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Gent-Wevelgem Returns to its Roots

Gentwev_mediumAs we found out some six weeks ago, the Midweek Classic, a/k/a the Sprinters' Classic, will cease to be either in 2010, as the venerable cobbled event Gent-Wevelgem has bagged itself a more prestigious Sunday spot on the race calendar -- March 28, a week before the Tour of Flanders -- and celebrated by tacking another 50km onto the race. This is no mere reshuffling: these moves combine to completely change the character and significance of the race. Nor are they an accident. Let's look a little more closely at what these changes mean.

Like most of my cobbles pieces, this will take a few minutes. On the flip...

First, a little walk through history shows why the G-W organizers were able to make a claim on a primo Sunday slot:


  • Gent-Wevelgem was run on Sundays from its inception in 1945 until 1965, either the weekend before Flanders or the one after Roubaix (though even those races swapped places a couple times). 
  • From 1966 to 1980, G-W ran on either a Tuesday or Wednesday, but only in a few years ('72, '74-6, 78-9) was it sandwiched between the monuments in the familiar one-week, three-race format. Otherwise, it floated around to dates before or after the monuments, or in a two-week break between them.
  • Starting in 1981 until this year, GW was raced each year on the Wednesday between the two biggies. And starting in 1978, the race was shortened to something in the vicinity of 200km, down from 250.


The combined result of these changes has been to downgrade the competition, to put it bluntly. Not overnight, and not to the utter detriment of the race, but the G-W of the modern era is raced cautiously by the elite cobbles riders, who are either recovering from Flanders or guarding their form for P-R or both. Moving in to win G-W are predominantly guys who don't figure in the bigger races.

Check out the honor roll: before the changeover, the G-W podium was graced by the giants of the sport. Even in its early years, the race was won by world champions like Marcel Kint, Alberic Schotte, and Benoni Beheyt. Monument winners won G-W, like Raymond Impanis, who did the Flanders-Roubaix double in 1954, and Leon van Daele and Noel Fore. Then the mega-stars: Rik Van Looy and Jacques Anquetil won in the era just before Merckx. Then the Cannibal himself picks up a trio of wins in eight years, with Hoban, Maertens and Godefroot taking it other years; Roger de Vlaeminck, Felice Gimondi and Walter Planckaert were relegated to lower steps on the podium. And one final burst of stardom as Moser, Hinault and Jan Raas chipped in wins, before the new format took hold.

Since 1981, there have been some notable wins: Sean Kelly beat Gianni Bugno in 1988. Eric Vanderaerden beat Phil Anderson in 1985. Young guns like Tom Boonen (2004), Marcus Burghardt (2007), and Edvald Boasson Hagen scored classics breakthroughs at the race, heralding (maybe) bigger things. But for the most part, the race since 1981 has been won by sprinters: Guido Bontempi, Teun van Vliet, Tom Steels, Mario Cipollini (three times), Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire. All quality riders, but with no palmares in the adjacent weekend monuments.

Moreover, in the 29 years of the one-week/three-race format, only Vanderaerden won G-W and one of the other races consecutively, doing the Flanders/G-W Double in 1985. Kelly and Boonen are the only G-W winners to win Flanders or Roubaix in another year. Of the G-W winners' list, only Herman Frison, George Hincapie, Tom Steels and Thor Hushovd can boast a lower podium finish in Flanders or Roubaix somewhere along the way. This is pretty minimal overlap, suggesting that any such links are purely coincidental. G-W simply has not been a race for the Flanders and Paris-Roubaix kingpins.

So will that change? In all likelihood, yes. There are two factors to ponder. First, the calendar change, which puts G-W a full week before de Ronde, means that riders needn't worry that going too hard in the former will inhibit them in the latter. Might not want to do 100km solo en route to Wevelgem, but the top guys can afford to race hard, as long as the Kemmelberg is in good enough shape to minimize the injury risk. For proof, consider this: G-W takes the slot recently occupied by the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a/k/a Harelbeke). While shorter, the E3 race typically contains about two-thirds of the Flemish Ardennes climbs of de Ronde. It's a hard day in the saddle, a week before de Ronde. And the podiums have been thick with monument contenders: Boonen, Museeuw, Van Petegem, Pozzato, Wesemann, Ballan, Cancellara and Devolder have all climbed one of the three steps in the last 10 years.

Then there's the extra length. While the added 50k won't be full of climbs, the race hardly needs 'em. It's already a hard slog, thanks to cobbles, frequent crosswinds in the coastal loop, and two loops over the Monteberg and Kemmelberg climbs in the last 90 minutes of the race. Reverting back to 250km, hills or no, means that even if the pure sprinters hang around, you can't just expect them to keep their legs fresh and their guys on the front closing down attacks over such a long, miserable day.

This is huge news in my book. Instead of a couple weeks of warmups to a weeklong showdown, we have three races on consecutive Sundays to get fully excited about. E3 becomes a midweek warmup race, a respectable status for a race that hasn't been around long and is almost entirely reflected light. Unlike the E3, G-W has its own unique personality and lore, and deserves a place on the calendar all its own. The three Cobbled Classics are all pretty thoroughly distinct from one another, and the lineup of G-W-Flanders-Roubaix can be read "hard-harder-hardest." Gent-Wevelgem isn't merely muscling its way back into the spotlight by moving to the Sunday before de Ronde, it's altering the character of the Cobbles season, for the benefit of you and me.

Dang, is it March yet?