You always remember your first time. Whether it be your first kiss, your first job, your first love, or the first time you had Richie Porte on your vds team. Well, the first time I watched Gent-Wevelgem, I witnessed a Welshman and future Tour winner being blown off his bike by a gust of wind and a coked up pirate escaping for victory, so please excuse me if I have fond memories and perhaps too high of expectations for this race.
Gent-Wevelgem gets a bad rap as ostensibly the sprinter’s cobbled classic. However, a pure sprinter has not won in Wevelgem since Cipollini in 2002. Elia Viviani almost pulled it off last year, but was left sobbing in the fetal position on the side of the road after Peter Sagan pipped him on the line.
What’s not to like about a race that can leave a top sprinter in tears, and not just for remembering the fallen of WWI?
Anyone who still thinks that this is a sprinter’s race clearly has not been paying attention. Despite being the cobbled classic with the least amount of cobbles, this is the race that provides the most suspense with the largest number of potential winners as the course has been getting more and more selective.
In 2012, the course started increasing in difficulty, after for many years being right around 200 kilometers. This year’s race will be slightly over 250 kilometers, which puts it behind 4 of the monuments (and Amstel and the Bretagne Classic) in length, but ahead of Lombardia. That length, combined with a second half that features a circuitous route that hits every hellingen that can be found, makes the race a difficult, but possible task for the stronger sprinters, as well as giving an opportunity for a strong rider or small group of riders to stay away.
Much to the consternation of Patrick Lefevere, the plugstreets introduced in 2017 remain in the race (but, really, what doesn’t give Lefevere consternation, who probably has a list of grievances that includes puppies, sunny Spring days, the laughter of an infant, the soft embrace of a lover, and that feeling you get when your vds riders come in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in race). If you don’t remember, here’s what we’ll see on the plugstreets:
The main difficulty for the riders will be the plugstreet sandwich— three slices of narrow dirt and gravel roads in between two big slabs of cobbled Kemmelberg bread. The riders will then have approximately 34 kilometers of flattish roads to digest their lunch. Hungry riders, like Alexander Kristoff last year, will spend too much time eating the sandwich, and will be desperately trying to make contact with the inevitable break that goes over the final descent of the Kemmelberg.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1991, the sprinting berzerker known as the Terror of Tashkent took his first big victory at Gent-Wevelgem. Also known by me as the bane of spell checkers (move over Kruijswijk), Djamolidine Abduzhaparov had a sprint that would make Bouhanni blush. As described by Cycling Tips, Abduzhaparov “was a wrecking ball of a sprinter, his hulking body careering up and across the road. Watching him sprint was like seeing a fight spill out of a pub, all arms and legs and violence.” Following his Gent-Wevelgem victory, he would go on to win 2 Giro stages, 7 Vuelta stages and 9 Tour stages and would make enemies of the rest of the sprinters in the peloton, including an incensed Cipollini, while earning himself cult status, including having a punk band named after him. His sprinting style, which can best be described as what would happen if Ilnur Zakarin took a bunch of steroids and became a sprinter, is best epitomized by the massive crash he had on the Champs Elysees in 1991:
Like Zakarin, Abdouj was an ethnic Tartar, and one of the only Muslims in the peloton. And like Bouhanni, Abdouj would be the subject of derogatory remarks and racism from other riders. One has to wonder whether both riders’ reputations as reckless sprinters were borne from the same pent up rage as a response to the xenophobia of the peloton.
The Favorites - Peter Sagan, Elia Viviani, the rest of DQS, and Greg Van Avermaet
Peter Sagan is currently tied with a select group of riders for most wins in this race. He is tied with Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy, Mario Cipollini, Tom Boonen and Robert Van Eenaeme with three victories apiece. (Side note— I didn’t recognize that last name and had to look him up. Wikipedia was less than helpful— as it in full provides “Robert Van Eenaeme was a Belgian cyclist.” I did find this bad ass picture, though, adding to the list of the older generation of riders that vaguely resemble Michal Kwiatkowski.) Gent-Wevelgem is a race that is tailor-made for Sagan. Just hard enough, just long enough, and just sprinty enough to play to all of his strengths. He should be the perennial favorite at this race until he tires of road racing and takes up mountain unicycling. He didn’t look great at E3 and an errant bidon hitting his derailleur can’t explain that in its entirety but by reputation and history with this race, he deserves the favorite position.
If he can hang on like last year, Elia Viviani can win and has looked much sharper that Sagan. Viviani’s team presents the biggest challenge to Sagan’s dominion in Wevelgem, as they’ve won almost all the major one day races this year and are waging nuclear war while everyone else is still engaged in trench warfare. With the Kemmelberg and plugstreet sandwich, there is no reason why this race has to end in a reduced sprint and DQS should be able to exploit their strength in numbers to break the race up. It’ll be interesting to see what type of plan that DQS employs, as they are bringing 2 sprinters in Viviani and Fabio Jakobsen as well as the triple threat classics team of Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar, and Yves Lampaert.
Two years ago, in a very entertaining edition, where a select group of Sagan, Niki Terpstra, Soren Kragh Andersen, Jens Keukeleire, and Greg Van Avermaet got away, Van Avermaet took the victory after Sagan and Terpstra decided they’d rather lose than help the other win. While Van Avermaet has looked strong this season, after finishing 3rd in the E3 sprint, which on paper he should have won, you have to start wondering whether he has lost a little punch at the end of the races. You can’t even blame Van Avermaet’s performance on lack of team support, as Michael Schar was firmly positioned at the front of the bunch for much of the race. Perhaps Van Avermaet’s constant attacking at Omloop was less foolish than it seemed, as he may have realized that he is not the fastest in a small group any longer. One of the only perceived chinks in DQS’s armor was the lack of a strong classics rider with a strong finishing sprint, but after Stybar outsprinted Van Avermaet at E3, it’s hard to see how Van Avermaet can beat them.
The Challengers: Matteo Trentin, Wout Van Aert, Oliver Naesen, Niki Terpstra, Tiesj Benoot
Matteo Trentin has been near the front of almost every race he’s entered, but has yet to get it right. The course in Gent-Wevelgem should suit him better than any race thus far and gives him his best shot at taking a big classics victory even though his best finish at this race was 7th last year. Again like Van Avermaet, though, Trentin has looked great during the races on the climbs and has always looked well-positioned at the front of the bunch, but so far his finishing kick looks to be not as sharp as it once was.
At E3, with his 2nd place, Van Aert improved on his average finishing position in all of his races started— his average finish is now 6th (with a 2nd, 6th, 3rd, and 13th). He’d probably trade that amazing consistency of a single 1st, but it still remains difficult to see him finding a way to win as he continues to do yeoman’s work in shutting down attacks.
Naesen is still looking for his first big spring victory after he failed to make the crucial final selection in E3. If this race is selective enough, with the interesting sprint results that we’ve been seeing this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that Naesen could outsprint the likes of Sagan, Trentin, or Van Avermaet.
Both Terpstra and Benoot will need to find a way to go solo to take the victory. Terpstra has the pedigree after his long range attacks in E3 and Ronde last year, but without the backing of DQS and instead with DQS trying to reel in any attack, it probably remains a long shot.
The Wild Card: Mathieu van der Poel
MvdP’s solo break victory in Denain was a thing of beauty and only four days after a crash that looked like it would ruin his classics campaign. The step up in competition from Denain to Wevelgem is steep, but you’ve got to be thinking that MvdP will be salivating at the opportunity to attack on the plugstreets.
The Bunch Sprint Dreamers: Arnaud Demare, Fernando Gaviria, Pascal Ackermann
Even with the news of Dylan Groenewegen’s late withdrawal due to illness, this is a stacked sprint field this year. In a situation that I’ve never seen before, there are three teams that bring a tag team of sprint options— Bora has Sagan and Pascal Ackermann, DQS has Viviani and Jakobsen, and UAE has Gaviria and Kristoff. Each of those teams’ second option is better than most teams’ first sprint option. While the difficulty of the course and the trend this year away from bunch sprints suggest that this race will be more selective, there’s still a chance of a big bunch coming to the line and there is a lot of firepower if it does.
The Unknown Soldiers
Two teams have been all but invisible this classics season— Trek and Dimension Data. On paper at the start of the season, Trek looked to have a formidable squad with Jasper Stuyven, John Degenkolb, Mads Pedersen, and Edward Theuns. Besides Degenkolb’s mechanical at Milano-Sanremo, they’ve been completely invisible. One has to start wondering what’s going on— have they contracted the curse of Richie Porte? Was there a team meeting that we don’t know about that their goal for the year would be to ride a la Zubeldia to honor their now-retired invisible man? Perhaps the switch to the 1x drivetrain on their bikes (which Degenkolb has now reneged on) is to blame? Whatever it is, if they don’t get a result soon, their classics season will end up an abject failure.
Dimension Data were a dumpster fire last season, but supposedly improved their chances this year with the acquisition of Michael Valgren. However, instead of raising up the level of DiDa, he’s sunk down to their level. With a team of Boasson Hagen, Nizzolo, and Valgren, on paper they should be able to get something out of this race.
Based on last year’s performance, big seasons were expected out of Sonny Colbrelli, Gianni Moscon, and Soren Kragh Andersen. So far they’ve failed to live up to those expectations and they are close to having their classics seasons labeled as busts.
Enjoy the racing, everyone!