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Gent - Wevelgem Preview: Cobbled Classic or Sprinters' Playground?

Another day, another cobbled race... how are we supposed to keep them apart in our minds? Coming exactly one week before the big show begins, Gent - Wevelgem is one of the bigger tune-up races and while it fails to match E3 Harelbeke in popularity and similarity to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, it creates its own interesting racing dynamic.

Boonen won Gent-Wevelgem in sprint finishes in 2011 and 2012. Can he go three for three?
Boonen won Gent-Wevelgem in sprint finishes in 2011 and 2012. Can he go three for three?
Fotoreporter Sirotti

Ten climbs dot the parcours of Gent - Wevelgem, all tough Flandrian ones, most cobbled. Yet this is a race not defined purely by the climbs but also the fierce wind that rips through the fields in the area by the ocean. In 2010, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara were among the riders caught out in crosswinds in the first half of the race, not even making it to the hellingen in the lead group. That year, Bernie Eisel won and our eyes turned towards the runner up, an even younger Sep Vanmarke. In 2009, wind and rain tore apart the race, leaving a budding Edvald Boasson Hagen alone with Aleksandr Kuschynski in the final kilometers. Oscar Freire has won here, as have other hardened sprinters, but everything depends on the weather.

This is what gives Gent - Wevelgem its unique flavor amongst a bevy of Flandrian races crammed into a nineteen day period - its complete unpredictability. The race no longer starts in Gent but instead in an outskirt, Deinze, and ploughs a potentially headwind-riddled journey towards the Belgian coast for 60 kilometers before veering sharply left. This is where the race can come alive as winds blow across the beach towards the race route, hitting it on the peloton's exposed right flank. Except this year, the wind is going to come from the east northeast. This means a fierce 35kph crosswind for the first hour and half of racing and then a screaming tailwind along the coast. See, didn't I say this race was unpredictable?

After 30 kilometers of racing near the coast the parcours begins to drift south, pulled towards the hellingen that dot the inland areas. Here is where the second act of the race starts with two climbs of the Casselberg before the race does two loops of a short circuit including the Banaberg, Kemmelberg, and Monteberg. All of these climbs come between kilometers 134 and 199, or an average of one climb per ten kilometers. The climbs get closer together as the race goes on and the final two climbs - the Kemmelberg and Monteberg - are separated by a mere four kilometers, barely enough time to descend one before turning uphill.

This area is a perfect launching pad for opportunists and those riders who lack a sprint, but being rewarded for such bravery some 42 kilometers from the finish is rare. Last year, Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan went on a rampage here - or tried to - before they were brought back by Sky and Omega Pharma - Quickstep, two teams with strong sprinters still in the peloton. This year, the wind will be blowing at riders' sides and in their faces for the final flatter sections of road, which should play into the favor of whatever sprinters remain in the group. For the attacking riders, Sunday may be more about training than it is winning a race.

Last year a group of near 30 riders finished together in a sprint won by Tom Boonen over Peter Sagan and Matti Breschel. The year before, it was almost 50 riders entering the final 5km together. The question is not really whether the race will end in a bunch sprint, but how big? 15 riders, or 60? In large part, the early weather of the race will determine just how large the final group will be, but with winds predicted to be over 30kph all day and a high just barely over freezing, the odds of a finish like 2011 are sparse. So, will Mark Cavendish make the front group? Will Boonen decide to sprint? How much more in reserve will Peter Sagan have over purer sprinters at the finish? These are the questions to tune into the early racing for, and this is what makes the race interesting.