Once a midweek consolation for the sprinters amidst the classics season, this is a World Tour race on a Sunday and a full-on dress rehearsal for next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Mont Cassel, the Kemmelberg and more difficulties await but the biggest threat comes from the weather with snow likely. This could change the route or even force a cancellation of the race. A confident press release last night said the race “is sure go ahead” but if a race can stop traffic, it can’t control the weather. The start has been moved to Gistel nearer the coast but nobody can be sure until tomorrow morning. Should the race go ahead then the weather will remain a real danger with winds of 50km/h.
With fingers crossed for the race, here is preview with all the usual commentary on the route, TV timings and two forecasts, one for the weather and one for the race.
Another race with a false name, Gent-Wevelgem does not start in Gent. Instead Deinze should be host to the start, a town of about 30,000 people some 25km away from Gent. It was the hometown of Karel Van Wijnendaele, the journalist who started the Tour of Flanders race in 1913. However bad weather has seen the start moved to Gistel towards the coast… the hometown of Johan Museeuw, the “Lion of Flanders” from the 1990s.
The course is 234km long and heads west to the coast, through Tielt, Torhout and Gistel before reaching the port and resort of Oostende. Here the race hugs the coast. In years past the race has seen crosswinds shred the peloton to pieces, with riders blasted by the sand blown off the beach but Sunday’s edition looks calm, the kind of day when a visit to the Belgian coast could almost be a pleasant outing. See the detailed weather forecast below.
The race turns away from the coast and heads inland, crossing into France and past old coal mines and slag heaps that tell of the region’s industrious past and dull present. It’s here the climbing begins with Mont Cassel (Casselberg) tackled twice, once on each side. Onwards to the Mont des Cats (Catsberg) in Dutch, These French climbs are paved, proper roads and whilst short and steep, are not savage. Back into Belgium and the race twists and turns to include as many bergs as possible in order to soften up the field and prevent an inevitable bunch sprint. In particular the Kemmelberg is climbed twice.
Once the site of slaughter in the First World War, the Kemmel now welcomes all to ride up its cobbled road. It has been used in this race since 1955 when it was wholly unpaved. Now a mix of tarmac and cobbles, there are several routes up and down and recent editions have seen the race take a more sensible descent after the cobbles provoked bouncing water bottles, bikes and even riders to fell others in the race, notably Jimmy Casper.
This sanitisation means the climb can be less decisive than in the past but it remains a rough climb where riders tend to pick the dirt path to the side of the cobbles; and even if the descent is on tarmac it is narrow and twisty. With the Kemmelberg out of the way there are 30km to the finish.
Peter Sagan? As I said in Milan-Sanremo, his greatest weakness is his reputation because nobody wants to find themselves with him with a kilometre to go and if they do, then like Gerald Ciolek, they’ll patiently wait on his wheel. But this race offers a selective route.
People say Team Sky need a result. They made their ambitions clear for the classics season but have yet to get the result they want and consequently people are wondering what they’re doing. None of this matters really because a win in the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix will change everything. But they come with a galaxy of stars, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and extra sprint options with Chris Sutton and Bernhard Eisel.
Another team where it’s hard to pick the leader is Omega Pharma-Quickstep because Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen ride together. Last year Cavendish saw the lead group form in front of his eyes and ride away, he was just a few wheels off the pace whilst Boonen made the front group, crucially with three team mates to drive the pace and take the group away from others. The same story too with BMC Racing where Philippe Gilbert, Taylor Phinney, Daniel Oss and Greg Van Avermaet can each hope of the win.
Fabian Cancellara is obviously strong but no matter how good you are, a 50km/h headwind spells trouble and it’s hard to see him soloing away this time although it would be possible if his chasers can’t club together. André Greipel missed the move too last year but Lotto-Belisol come with Jurgen Roelandts as insurance, he punctured at the wrong time in the GP E3 Harelbeke on Friday. Orica-Greenedge’s best bet seems to be Sebastien Langeveld who is now assuming “dark horse” status for the remainder of the cobbled classics although Matthew Goss is a sprint option. The long flat finish suits the sprinters meaning this race is harder for the likes of Juan-Antonio Flecha or the impressive Andrey Amador but the weather could change everything. John Degenkolb of Argos-Shimano, Daniele Bennati of Saxo-Tinkoff and Arnaud Démare of FDJ as outside sprint picks. Wildcard invites Europcar come with Damien Gaudin and Seb Turgot, both in form and remember Turgot made the podium in Roubaix last year.
Often a bunch finish sprint albeit from a smaller group the grim conditions suggest even fewer riders will make it to the finish. In fact you wonder if riders will bail on this race given the Tour of Flanders next weekend? The cold could force a lot of riders to stop and therefore make it harder for the teams with sprinters to set up their riders.
Still, this is the classic for Mark Cavendish to win. You sense the Tour of Flanders is for other OPQS riders and this one is for him. If it becomes a war of attrition in the cold perhaps we could see Ian Stannard and J-A Flecha together, each turning on the power, their only weapon.
But given we don’t know if the race is going to happen, predicting the winner is even harder…
Last year was hot enough to make the finish line photo hazy but no such luck this time with snow threatening the race.
- Temperatures will range between -5°C and 3°C (23-37°F )
- Overnight and early morning snow will turn to sleet and then dry out leaving cloudy skies
- A 50km/h wind will blow from the east meaning an early tailwind and a powerful headwind to the finish line. But for much of the race it means a crosswind and it will only make the race harder
Given all this the race organisers are concerned about another Milan-Sanremo. Remember Milan-Sanremo was cold but the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was colder, so cold that men and women alike had to go to hospital with frozen eyeballs (light tissue damage, not frozen solid of course). The difference with Sanremo was that the snow was wet and heavy and soaked the riders to the skin. The race route could be changed, for example there’s talk the loop into France for Mont Cassel and Le Mont des Cats could be scrapped but the snow knows no borders.
The latest is that the race is on but will start from Gistel near the coast. Then each climb and descent will be checked one by one and those that are ridable will be used but if some are risky they’ll be deleted from the route.
Local coverage starts at 2.20pm Euro time with the finish expected from 4.40pm to 5.10pm Eurotime. Belgian TV has the race and cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv will offer links to more video streams.