Nine days before the Tour of Flanders (April 2), the second Monument of the season two weeks after Milan-Sanremo, the "Big Three" has made an impression. These three are above the competition, including the Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe who has never been able to keep up with the hellish pace imposed in the seventeen climbs listed.

The Belgian Van Aert, already winner a year ago in Harelbeke, reassured himself by signing his first success of the season, "a confirmation of (his) very good legs after a few frustrating weeks".

The Dutchman Van der Poel, six days after his resounding victory in the Primavera, confirmed "to be at the top of (his) form", wanting to retain his "excellent sensations in the cobbled hills".

As for the Slovenian Pogacar, already victorious nine times in 2023, he has shown that he can compete with the "Flahutes" despite his lack of knowledge of the Flanders courses. "I made placement mistakes in the mountains that I will not make again in ten days," promised the two-time Tour de France winner.

Van der Poel started hostilities by attacking from the Taaienberg, 80 km from the line. Van Aert jumped directly into his wheel while Pogacar, misplaced, had to work to plug the hole. From that moment on, there was only for these three.

Mathieu van der Poel (left) started hostilities on the E3 Classic, attacking 80km from the finish judged in Harelbeke, March 24, 2023 © Tim De WAELE / BELGA / AFP / Archives

In the Paterberg, after a violent acceleration of Pogacar 40 km from the goal, there was already no one left to accompany them.

Less explosive and less comfortable than his two opponents in the steepest passages, Van Aert hung on - "I was on the limit in the Old Quaremont" 47km from the finish, he said - to deserve to fight for victory in the sprint.

A final package that he decided to throw 150 meters from the line to win by a length.

"I thought I was the freshest of the three. And as the wind was favorable, I went for it," explained the leader of the Jumbo-Visma formation. "The cyclo-cross World Championships served me as a lesson (he was beaten by Van der Poel at the end of January in Hoogerheide, editor's note). I didn't want a sprint that was too short."

Van Aert will therefore approach the upcoming races with confidence, starting with Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday, which Van der Poel should not compete in and not on the program of Pogacar who returns home to Monaco "to breathe". The UAE rider will only return to Belgium at the end of next week for the reconnaissance of the Ronde.

Wout van Aert, flanked by Mathieu van der Poel (left) and Tadej Pogacar on the podium of the E3 Classic on March 24, 2023 in Harelbeke. All three men crashed the race, the Belgian scored his first win of the season © JASPER JACOBS / BELGA / AFP / Archives

We will therefore only see the three men on the same race on the occasion of the great Flemish mass of April 2, which promises to be explosive and that the rivals of the fantastic three must already fear.

At the foot of the podium, the American Matteo Jorgenson won the title of "Best of the rest" (the best of the others) by taking fourth place on Friday.

© 2023 AFP