This Sunday’s race can’t be as good as last year’s wild wind edition. Normally this 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, obstacle free run to the finish line to suit the sprinters. This time the wind will blow but more moderately, it’s there to be exploited by those teams who fear a sprint finish.
The Route: 243km, 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 in Deinze, some 25km away from Gent. The second half of the route, depicted in the cropped profile above, has a series of cobbled climbs starting with the Catsberg or Mont des Chats as the locals call it because it’s in France. There’s no climb of the Mont Cassel this year with its Porte d’Aire archway.
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. It forms a duo with the Baneberg, 270m at 9% average and with a 15% section, it’s tarmacked, just, and half famous for the chairlift that lifts people to the top… in case you need to know it connects two cafés rather than a ski resort.
The Finish: fast and flat and on a wide road. There’s often a real tension as the sprint approaches, in some ways reminiscent of a horror film where you know something is about to happen in a scene and are on the edge of your seat fearing the gruesome moment. Here it’s because of the sprint danger, there’s nothing inherently dangerous with the road, it’s the punch-drunk riders fighting for space at 60km/h that tends to cause the accidents.
The Scenario: this race has often ended in a bunch sprint only from a reduced group so if you think of a sprint, don’t compare it to a flat stage of a grand tour. Here the lead group gets thinned by the climbs and crosswinds and the sprinters who can survive the Kemmelberg will have few helpers left to put them in position and control the race.
Fernando Gaviria is the curiosity pick. We wondered if Sanremo would be too much but he was in the mix so today is a similar test, shorter in distance but with a lot more danger along the way, knowing how to be in the right place at the right time counts for a lot more here. But who would be against him in the sprint? Etixx-Quickstep bring a strong team and can play more cards, notably Niki Terpstra and Zdeněk Štybar to cover any action in the crosswinds and the likes of Stijn Vandenbergh and Nicolas Maes to make it happen or Matteo Trentin as another sprint option. Tom Boonen made the winning move in the E3 so look to see if he can be a factor in this race too. It’ll be interesting to see how they race, do they try to exploit the crosswinds or chase down moves to play the sprint card?
Lotto-Soudal bring André Greipel, recovered from injuries but possibly short of race days in his legs. Still he’s a formidable opponent and is only one part of a formidable team with Jens Debusschere a good pick for the sprint and Tiesj Benoot and Jürgen Roelandts to cover the attacks.
Alexander Kristoff is ill
seems to be the bookmakers’ pick and with his power and sprint finish he’s a sensible choice but the form doesn’t seem to be there and there’s now a problematic pattern for him to overcome. If he can get over the Kemmelberg then he’s in with a shout for sprint but ever since Paris-Nice his aura of invincibility has vanished.
Peter Sagan‘s been first and third in this race and is well suited to a repeat. He and his team will need to help split up the race so as to eject as many sprint rivals as possible.
BMC Racing have a real interest in splitting up the race because Greg Van Avermaet can win from a small group but not the bunch sprint and the team doesn’t have an obvious alternative for the sprints, Jempy Drucker is fast but has only one win during a long stretch as a pro. GVA though skipped the E3 with a stomach bug and a 243km without being able to digest everything properly is a problem.
A similar story at Lotto-Jumbo, Sep Vanmarcke can win from a small group but not a bunch sprint so the Dutch team need to do what Dutch teams do and make waaiers, the fan-like formations that appear in a crosswind. Tom Van Asbroeck has a good sprint but a win would be a huge surprise.
Trek-Segafredo can play two sprint cards in Giacomo Nizzolo and Niccolò Bonifazio while Edward Theuns is a joker card to play, good in the sprint and crosswinds but they’re all riders with a curious distribution of results, a lot of podiums and placings but few wins. Of course Fabian Cancellara is the ace and may want to test out the legs again but after Friday’s riding the answer seems to be there already.
Team Sky also have classics contenders
in Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe with Elia Viviani for the sprint but can the Italian cope with the climbs. Probably but the doubt is there.
Edvald Boasson Hagen leads Dimension Data. He’s been sick with the flu since Sanremo so his chances look slim, even if he’s made a full recovery he’ll have lost some condition during the week so a repeat of his 2007 win when he first made a name for himself – it was a midweek race then – by riding away
Arnaud Démare was hardly visible in the E3 but returns to a race that suits him much more, he’s been on the podium here before in 2014 and his long sprint is suited to this kind of finish.
Nacer Bouhanni is a late entrant after pulling out from the Volta a Catalunya complaining of stomach problems. Normally you can’t start a race elsewhere if the race you’ve abandoned is still running but permission can be granted and presumably Cofidis have this. If he has been ill then 240km is a big ask but see how he coped with Milan-Sanremo.
Completing our trio of French sprinters is Bryan Coquard of Direct Energie. Second in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, “Le Coq” was with the lead group in the E3 Harelbeke until the Paterberg when he jammed his chain which was more than most would have expected.
|Fernando Gaviria, Peter Sagan, Jens Debusschere, Arnaud Démare|
|Niki Tepstra, Sep Vanmarcke, Tiesj Benoot, Bryan Coquard, Jürgen Roelandts, Elia Viviani|
|Van Avermaet, Štybar, Bonifazio, Nizzolo, Oss, Trentin, Keukeleire|
Weather: a storm is forecast to hit Belgium… on Monday so the race is safe for 24 hours. Instead there will be a few light rain showers, cool temperatures of 12°C and a persistent 25km/h wind from the South-West meaning crosswinds, especially on the final run from Ieper to Wevelgem
TV: it’s on Sporza, Eurosport and other channels. The race starts at 11.30am, TV coverage starts at 2.15pm and the finish is expected for 5.30pm 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.
Women’s Race Preview: the women’s Gent-Wevelgem is on too with the star in Ieper at 11.20am and the finish in Wevelgem forecast for 2.15pm. Last year’s race saw Floortje Mackaij triumph in the crosswinds but now Boels Doelmans seem unstoppable. See Cyclingtips for an expert preview.