This Sunday’s race is the most sprinter-friendly of the cobbled classics and it’s World Tour race too, so we get action and a deep field. Cobbles and climbs feature but so does a long section to the finish line to suit the sprinters. Only the weather could ravage the race with very strong winds forecast.
The Route: at 239km this is a big test, once the distance goes out beyond 200km a lot of lesser names will fall out of contention. It’s really Deinze-Wevelgem as the start is 25km away from Gent. The second half of the route sees a series of cobbled climbs starting with the Casselberg or Mont Cassel as the locals call it because it’s in France.
Mont Cassel: the course is about the second half when the race crosses into France for the first climb of Mont Cassel which is tackled twice. It’s longer and higher than your typical berg and it’s urban and includes the Porte d’Aire archway. If it’s cobbled in part, it’s smooth and sections of pavé have had asphalt poured on top to level things out. It’s not decisive but it’s hard and saps the legs with a section at 19%.
The Kemmelberg: 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.
The Finish: fast and flat and on a wide road.
The Scenario: this race has often ended in a bunch sprint only from a reduced group meaning. It’s not about a grand tour style sprint finish but a select group where some sprinters can win thanks to their finishing speed. The lead group gets thinned by the climbs and crosswinds and this year’s edition will see savage winds and teams will exploit this to reduce the field.
However the wind is not going to be at 90 degrees to the bunch for long, the race heads towards the coast before heading south at Adinkerke and it’ll be exposed there for almost 40km then there’s more or less a tailwind to the bergs where the race loops around in all directions – this is the place to blow apart what’s left of the race – before a tailwind to Wevelgem and if there’s still a big group left, the tailwind multiplies the chance of a crash.
The Contenders: a sprint finish, foul weather mean Alexander Kristoff is the prime pick. He’s in good shape, has a strong team and has come close to a result. He is a strong sprinter but has that deep strength needed to charge to the line after 240km.
The last time a Flemish classic ended in a sprint for the line Mark Cavendish beat Kristoff in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne but he’s had a run of bad luck this month. He’s still a strong pick but he’s been dropped in recent years on the climbs in this race and the crosswinds won’t help him stay in place. Etixx-Quickstep will want to help him reach the finish but riders like Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdeněk Štybar are not going to wait for him.
John Degenkolb is next. He won last year and returns stronger and more confident than ever, this confidence spreads to the team who will bury themselves as they know he can win. He made the cut in the E3 Harelbeke.
Peter Sagan has won here before, going solo in 2013 to finish with a wheelie. Those days seem distant but he’s not far away from a result and maybe his forceful style is suited to staying upright in the strong winds. The risk for him and his team is he wastes energy with attacks rather than relying on his sprint.
Arnaud Démare made the podium last year. The classics are his big goal and as a sprinter this is D-day for him. Many were surprised to see Nacer Bouhanni sixth in Sanremo but remember he was 10th in the Worlds last year, all done after training solo when FDJ benched him for speaking out against Marc Madiot, so he can go the distance too.
André Greipel had a big crash last year when he could have sprinted to the win. Now he’s back and with a decent team including Jens Debusschere for the sprint too. Jurgen Roelandts quietly made the top-10 in Harelbeke and is coming into form just at the right time.
There’s no guaranteed sprint and Sep Vanmarcke is a good pick to win from a small group, he just needs a bit of luck and maybe some stealth and craft to hide, team mate Tom Van Asbroeck is fast if he can make the finish. Greg Van Avermaet is perhaps a touch weaker than Vanmarcke but backed by a much stronger team, Daniel Oss and Jempy Drucker.
Team Sky bring Bradley Wiggins, an attraction for the public but a less obvious winner. Ian Stannard‘s getting over a bug while Geraint Thomas is going to be heavily marked. Elia Viviani is the house sprinter but after 240km can he deliver? Luke Rowe brings more options but seems to be functioning as a deluxe helper.
Trek Factory Racing will count on Giacomo Nizzolo and Danny Van Poppel for the sprint. Both have won this year and should win more but after such a long race their chances are reduced. Worth watching Stijn Devolder too, the enigma has some large shoes to fill now Fabian Cancellara is sat at home. Sam Bennett is improving and if was 12th last year can he do better? The question is the weather, last year’s balmy conditions suited a bunch sprint so making it to the outskirts of Wevelgem is going to be a lot harder.
MTN-Qhubeka’s chances could be copy-pasted from previous previews: new hires, lots of sprinters, few wins with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Gerald Ciolek looking the best options.
|Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb|
|Peter Sagan, Niki Terpstra, Greg Van Avermaet|
|Arnaud Démare, Nacer Bouhanni, Zdeněk Štybar, Geraint Thomas|
|Viviani, Debusschere, Bozic, Nizzolo, Van Aesbroeck, Boasson Hagen|
Some obvious names but all picks should be discounted by the uncertainty the wind will bring. Last year’s balmy conditions suited a bunch sprint, this year promises the opposite.
Weather: grey, wet and a top temperature of 11°C. So far so normal for the Belgian spring. Only the wind is forecast to howl, it’ll blow at 40km/h from the west with one website forecasting 95km/h gusts which could be enough to stop the race, it’s 10 on the Beaufort scale and enough to blow riders off the road and fell large branches from the trees.
TV: it’s on Sporza, Eurosport and other channels. Coverage starts at 2.15pm and the finish is expected for 5.05pm Euro time.
Note the clocks change in Europe this weekend. If you’re inclined, be ready to hop channels or browser tabs as it’s also the finish of the Volta a Catalunya with its tricky Montjuic circuit while the Criterium International gets its decisive showdown on the Col de l’Ospedale.