It’s a few hours from the start of Gent-Wevelgem, and all the emotions swirling about are finally forming into a coherent sense of what’s at stake. Everything, and nothing.
Today’s race continues a cobbles season that kinda-sorta started on Wednesday with Brabantse Pijl, a race that may or may not fall into the cobbles category, depending on whom you ask. But it is surely on now with the riders in Ypres preparing to roll out. For you outsiders, Ypres — Ieper — is not Gent, but the race is merely following a grand tradition of races not changing their names even when it involves start and finish places that they no longer use. Don’t cry for Gent — they’d moved the race start out to the suburbs years ago. Do maybe cry for Ypres, which is an entirely different place and probably paid enough to warrant naming rights, although the “in Flanders fields” tagline does that I guess. And three cheers for the small town of Wevelgem, still hosting the finish. It’s practically quaint now for that much to remain authentic.
The calendar says that de Ronde van Vlaanderen will happen in a week, with the Scheldeprijs appetizer this Wednesday and Driedaagse de Panne dangling off the end of the cycling season, no longer keeping riders busy while Paris-Roubaix awaits. But the sword of Damocles hangs over Flanders Classics, keepers of the grand plans I just laid out. Paris-Roubaix was canceled at last because of an outbreak of covid-19 around Lille, near the race finish. Lille is a pretty short bike ride from Ypres, maybe 20 miles, as well as Kortrijk, which might or might not be on the Ronde course — Flanders Classics is no longer publishing the route information because they don’t want people to come out to watch the race go by. Gent-Wevelgem, even closer to the French border, is happening, but will de Ronde? What difference does a week make? Nobody can say, but everyone is on the edge of their seats.
One blow could come from Italy, where Simon Yates has tested positive in the middle of the Giro d’Italia. Yates has been performing below expectations since last Monday’s stage to Mount Etna. Has he been false-negative all this time? Can the disease be passed during a race, in the open wind? Are his teammates going to be OK? Nobody can say just yet. But if the Giro implodes, the pressure to stop racing in Belgium will grow quickly.
In other words, it’s 2020, and another round of cruel twists and turns awaits us. It’s cruel because people’s lives are at stake, for reasons that don’t need to be recapped here. The significance of a global pandemic makes the fate of a year’s worth of cobbled classics seem like no more than a fly on the head of a world leader — so much less serious than the rest of the picture that you could almost laugh. Please don’t misunderstand the point of this article, sports are just sports.
But the prospect of this year’s classics are just so incredibly tantalizing, even after six months of unfathomable upheaval. Just look at the startlist for today. Here is a list of the teams that have a plausible winner at Ypres, and probably some decent support:
- UAE (Kristoff)
- Deceunink Quick Step (Lampaert, Stybar)
- Lotto (Degenkolb)
- AG2R (Naesen)
- Bahrain (Cav?? Colbrelli?)
- CCC (Trentin)
- EF (Bettiol, Vanmarcke)
- Jumbo (Van Aert)
- NTT (Boasson Hagen)
- Trek (Pedersen, Stuyven)
- Total DE (Terpstra)
- Alpecin Fenix (van der Poel)
And these are just the names that jump off the page. In reality, you could see someone from about 20 of the 25 teams at the start. Even better is the fact that there is no true juggernaut team to control any of the races. Next weekend’s startlist will probably gain a few names and look even more impressive. Just the clash of a mega-strong van der Poel against unbeatable Van Aert against the past two years’ very convincing stars Bettiol and Pedersen, pitted in a race with some very durable sprinters like Kristoff and Degenkolb, against whoever Quick Step can launch... I mean, it’s a complete slugfest, with no squad ready to referee.
So yes, I do hope the last short slate of races happen. But not because they will be amazing; rather, because it is safe to do so. We ask so much of our world class athletes to keep us entertained, and by the grace of some higher power, they seem equally pleased to do so. As long as it’s not unreasonably unsafe. Like, in a pandemic. Nobody wants them to take on that sort of risk which, even to the healthiest people in the world, can mean a diminished life as covid scars the lungs and heart, and an even graver threat to their families. I love these races as much as anyone from outside their homeland, but I can wait til next April if I have to. If the race is meant to be, even if it’s just this one, then I plan to enjoy it to the fullest and not bemoan our fate after that. Please, UCI and Flanders Classics, make the correct decision with the riders foremost in your minds. If it’s bad news for the race, then the next edition will come with just that much more anticipation. The cobbles, they are stones, they will be waiting.