Gent-Wevelgem: 82 Years to Find Itself
Gent-Wevelgem is a hard race to love. It’s in a state of constant change, searching for an identity as the ugly West Flandrian sister of the cobbled monuments. PEZ met the locals at the De Robot Cafe in Gent for some insights to a race that’s taken 82 years to find itself.
-By Philip Malcolm-
See the 2018 Gent-Wevelgem PEZ Preview HERE.
The organisers have moved it from a midweek slot to a Sunday, introduced new climbs and found some success coupling it with the remembrance of the outbreak of World War I (100 year anniversary in 2014) and its inclusion in the WorldTour. However, there are some things they can’t change. It will, for example, always finish in Wevelgem, an unlovely suburb of Kortrijk which seems to possess more shop-front brothels per head of population than a town its size really ought to. Its parcours will always be mostly flat and favour a sprinter who can get over the steep rutted road up the Baneberg (surely the only place in Belgium one can find a ski lift) and the cobbled slopes of the Kemmelberg, or a small bunch able to work the inevitable headwind on the long road from Ypres to the finish to their advantage.
The Menin Gate. Photo courtesy of VeloClassic.com
It was with some trepidation, then, that I went to meet my handpicked cadre of Flemish cycling experts in De Robot café on Gent’s Couperelinks. My brief from PEZ was to ply them with beer and get their memories, impressions and feelings for the race. First, a disclaimer. These aren’t the grizzled, nicotine stained Flemish cycling fans of your imagination. De Robot boasts one of the Café Teams that are the lifeblood of grassroots Belgian cycling and its members are a young, professional crowd but one with a real passion and knowledge of the sport and all of an age where they’ve grown up watching Boonen, who’s only a couple of years older than them. They agreed to meet me here on the understanding that I was paying to pick their brains with beer.
After they’ve seen the colour of my money and the first round has been set down on the table, I deftly turn the conversation round to the reason we’re here… Tell me what you know about Gent-Wevelgem.
“Flat, flat, wind, flat, four climbs and a sprint.” Comes the first answer from Dieter.
“It doesn’t start in Gent” chimes in Janne.
Whilst the first is a valid point of view and the second a bald statement of fact (the race actually departs from Deinze these days, some 25km to the west), I am left with the feeling that this is going to be an uphill battle if I am to convince my readership of the merits of the event.
For me, although the race may not be the pick of the Flemish classics, it takes place in West Flanders away from the bergs made famous by De Ronde and has only two brushes with cobbles along its length, it certainly has its place. I like the evocative swoop through the centre of the walled city of Ypres and under the Menin Gate with 20km to go. The arch was constructed by the British government in the 1920s as a memorial to the soldiers who died with no known grave in the terrible fighting that destroyed the city in World War One. Their names, over 10,000 of them, are inscribed all over its walls. Two years ago, in 2014, the organisers decided to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak by subtitling Gent-Wevelgem “In Flanders Fields” in reference to one of the most famous war poems of the conflict. They changed the route a little to take in more of the well-tended and moving little memorials and cemeteries that dot the landscape also.
So if the meaning of the race is a dead loss to my panel, what about the route? How’s that?
“They have that nice cobbled climb up to Cassel” says Sam, briefly raising my hopes that we may be getting somewhere. “But it’s too early for the TV so nobody knows about it” In any event, the trip to the hilltop, medieval town of Cassel has been cancelled some year. An early Easter will affect the number of races as the town’s Lent fair will be occupying the main square.
The cobbles. Photo courtesy of VeloClassic.com
“And the Catsberg too! That’s a really nice climb but the way it’s positioned, it never has any impact on the race.”
“It’s true, on a nice day, the Catsberg is a pretty little detour. It has a little village half way up that reveals itself from the forest and at the summit there is an Abbey Brewery and café that makes a great Tripel” Janne tells us.
Whilst it may be too far away from the finale to have any bearing on the action on race day, on the cyclo the day before, it makes a nice break from the interminable slog along concrete roads laid across recently ploughed fields where you can see for miles in any direction but there is nothing to see.
The defining feature of the early stages of Gent-Wevelgem is the wind. After the turn back towards the finish, the prevailing wind is straight in the riders’ faces for over 100km. This means that the inevitable small breakaway group will see its advantage start to melt away as the favourites’ teams start to wage a war of attrition on each other, the upside of this is that sometimes the wind doesn’t play ball and cross winds blow the race to pieces.
“The 2015 race was amazing!” Sam says, “The wind, the rain, riders picking themselves out of dykes… Geraint Thomas got blown off his bike on the road from Ypres and still got back up to the break on his own! One of the best races I’ve ever seen!”
It seems the crowd are finally warming up, maybe due to the second Orval I put down in front of them, and soon the memories of Gent Wevelgem past are flowing. It may be a race that fails to stir the heart, but it seems that everybody has a memory of something crazy happening in it. This was, lest we forget, the race that saw Erik Zabel get stalked by a horse that had escaped its paddock. The race that saw late-period Mario Cipollini get into a bottle throwing, raised voice ding dong with a commissaire at 40kph and the race that saw a solo Peter Sagan break out his full box of tricks as he wheelied and back wheel slid his way across the line.
“Remember Jimmy Casper on the Kemmel?! Oei!” says Dieter “Back in the days when they still sent them down the cobbles as well, there’s two bends one over the top and a long left hand on the way down. Then you hit a really steep bit with bad stones just before the road returns. Everybody went full gas down there because it got so narrow afterwards. Casper just lost his front wheel on the steep section and hit the ground with his face! Then as he was lying there a Milram rider ploughed into him. You would get a crash there every year, somebody’s bottle would shake loose and then somebody would run it over. That was the worst though.”
The Kemmelberg is Gent-Wevelgem’s defining feature. Isolated from the traditional heartlands of Flemish cycling, it’s cobbled road is more than the heritage pieces of the Koppenberg and Oude Kwaremont, it was laid by the occupying Germans in 1915 to enable them to haul artillery shells onto the hill, that were destined for Ypres, just 5km away. Later in the war it saw a bloody frontal assault by the French troops who have a memorial statue atop the hill now, marking the mass grave where 5,000 unidentified soldiers lie.
Whilst the Kemmelberg is situated too far from the finish for it to be truly selective, the race does climb it twice (PEZ visited it here). The first time is for show, the second ascent comes after a fierce fight for position on narrow, twisting lanes and the sprint up the Baneberg and usually sees, firstly, whoever is genuinely good in the break shed their companions and strike out to try and hold off the favourites and secondly, we see the guys who are going to contest the finale move into position for the hay baled, rollercoaster descent and the 1.5km long Monteberg afterwards. It was this hill that saw Tim Wellens put in a brave, solo bid to get across to the remnants of the break that ultimately put his teammate, small group specialist Jens Debusschere, in position to contest the win.
Which brings us neatly up to date and onto my panel’s predictions for this years’ race. The different character of Gent-Wevelgem means it’s not such a barometer for the following weekend’s Ronde and so a partially different cast of characters enters the discussion.
Top tip: Peter Sagan
“Peter Sagan is going well and can win the race in three different ways” says Janne “he can go alone, win from the small group and even win a bunch sprint after a hard course like that. He’s my big favourite. It’s also the only race of the spring that his team can do anything for him.”
It’s true the Slovak is maybe timing his run at the monuments to perfection and that last 1% is still to come. For the first time, he didn’t look like he was all in for Milan-San Remo last weekend, maybe he’s sparing himself for De Ronde and Roubaix with an appointment at Gent-Wevelgem a stop on the way.
Elia Viviani is a ‘possible’
Dieter disagrees, “Elia Viviani is the stereotype of a Gent Wevelgem winner. He’s a sprinter who can tough it out over the climbs, can get himself into those select groups and doesn’t need much help from the team. He’s a very similar rider to Debuscherre and he just seems to get better every year.”
Another name that got nods of approval was Edvald Boassen Hagen. The Norwegian has never really lived up to his promise as a classics rider but he has always managed to get himself there or thereabouts in races where a sprint from a select group is the most likely outcome. In his fourth year at Dimension Data now, he should be able to drill the team to put him in a position where he can use his talents.
Sam says: “Edward Theuns and Jesper Stuyven will get their chance and Stuyven has already shown that he can steal a victory in a so called ‘sprinters’ race”. The Leuven native has been in great form in the early season, he pulled off a fantastic solo win in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in 2016.
So as we go our separate ways and head off into the wet March evening, I think I’m a little closer to understanding the feeling my Flemish friends have for the race. It may not show us the famous cobbled sectors or the legendary bergs that other semi classics like E3 and Dwars Door Vlaanderen do, but it has its own character formed, ironically, through constant rejigging in search of an identity. It presents us with a different list of potential winners to the other races in the Flemish calendar and shows us some different obstacles, chief amongst them the Kemmelberg. It’s new direction of using the history of the area to give a narrative to the parcours goes some way to offsetting the admittedly dull scenery and seedy arrival town.
It’s a race that can end in a number of different ways and, last year finally gave us a race worthy of the title Classic. Here’s to many more.
# Team news for Gent-Wevelgem in EUROTRASH Thursday and catch the live action on steephill.tv. #