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Gent-Wevelgem Preview: Weekday Brawl

As the years pass by here at the Podium Cafe, I find previews getting shorter and shorter. With Gent-Wevelgem, certain aspects of the race can be summarized rather curtly, and nobody reading it will mind at all. For example: the course. It's 209km, they do two circuits with two climbs each (that's four climbs for those of you scoring at home), and if the climbs don't sort things out, the best sprinter wins. Sounds pretty straightforward, but two of those ascents are up the fearsome Kemmelberg, which in the eastern approach means a 3km climb averaging 4%... with ramps up to 22%. For a lotta guys, that's just gonna suck.

The weather could very well suck, with snow possibly falling tomorrow... but in all likelihood things will dry up for Wednesday and simply be cold and grey. There will be cobbles, crosswinds, crazy fans. It's Belgium in April.

Where it gets interesting is figuring out who might win. While a classic is a classic (translation: only the strong survive), Gent-Wevelgem is a critical piece of the April puzzle because the course draws out a slightly different rider than Paris-Roubaix or Flanders. Flanders emphasizes the bergs, to the extreme, while P-R ditches climbing entirely and punishes the pack all day with cobbles. Between these two poles lies Gent-Wevelgem, with too few climbs or cobbles to knock out the victims of the other races, though still enough to shake things out. And if it doesn't... enter the sprinters.

Historically speaking, G-W can only be called the sprinters' classic relative to Flanders and Roubaix; it's more likely to play out like a regular classic. Now, the sport is constantly evolving (and absolving me of having to actually learn the history), but going back to the 90s, the only pure sprinters to break through have been Thor Hushovd ('06), Mario Cipollini (3 times) and Djamoudine Abdujaporov. More often the race has been won by classics riders and maneuvers (Burghardt, Boonen, Klier, Hincapie, Vandenbroucke, Steels*) or an occasional surprise (Mattan, Van Bondt, Gaumont). Since every other race this year has been won by a solo breakaway, there's not much reason this should be any different.

For a rundown of all the favorites, check it out on the flip!

Let's look at the startlist and break this down categorically.

  • Fast Men On Form: Seb Chavanel, Francesco Chicchi, Oscar Freire, Thor Hushovd, Mark Cavendish, JJ Rojas Gil, Danilo Napolitano

Of these, Freire and Hushovd stand out big time: both looked plenty strong Sunday. Cavendish has the right makeup, and Rojas is my dark horse.

  • Fast Men On... who knows?: Erki Putsep, Robbie McEwen, Robbie Hunter, Heinrich Haussler, Koldo Fernandez.

Hm, plenty to like in this group, though I have no clue how their usual skills will translate Wednesday. Every year someone thinks McEwen will get it, but he's been even quieter this spring than normal.

  • Classics Champions Who Probably Won't Try to Win: Alessandro Ballan, Tom Boonen, George Hincapie, Fabian Cancellara, Filippo Pozzato, Juan Flecha

Every year some big names show up on the start list even though they're saying openly that they may not actually take the start, and if they do it'll be mostly just training. Of this list Pozzato is the only one I can even imagine taking a chance on the win. The rest? Nobody will say no to a win, but if they're in position to do so, it'll be by accident.

  • Classics Riders to Watch:  Stijn Devolder, Andreas Klier, Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Matti Breschel, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Rast, Thomas Vaitkus

Gilbert is exactly the kind of rider for this race, if his wins in Het Volk are any indicator. He's been here a couple times as well, with middlin' results. Stijn Devolder will come in as the favorite, if he's not worn out from celebrations. Arvesen was brilliant ten days ago on a course of similar length and difficulty. Rast and Vaitkus looked threatening at de Ronde.

  • And Don't Forget: Baden Cooke, Manuele Quinziato, Frederic Guesdon, Martin Elminger, Janek Tombak, Nico Eeckhoudt.