Gent-Wevelgem’16: The PEZ Preview!
The Classics have moved back up north to Belgium this week for the Dwars Door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke and the big one on Sunday: Gent-Wevelgem. Ed Hood takes a trip back to his visits to the Belgian WorldTour race and looks forward to the 2016 cobbled Classic with history, course and top tips for the win.
At the time of going to press, Gent-Wevelgem was still going ahead after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, but the situation might change before Sunday.
It’s a few years, 2009 since I last took myself over to Gent-Wevelgem, it was shorter and mid-week back then; I was accompanied by the legendary cycling prophet, Viktor and the man he’s half wheeled around Scotland for 40 years, Dave Meek.
If you’re with Vik the race starts the night before when we stalk the team hotels, F des J Kiwi, Tim Gudsell was cross examined at length at the Gent Holiday Inn.
At the start Sammy Sanchez had all the enthusiasm of a man going to the gallows as he tugged on the wet weather gear for a horrible day in the echelons.
There’s just one place to set up base camp – The Kemmel. The cobbles glisten menacingly blue and green in the rain and rear at an impossible gradient to the horizon.
You’re never far from a beer in Flanders and if the notion of one has slid from your mind, the marketing boys soon fix that.
If you’re a sprinter there are a number of ways to tackle the Kemmel; Cav chose the ‘text book’ one of leading in to the climb so he could afford to slide back.
Meanwhile Belarusian champion, fast finishing Yauheni Hutarovich and Italian sprinter Danilo Napolitano went ‘old school’ gritting their teeth just trying to hold their place in the line of wet, cold, suffering men.
Wiggo was ‘just another rider’ back then struggling with the Kemmel’s horrible percentages whilst Jez Hunt was his usual hard as nails self, fighting the climb on that Cervélo.
Edvald Boasson Hagen was the winner that day, it seemed like the world was at the young Norwegian’s feet and this would be the first of many Classics – but it wasn’t, albeit the man seems to have found a team that suits him well in Dimension Data.
Two circuits of the Kemmel duly completed there’s only one place to be – a cosy bar !
And of course, the minute the locals hear you’re Scottish you’re ‘one of the boys’ and the pils flows.
Boasson Hagen won from former Belarusian champion Aliaksandr Kuchynski to general apathy in our bar.
Next day we headed for a kermis – that’s another story – but we thought you might like to see the odds the bookies had for Paris-Roubaix that year. Right! We’ve finished our stroll down Memory Lane. . .
Gent-Wevelgem was first run in 1934, the 2016 race will be edition 78 with that first race being won by Belgium’s Gustave Van Belle and last year’s race falling to Luca Paolini (we miss you, Luca).
Statistically it helps if you’re Belgian; the home nation has won 48 times with the Italians a distant second on seven wins and The Netherlands on five.
Tom Boonen last won for Belgium in 2012, whilst Paolini’s epic win for Italy in terrible conditions came just last year; but it’s all the way back to 1989 – when Dutchman Gerrit Solleveld out sprinted Britain’s Sean Yates – to find the last ‘orange’ winner. The last decade has witnessed a cosmopolitan mix of winners with Norway, Germany, Spain, Austria and Slovakia all adding their name to the roll.
A few of the most recent wins 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 (Belgium) won; 2009 also saw Boasson Hagen win from a group of two; the break can stick as with Burghardt (Germany) in 2007; a ‘pure’ sprinter like Freire (Spain) can win as in 2008 or the strongmen can bludgeon the rest in a smaller group sprint as with Hushovd in 2006, Boonen in 2011/12 and Degenkolb in 2014 whilst Paolini won ‘en seule’ 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 Belgian 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 – albeit GW is an hour longer that KBK – in that whilst there are 10 tough bergs to breast there’s 45 minutes of racing on flat roads after that to allow the sprinters to catch their breath. The problem is that if the hyenas 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 at Adinkerke then south to Wormhout in Northern France before heading east towards the finish in Wevelgem. There are 10 climbs; the first is the Catsberg at 144K with the legendary Kemmelberg tackled twice with the final ascent as the last climb of the race at 209K with 32K to go to the finish in Wevelgem on 243 kilometres.
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.
This piece went to press before Dwars door Vlaanderen and the GP E3 were run off so we’re perhaps missing a few pieces of the jigsaw and start sheets do change – but here’s our baker’s dozen in alphabetical order to avoid cries of ‘favouritism!:
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data & Norway) Cav carries the ‘1’ number for the team but you saw him on the Cipressa as well as we did. . . Boasson Hagen has won this before – as you’ve just read – and he was right there inside the red kite in Sanremo. He could just do it again.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek & Switzerland) four wins so far but a disappointing Primavera – top of the agenda on the QuickStep team meet will be ‘do not give Cancellara five metres on the run in!’
Arnaud Démare (FDJ & France) a nice stage win in The Race To The Sun and then that beautiful win on the Via Roma (yes, we know, 80 kph on the Cipressa – but innocent until proven guilty) – this is his kind of race – he was second here in 2014 – and his morale will be sky high backed by a new and improved F des J.
Fernando Gaviria (Etixx – Quick-Step & Colombia) three good wins, right where he should be on the Via Roma then we were all reminded what a cruel sport it can be as down he went – he’ll want this one bad and his team is the best of the best.
André Greipel (Lotto Soudal & Germany) can he get over the Kemmel – or get back after it? If he can, he can win – he needs a good one, there’s been nada since those two victories in the Balearics which seem an age ago now.
Leigh Howard (IAM Cycling & Australia) Haussler carries numero uno for the team and rode well into Sanremo but we rather fancy Howard for a top ten in a finish like this one.
Alex Kristoff (Katusha & Norway) wins in the desert have yet to be translated to European form, it’ll be best for him if it’s a tough day.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff & Slovakia) the winner here in 2013 and with all those second places this year he must be starving for a win.
Ian Stannard (Sky & GB) in the absence of last years third placed Geraint Thomas, ‘Big Ian’ is the man; he showed he was strong in the Primavera – but all those wasted watts . . .
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick-Step & Czech Republic) the Czech ‘cross wizard is in fine shape, second to Cancellara in the Strade Bianche and a brilliant stage win in Tirreno – he gives the Lefevere team another card to play.
Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick-Step & The Netherlands) won Le Samyn on a foul day and is the third prong in the QuickStep attack trident, particularly dangerous if it’s a ‘man’s day.’
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium) with two big wins – Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno he’s ‘man of the moment’ but we expected more in Sanremo.
# There’s no more to be said – until Sunday, that is. It should be a goodie and PEZ will be there to guide you through every K and crash. Rider quotes and video catch-up in EUROTRASH on Monday and you can follow the live action on Sunday via Steephill TV.#
• See Steephill.tv for Live coverage feeds.
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.