Sure there's two days between E3 and Gent-Wevelgem but this is the hangover-race from the big Friday party. There's no arguing that they've built a quality week with Dwars, E3 and G-W and the whole restructure has turned out a huge success but I still can't reconcile with the new role and prominence of G-W. It was a perfectly fine Wednesday race in the week between Flanders and Roubaix. Hard but not too challenging, losers from Flanders could use it to redeem themselves and some could use it as a Roubaix tune up. Either way the limitations of the course weren't a huge downside. As a big Sunday Main Event it falls just a little short, it simply lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. As good as it can be under the right circumstances it can also turn into a disappointing sprintfest and then you really do get that throbbing-in-the-temples Sunday hangover feeling. But then again, when it's good, it's just a double bonus. An extra tasty surprise dessert after a great meal where you were perhaps just expecting an OK-ish cup of coffee.
It's a long bugger nowadays. The organizers have been making the race longer these last years presumably, judging by this map, to make it go past even more breweries. Or otherwise to give it even more of hardness since the course isn't as littered with leg-sapping climbs as E3 and Dwars and we are, not so gently, building up to the 250+ km Ronde and Roubaix afterall. Last year the arctic spring weather forced the race to be shortened to a measly 185 km but now we're back up to a comfy 233 km
The fairly recent Friday-Sunday combo of E3/Wevelgem has created it's own dynamic. For a few years they used to battle over which race would get the most stacked startlist but nowadays they are basically equal but with a twist. In a parallel to Omloop/Kuurne the teams take out some of their attackers and put in some of the big name sprinters. Guys like
Cavendish (out with fever), Greipel, Modolo and a few more who don't really fancy their chances in any of the other cobbled classics all line up here with good sensations. And also that Slovakian guy. Their confidence isn't misplaced either, the race seems to come down to a big sprint about half the time. Two of the more memorable exceptions lately are last years late killer attack from Sagan and 2010 when the race was decided in a small group sprint and Eisel beat out a cramping youngster from Topsport Vlaanderen, Sep Vanmarcke.
Where Will the Race Be Won?
TV viewers could get unlucky and it might even be (at least half) decided in the first hours of the race as the riders go out on a loop towards the North Sea. If the weather plays havoc the sidewinds and echelons sometime send a large part of the field into early DNFs as the winning selection is made early. Those conditions are how legends and myths about young Norwegians being the next Eddy Merckx are born. This year though the forecasts seem to be for sunny and fairly mild winds so at the moment that looks like an unlikely scenario. Instead the big decider is the two passages of the Kemmelberg and Monteberg. If the sprinters teams can control the action reasonably there they have a good chance of making this race into a fairly bloodless march to a sprint. Looking at the actual teams though it's hard to see the real powerhouses having a huge interest in going all in for this scenario. Both Omega Pharma and Lotto have too many cards to play beside their fast guys and the other sprinter-lead teams don't really have the manpower to hold it even if they try.
Who Do I Need to Know?
Arnaud Démare. With a very slight question mark for the distance this is exactly the type of race the kid could start winning. It's hard enough, it's going to take some speed at the line to win and it's the type of messy finish where the FDJ team can really help him out. He also seems to ride aggressively enough to be able to cover both the outcomes, a reduced group sprint and the big rumble. If it comes to the latter the FDJ leadout excels in those finishes, not a big sprint after a long grinding stage where the leadouts have been biding their time for the last km trains but a hectic finale where the job is to hobble together what guys you have left and try and set up as best you can. This is an area where FDJ can compete and Démare can capitalize. But Démare can also make the split should all hell break loose on the Kemmelberg, his ride in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad demonstrated that.
Pick to Win:
John Degenkolb. The guy is on the cusp of of superstardom. He just needs one big win under his belt to push him over. Also he's Démare a few years down the line. Same skillset, same position on the underdog team with the quality leadout. He lacked a little to go with the best on the climbs in E3 but I say he bobs, bobs bobs his head to a big win at last. And then, lookout Flanders.