The so called ‘Sprinter’s Classic’ of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem is on this Sunday and as Ed Hood explains 233km of wind, cobbles and the mid parcours hills could well combine to rob the sprinters of their win.
The year is 1974 – that’s 40 years ago if arithmetic isn’t your strong point – and Gent-Wevelgem has just been won over 244 kilometres at 44.383 kph. In second spot is the world’s best rider, Eddy Merckx and in third place is one of the world’s greatest ever Classics riders, Roger De Vlaeminck – but who won, I hear you say?
The man who won that day will be received at this year’s race as the guest of honour; respect please for Englishman Barry Hoban, for it was the Yorkshire man who relegated the two Belgian maestros to the lower rungs of the podium in Wevelgem all those years ago. And it was no ‘freak breakaway win’ Hoban out sprinted the two rapid Belgians fair and square to join the late, great Tom Simpson as a Classic winner.
Since then and despite Tour de France wins only one British rider has joined Tom and Barry’s exclusive ‘British Classic Winners Club’ – Mark Cavendish in winning Milan-Sanremo in 2009. We hope Barry has a great day; he’s still one of my heroes.
Gent – Wevelgem has changed over the years, from its inception in 1934 up until 1989 – when Gerrit Solleveld of the Netherlands out jumped Britain’s Sean Yates after a day long, two-up break in the pouring rain – the race was run up to full classic distance on many occasions; 265 kilometres that year. From then until the race recently gained a new Sunday date and World Tour status as part of a reshuffle of the cobbled classics, the distance was around 200 K placing it on a par with the likes of Het Nieuwsblad and Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
The greats have won in Wevelgem – Van Looy, Anquetil, Van Springel, Godefroot, Merckx, Maertens, Hinault, Moser, Raas and Kelly among them.
Since those heady days the event has become known as a ‘sprinter’s classic’ – despite the nine ascents of ‘hellingen’ – Casselberg (twice in a little loop), the Catsberg then the triumvirate of the Baneberg, Kemmelberg and Monteberg (all twice on another larger loop) the race tends to end in a bunch sprint. But that’s not guaranteed in pro bike racing.
The Casselberg comes at 114 K and the last ascent of the Monteberg at 197 of the 2014 race’s 233 kilometers. Bergs in the middle apart then, it’s a flat, fast race, where the echelon rules if the wind is whipping in from the south west – which it usually is.
Starting in Deinze – the horrors of modern traffic make a mid-week start in the Flanders capital city of Ghent impossible – the route hurtles west, straight for the freezing, grey waters of the North Sea. The town of Adinkerke – adjacent to De Panne as in ‘Three Days Of’ fame – gets a flying visit before the parcours turns south via two laps of the Cassel circuit for two laps of the potentially dangerous Baneberg, Monteberg and Kemmelberg circuit – Jimmy Casper crashed badly coming off the Kemmel in 2007.
Then it’s an eastward dash for Wevelgem and the long, straight, fast run in where the likes of Abdoujaparov, Cipollini, Steels, Hushovd and Freire have been allowed to demonstrate their top ends. Sometimes it can be a procession, but it has also served up some of the most spectacular classic finishes of recent years; Nico Mattan’s controversial – some say following car assisted – catching and beating of Flecha in the last metres in 2005 is still a bar room standard in Flanders.
Have a watch of the end of the 2005 race and have your own argument in a Flanders bar this weekend…
Hushovd’s 2006 sprint win was preceded by an audacious solo attack from Bert Roesems which cracked Petacchi’s train and then a late throw of the dice by Pozzato. In 2007 Burghardt and Hammond for Telekom worked over Freire so effectively that the rapid Spaniard had to settle for third from their small break of three – but Oscar came back to win in 2008 in a blanket finish and give Spain her only winner in this race.
In 2009 it was Edvald Boasson Hagen who gave Norway her second win in four editions, breaking away and staying away with Aleksandr Kuschynski. A year later it was Austrian Bernhard Eisel from a six man break who took the honours.
But for 2011 and 12 it was back to cavalry charges with Tom Boonen ‘the man’ on both occasions to become joint ‘Record Man’ on three wins – he also won in 2004 – with countrymen Robert Van Eenaeme (who won the third and fourth editions in 1936 and 37 but had to wait another eight years until World War Two was almost over in 1945 to win his third), Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx – and not forgetting Italy’s Mario Cipollini. ‘Cipo’s’ mad sprint duels with Uzbek flyer Djamolodine Abdoujaparov – who won in 1991 – were a feature of the race back then.
Cipollini was so confident that Abdou would be disqualified for his sprint in ’92 that he celebrated his victory despite clearly finishing 2nd over the line – behind Abdoujaparov. He was right with Abdou being duly relegated.
Journalist; ‘Mario, wouldn’t you and Abdou be better trying to settle your differences rather than attempting to kill each other?’
Mario; ‘I never plead with a woman!’
How I miss ‘Super Mario.’
Last year it was solo Slovak Sagan leaving Borut Bozic and Greg Van Avermaet to squabble over the placings.
Parcours, history – now, who’s gonna win?
But please remember that this is written from a provisional start sheet and it’s never an easy one to predict. Really it should be Mark Cavendish’s (QuickStep & GB) race but he always struggles on the Kemmel. That said, he crested the Cipressa in the elite group, last Sunday – but the other sprint teams will be out to eliminate him on the Kemmel if he’s still there.
The names from last year are still valid; Sagan (Cannondale) was good in Tirreno but frozen in Sanremo, he could do the business here, again. Slovenian Bozic (Astana) was third in the recent Dwars Door and loves Gent-Wevelgem. Belgian Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) was second to Sky power house Ian Stannard in Het Nieuwsblad and will want to put the stinging criticisms his team received for the way they played the Primavera finale behind him.
In second place in that recent Dwars Door behind a flying Niki Terpstra (The Netherlands & QuickStep) was a revived Tyler Farrar. The man from Washington State fits the bill perfectly; ‘maybe not ultimately the fastest but robust and able to maintain position on the climbs.’ It would be good to see him back on top. Farrar’s Garmin squad is one of the 18 World Tour teams who take the start along with seven Pro Continental wild cards.
Before we look at the rest of the World Tour contenders, tucked away in the wild cards are men definitely not there to make up the numbers. Jean-Pierre Drucker (Wanty & Luxembourg) was fourth in Dwars Door and sixth in Het Nieuwsblad – watch for him. Topsport Vlaanderen have no inferiority complex in these races and with the likes of home boy Kenneth Van Bilsen will be right in the mix.
IAM have the perennial ‘Chava’ – Sylvain Chavanel (France), fifth in Dwars Door he just loves those cobbles. And Germany’s Gerald Ciolek for MTN-Qhubeka is another in the Farrar mould. NetApp will be in the breaks and if it’s a mad scramble watch for Ireland’s Sam Bennett.
In World Tour ranks, as well as those we’ve already mentioned, Lampre have Italian Sacha Modolo; he was right there in Sanremo but those big thigh muscles need a little bit of heat – he’s quick. It doesn’t strike us as tough enough for Norway’s Primavera winner, Alex Kristoff but you never know what to expect from his case hardened Italian team mate, Luca Paolini.
Sky has Stannard but we don’t see a repeat win for Boasson Hagen. Italy’s Daniele Bennati is having a bit of revival at Tinkoff and could win from the right small breakaway; and Danish Champion team mate Michael Morkov is going to win one of these races soon.
Belkin have Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne hero, Belgian Sep Vanmarcke (Belgium) – who won’t just be sitting in the wheels. Back to the fast men – Giant have John Degenkolb (Germany) and F des J have Arnaud Demare (France) if it’s a mass charge. And last but by no means least – QuickStep.
Tom Boonen is coming back from personal tragedy but he’s proud and professional – if he thinks he can win then he’ll have the whole team at his disposal. But Patrick Lefevre also has the Zdenek Stybar – the Czech World ‘Cross Champ was good at Sanremo in seventh spot – card to play.
And if Cav can just get over the Kemmel that second time . . . .
Update: Well finally Cav won’t be getting over the Kemmel at all, instead he’ll be at home trying to get over a fever. Maybe next year?
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.