pre-Ronde weekend, moving Gent-Wevelgem to Saturday and E3 to Sunday. The move would effectively set up a situation analogous to the Het Nieuwsblad:Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne relationship. Putting the higher ranked race first lets the big guns go into the weekend's big prize rested and ready, then ride Sunday's lower tier event with more or less intensity as they see fit. Then, they still have the same six recovery days before the Ronde, just as they will after Gent this year. Yes, E3 will invariably continue to get a lower quality field than Gent, even with the change. That's the nature of being a lower-tier event, but the swap would significantly lessen the impact of sharing a weekend with a seemingly resurgent Gent-Wevelgem. Only problem is, according to its director, Gent-Wevelgem likes the ritzy feel of Sunday, and isn't going to give it up without a fight. How quickly they forget, no?