The cobble season is upon us, this is the time of year to be in Belgium or better; Flanders. On Sunday Gent-Wevelgem heads out of Deinze for a ride to the coast and back via France, followed by a succession of gruesome cobbled climbs before the finish. Bad weather and hard riders make for a real Classic, here is the PEZ Preview.
Zondag 29 Maart, 2015 Eliterenners, 239 kilometres; it can only be one thing: Gent-Wevelgem.
First we had the distractions in Argentina, Australia and the deserts. Then things moved to Southern Europe; the Algarve, Andalucía, Nice, the Tyrrhenian Sea. The crescendo came on the Via Roma last Sunday where John Degenkolb confirmed what we already knew – like Springsteen says; ‘He’s Tougher Than The Rest.’ But now the circus heads north to the hills, cobbles, cross winds and cold of Northern Europe.
Gent Wevelgem is the first of a series of races – along with Dwars Door, the E3, 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 late March to the end of April is what matters. Given that fact, the competition is intense with everyone desperate for the kudos a Classic win brings.
The Past Winners
Gent-Wevelgem was first run in 1934, the 2015 race will be edition 77 with that first race being won by Belgium’s Gustave Van Bell and last year’s race falling to that man Degenkolb. Statistically it helps if you’re Belgian; the home team has won 48 times here with the Italians a distant second on six wins and The Netherlands on five.
Whilst Tom Boonen – who sadly won’t be here this year due to injuries sustained in a low speed crash at Paris-Nice – last won for Belgium in 2012, you have to go back a baker’s dozen of years to 2002 and Super Mario Cipollini for Italy’s last win; and all the way back to 1989 – when Dutchman Gerrit Solleveld out-sprinted Britain’s Sean Yates – to find the last ‘orange’ winner.
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 last ten winners tell the tale about how this race is won; in short, there’s no formula – a man can get away solo, as with Flecha in 2005, only for another rider to solo up to him (perhaps with a little help from the race cars) and things end in a two man sprint where Nico Mattan won; the break can stick as with Burghardt in 2007; a ‘pure’ sprinter like Freire can win as in 2008 or the strongmen can bludgeon the rest in a group sprint as with Boonen in 2011 and 12 and Degenkolb last year.
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. And I have to mention Mr. Barry Hoban (Great Britain) who out-dragged Merckx and De Vlaeminck to win in 1974 – respect.
The parcours have similarities to Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in that whilst there are nine tough bergs to breast there’s nearly an hour of racing on flat roads after that to allow regroupment. The problem is that if the wolf pack sees a lone sprinter straggling off the Kemmelberg they’ll do all in their power to prevent him from getting back to the shelter of the herd – ask Mark Cavendish.
The race starts in Deinze and hurtles west towards the brooding, grey, freezing North Sea then south before heading 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.
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 2015 Winner?
This piece went to press before Dwars door Vlaanderen was run off so we’re perhaps missing a few clues as to who’s on fire – but here’s our baker’s dozen in alphabetical order to avoid cries of ‘favouritism!:’
Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18 & Ireland) with a stage win against the fast men in Qatar already this year and the Clasica de Almeria and Rund um Koln on his palmarès from last year he may just be ready to go to the next level – not to win but top ten.
Niccolo Bonifazio (Lampre-Merida & Italy) already an Italian semi-classic winner in the Coppa Agostini last year, he won the GP Lugano this year on the Het Nieuwsblad/Kuurne weekend and we were impressed with that fifth place in the Primavera, last weekend.
Nacer Bouhhani (Cofidis & France) it’s been a slow start for the ex-boxer; but sprinters’ heads are as important as their thighs and his sixth spot in the Primavera with zilch team support has brought his self belief back – watch for him.
Mark Cavendish (Etixx – Quick-Step & GB) with six wins including Kuurne he’s still one of the best – but can he get the better of the Kemmel? If he does and it’s compatto then he’ll win.
Davide Cimolai (Lampre-Merida & Italy) another quick, young Italian with wins this year in the Trofeo Laigueglia, a stage in Paris-Nice and eighth in the Primavera, he’s hot.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin & Germany) he won this last year, he won last weekend in on the Via Roma – he has to be joint ‘super favourite’ with Kristoff.
Alex Kristoff (Katusha & Norway) with five wins and second spots in Kuurne and San Remo his form speaks for itself – and he’ll be hungry for revenge on Degenkolb – we make him joint ‘super favourite.’
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo & Slovakia) just off the podium in San Remo and a win in Tirreno indicate that the man who won in Wevelgem in 2013 is in good shape. Here’s the ‘but’ – was it really good timing for a pogrom, Mr. Tinkov? Team morale can’t be anything but low . . .
Ian Stannard (Sky & GB) won Het Nieuwsblad and has been close in this race before – he’ll want wind, rain, cold…
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick-Step & Czech Republic) was looking super cool on the Poggio but then Phil Gil fell off taking Stybar and Kwiatkowski with him – ‘what might have been… But the Czech ‘cross wizard won the Strade Bianche and is obviously in fine shape – he gives the Lefevre team another card to play.
Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick-Step & The Netherlands) won the Tour of Qatar, was second in Het Nieuwsblad and the recent Delta Tour Zeeland and is the third prong in the QuickStep attack trident.
Geraint Thomas (Sky & GB) was bestially strong in the San Remo finale – but oh dear, those Sky tactics; all those watts for 13th spot… He won the GC in the Algarve and was flying on Sunday – but let’s hope for better words from the team car this weekend.
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo & Belgium) big, strong, Belgian, aggressive – just how a Classics rider should be and with fourth in the Strade Bianche and fifth in Het Nieuwsblad his form is where he wants it to be.
PEZ will glued to that monitor on Sunday to bring you the best in race reportage – get some nice ‘De Bie Vélo’ beer by Brewery De Bie and Etixx – Quick-Step and settle on that sofa. Go to Steephill.tv for live coverage.
And don’t forget to give Cav a shout on the Kemmel.
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.