Van Aert targets hat-trick and Van der Poel at E3 Saxo Classic

cycling21 March 2024 06:43| © AFP
article image
Wout van Aert © Gallo Images

Belgium's Wout van Aert on Friday will attempt to become just the fourth man to win three successive E3 Saxo Classic titles with arch-rival Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel also in his sights.

The E3, first staged in 1958 and named after one of the major highways which runs through the Flanders region, is the first of a series over 10 days of hilly, cobbled and often rainy races dubbed 'Holy Week' by cycling-mad Belgian fans.

Last season Van Aert edged out Van der Poel as well as Slovenian ace Tadej Pogacar, and the champion has taken his defence preparation seriously, preparing at a high-altitude training camp.

"E3 is very similar to the Tour of Flanders," Van Aert said comparing Friday's race with next Sunday's Tour of Flanders, where around 800 000 roadside spectators are expected to cram the route.

"It's a lovely race and I'm curious to see how strong I am after the altitude training. I have been feeling good all winter and have kept my biggest goals in mind," said Van Aert.

Van Aert was selfless in his support of Jonas Vingegaard at the 2023 Tour de France where his Danish teammate swept to victory.

In the early season his goals are to win classics for himself and the team.

"I have often responded well to a training camp at altitude. I am confident that it will be the same this time."

Van Aert won the race in 2022 with a long-range attack from 42km out alongside teammate Christophe Laporte.

In 2023, he was first forced to close a gap on Pogacar and Van der Poel before crushing them in the sprint.

There are 17 short climbs on Friday's 207km route but the last of them is around 20km from the finish line.

Dane Mads Pedersen, Michael Matthews of Australia and Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe have all shown early season form.

Alaphilippe will be backed up by other potential winners in Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert.

But Van der Poel will be the man to mark as world champion, and winner last season of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

"My best years are still ahead of me," Van der Poel said when signing a contract extension this week.

The four-year-deal came days after he helped teammate Jasper Philipsen win the Milan-San Remo.

"I gave him that. But next time I'll be thinking about me," he said.

This was not lost on Van Aert. "He looks very strong doesn't he?" the champion admitted.