Of the smaller cobbled classics, I fell in in love with Gent-Wevelgem first. The Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix had caught my eye earlier - I remember following text updates raptly as Tom Boonen attacked Peter Van Petegem and his other breakaway companions in the waning kilometers of the race to solo to the line in his first monument victory. But it's easy to get seduced by the Monuments and their history. Much like Jens and Dwars van Vlaanderen, it was years later when I learned to love the smaller cobbled classics in the same way for all their nuances, and for me it was the 2009 Gent-Wevelgem that showed me why these spring races in Belgium are truly great.
It was that rain-soaked and wind-battered edition that thrust Edvald Boasson Hagen into the spotlight as the next great rider of his generation, a title he has since struggled to live up to. But while it was partially the coarseness of the racing that intrigued me, it was also the break with my expectations of the race that intrigued me. I knew the race as one usually for the heartier sprinters, the iconic Kemmelberg not hard enough and coming too far from the finish to crack the race open. It was then that I realized just how varied racing in the hills and plains of Flanders can be. Even though a sprint is often likely, seeing the cobbled thoroughbreds attack and try to stay away on the run towards Wevelgem is always exciting. So I look forward to Gent-Wevelgem with lots of excitement every year, even if it is almost the red headed stepchild of the Flanders Classics events.
The parcours hasn't changed much in recent years, but the cast of contenders entering this week's race is different from years past. The uncharacteristic absence of both Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara is on everyone's lips, but Lars Boom is also out following a crash in E3 Harelbeke. Though Etixx-Quickstep would likely save Boonen for a sprint, having other options to play in the breakaway-friendly portions of the race, no Cancellara and Boom means two less powerful aggressors in a way that could tilt the race a little more towards the sprinters this year.
The balance between a sprinter's race and one open to aggressive racing. Though it's easy to approach the race with an air of resignation asking "Is this the year Mark Cavendish wins," a sprint is far from a foregone conclusion. Of the past six editions, only three have concluded in a bunch sprint (2011, 2012, and 2014). If the weather is harsh or the right riders get away after the last ascents of the Kemmelberg and Monteberg, a small group can indeed go to the finish.
Where Will the Race Be Won?
It's tempting to say in the weather room because of the impact the winds along the coast typically impact the race. The flat roads by the coast in the first hundred kilometers of the race are sparsely sheltered and the prevailing winds off the ocean can split the race to bits, as happened in 2013 when echelons began almost immediately, putting a number of bigger names out of contention. That year Peter Sagan won with a solo attack out of a group of thirteen riders that coalesced after the final climbs.
Tomorrow's edition looks to be cool, rainy, and windy all day, though that doesn't inherently mean the race will be split open. Instead of blowing from the northwest, tomorrow's wind will be moderately strong from the southwest, lessening the threat of early echelons and providing a cross-tailwind to the finish.
Who Do I Need to Know?
If you don't have John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff on your VDS team, you'll be regretting it tomorrow. Both riders are strong enough to make a select group of ten riders and have sprints to be envious of. Moreover, both are flying at the moment, Kristoff nearly taking the group sprint for third in yesterday's E3 Harelbeke and Degenkolb winning Milan-Sanremo a week before. But, to have a chance to win, their Katusha and Giant-Alpecin teams respectively will have to control Sep Vanmarcke, Nikki Terpstra, and Zdenek Stybar. Stybar helped animate the finale of E3 yesterday and came away with a second place after a moment of hesitation in the finale of the race. Vanmarcke, on the other hand, has had a quiet season results-wise, but this is only more reason to expect him to break the race wide open tomorrow. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider has tremendous pedigree on the cobbles and has been flying this year, only to be foiled by bad luck in seemingly every race. He flatted out of contention in Het Nieuwsblad and had a seemingly unstoppable attack on the Paterberg foiled by a faulty cleat pulling out of his pedal in E3. He even remained in contention late into Strade Bianche where his large frame posed a distinct disadvantage, ultimately finishing fourth. It's not a question of if Vanmarcke cracks the race wide open, but when and for how long.
Pick to Win
The cross-tail wind after the hilly circuits around the Kemmelberg and Monteberg points to a group sprint. I'm calling Kristoff for the win because the rain will phase the Katusha rider least of all the fast men.