The organisers of Gent-Wevelgem are looking to shake up the race in 2016 and beyond by taking the riders up what is said to be the hardest climb in Flanders.
It’s the Kemmelberg, but not as you know it.
The famed hill in the village of Kemmel has long been the key feature of what is often referred to as the sprinter's Classic, and is scaled twice before a lengthy and flat run-in to the finish. The cobbled road traditionally used has an average gradient of 17 per cent over less than half a kilometre. Next year, however, the race will venture over to the other side of Kemmelberg, to a road that is even steeper, for the first time in over 20 years. The first ascent will be via the traditional route up but the second will be via this steeper path, which has a maximum gradient of 23 per cent.
Race director Hans De Clercq explained to Cyclingnews that the decision was motivated by a combination of factors, including the fact that the cobblestones have recently been relaid, and the historical significance of that road being used the first time the Kemmelberg was included in the race, 60 years ago. However, they also wanted to make the race a more finely balanced affair, not necessarily so straightforward for the purer sprinters, who have largely dominated in recent years.
“It’s maybe going to change the race a little bit. From the top of the Kemmel, there is still 34km to the finish, so I believe that the strong finishers like [Alexander] Kristoff or [John] Degenkolb, or maybe also [André] Greipel, can survive the Kemmel and go to the finish in Wevelgem for a sprint,” said De Clercq.
“But on the other hand I think that if the Classics riders are 100 per cent motivated, then they can do an effort over there that can have a big consequence on the race.
“From time to time you have to give the Classics riders a chance to win this Classic on their terms – by attacking and trying to at the finish solo or just with two or three guys. So it’s an open book now.”
According to Cotacol, a Belgian company that examines and grades every climb in the country, the lesser-used Kemmelberg is the hardest climb in the Flanders region. They have given it an overall score of 183 points, above the Koppenberg on 172, the Muur van Geraardsbergen on 171, and the traditional Kemmelberg road on 152. The race went up the steeper side a couple of times in the 1990’s, with Wilfried Peeters emerging victorious the last time it was used back in 1994.
Having ironed out logistical concerns, such as how to move thousands of fans from one side of the Kemmelberg to the other in a short space of time, and finding a suitable tarmacked descent, the organisers hope the climb can become a fixture in years to come.
Much will depend on how next year’s edition unfolds, and it remains to be seen whether there is any discernible change to the complexion of the race, but De Clercq envisages the new Kemmelberg format lasting “for the next twenty, thirty, forty years”.