Gent-Wevelgem’18: The PEZ Preview!

Race Preview: Saturday sees the WorldTour peloton move from climbs of Milan-Sanremo in Northern Italy to the cobbles of Belgium and Gent-Wevelgem. Our Classics expert, Ed Hood, has run his keen eye over the course for the windy Classic and gives us his choice of eleven possible victors.

‘Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields – 250 Kilometers.’ First we had the distractions in Argentina, Australia and the sand dunes. Then things moved to Southern Europe; the Algarve, Andalucía, Nice, the Tyrrhenian Sea. The crescendo came on the Via Roma last Saturday where Vincenzo Nibali sent the tifosi into raptures. But now the circus heads north to the hills, cobbles, cross winds and cold of Northern Europe; we’ve already had the likes of Nokere and Handzame but all around the 200K mark. Things get serious now and step up to 250K plus – Dwars Door the exception at 180K – that extra hour of racing eliminates the chances of many who would be good up to the five hour mark.

Not the first Wevelgem winner Gustave Van Bell, but Gustaaf Van Slembrouck

Gent Wevelgem follows the GP E3 in a series of races – along with Dwars Door, Flanders, Roubaix and the Ardennes races – which are the high point of the year for many teams and riders; the season goes on until October but for many the period from mid-March to the end of April is what matters. PEZ sage and prophet of doom, Viktor always says the season finishes on the Roubaix velodrome. Given that fact, the competition is intense with everyone desperate for the kudos a Classic win brings.

Gent-Wevelgem presents the ‘Plugstreets’

Gent-Wevelgem was first run in 1934, the 2018 race will be edition 80 with that first race being won by Belgium’s Gustave Van Bell and last year’s race falling to Olympic Champion Greg Van Avermaet as part of his marvelous spring rampage which included Roubaix and the E3.

GVA wins Wevelgem in 2017

Statistically it helps if you’re Belgian; the home nation has won 49 times here with the Italians a distant second on seven wins and The Netherlands on five. Belgium won last year with the BMC man; and sadly no longer in the mix, Luca Paolini won for Italy in 2015; but you have to go all the way back to 1989 – when Dutchman Gerrit Solleveld out sprinted Britain’s Sean Yates – to find the last ‘orange’ winner.

Luca Paolini in 2015

But the last decade has witnessed a cosmopolitan mix of winners with Norway, Germany, Spain, Austria and Slovakia all adding their name to the roll. The race was once a ‘sprinter’s classic’ but you have to go all the way back to 2002 to find a ‘pure’ sprint winner in ‘Super Mario’ Cipollini in 2002.

Mario Cipollini on the Kemmelberg in 2002

Since then it’s been fast hard men and/or smart opportunists who have done the deed: GVA, Degenkolb, Sagan (twice), Boonen (three times), Eisel, Boasson Hagen, Hushovd. . .

‘Tommeke’ in 2012

And before we leave the subject of previous winners, we best look at the ‘recordmen’ – all of whom have three wins to their credit: Robert Van Eenaeme (Belgium) – a wee bit before my time; Mario Cipollini (Italy) Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Tom Boonen all Belgium and all of them on the ‘all time greats’ list.

Merckx wins Wevelgem three times

And I have to mention Mr. Barry Hoban (Great Britain) who out-dragged Merckx and De Vlaeminck to win in 1974 – respect.

Barry Hoban beating Eddy Merckx in Wevelgem’74 – Photo given to his frame builder Woodrup Cycles of Leeds, England

The Course
The parcours have similarities to Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in that whilst there are ten tough bergs to breast there’s nearly an hour of racing on flat roads after that to allow regroupment. As well as bergs we have the inevitable cobbles there even some sections of ‘plugstreets’ – dirt roads, “c’est la mode!”

And the problem is that if the wolf pack sees a lone sprinter straggling off the cobbled horror that is the Kemmelberg they’ll do all in their power to prevent him from getting back to the shelter of the herd – ask Mark Cavendish.

Merckx on the Kemmelberg

The race starts in Deinze and hurtles west towards the brooding, grey, freezing North Sea then south before heading back east towards the finish in Wevelgem. The Casselberg is the first gravity nasty at around half distance with the triumvirate of Baneberg, Kemmelberg and Monteberg lapped twice before the mad charge for home – albeit the last named is only tackled twice.

The wind could finish your race

If the wind blows – and living on the other side of that North Sea I can testify that it usually does – then the echelons will form; often early, on the way down towards the coast making this a fast, tough, physical race – if you can’t fight for position in the echelons and approaches to the climbs then forget it.

The winner?
This piece went to press before the E3 was run off so we’re perhaps missing a few clues as to who’s on fire – but here’s our ‘names to conjure with’ in alphabetical order to avoid cries of favoritism:

Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida – Italy) has a cool name and on his day is a winner, remember the Brabantse Pijl, last season? He’s had a win in the desert and was top ten in Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne and the Primavera.

Kenny Dehaes (WB Veranclassic – Belgium) could be a surprise, top 10 in Handzame and a quality win in the tough GP Denain speak of a man on form.

Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ – France) second in Kuurne, a stage win in the Race to the Sun and a podium in the Primavera; the first French winner since the late Philippe Gaumont in 1997? Maybe.

Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo – The Netherlands) five wins including a Paris-Nice stage and Kuurne – does he have 250K in his legs? We’ll find out on Sunday.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC – Belgium) last year’s winner didn’t dazzle in Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne or Sanremo but his season only really starts at the E3.

Alex Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates – Norway) the European Champion has won this race before and has desert race wins to his name, he was fourth on the Via Roma and shouldn’t be far away on Sunday, especially if it’s tough.

Michael Matthews (Sunweb – Australia) how do you finish seventh on the Via Roma off zero racing? Best ask Mr. Matthews who did that very thing, top 10 here last year and class will out. . .

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe – Slovakia) there’s little left to say, save that if he really wants to win this then few can stop him. Palmarès? A stage win Down Under, top 10 in the Strade Bianche and Primavera – not to mention stunningly quick in the sprints in Tirreno.

Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors – The Netherlands) the baby face assassin who really shines in the murk and rain; he won Le Samyn and was fourth here last year – watch for him.

Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott – Italy) may have cost Ewan the Primavera – all those wasted watts, he should have been taking note of what Roger Kluge was doing. He’ll be out to make amends. . .

Gullaume Van Keirsbulck (Wanty-Group Gobert – Belgium) another left field outsider for you – but big, strong and built to battle in the echelons

# PEZ will glued to that monitor on Sunday to bring you the best in race reportage – get some nice Abbey beer in and settle on that sofa and watch live with #

And give Cav a shout on the Kemmel. . .

Young Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish in the 2009 Gent-Wevelgem

2017 Gent-Wevelgem:

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 1,600 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 where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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