The usual festive atmosphere has, understandably, not quite yet returned, but the Flemish cycling carnival moved on to Deinze on Sunday morning for the start of Gent-Wevelgem. While Friday’s E3 Harelbeke doubles as something of a dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem has a character of its own, with sprinters and Ronde contenders alike all in the mix for victory on Menenstraat.
The big news ahead of the start was the absence of Alexander Kristoff (Kastusha) due to illness. The Norwegian had already struggled at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, and will have undoubted cause for concern as he bids to defend his Tour of Flanders crown. Ian Stannard (Sky), a fine third at E3 Harelbeke, was another late withdrawal due to illness.
“It’s just a small flu, and I think some other guys in other teams have suffered with this. It’s a hard time of year to try and stay healthy, with the cold, but we will try to make the best out of it,” Kristoff’s teammate Sven Erik Bystrom told Cyclingnews. “Now Alexander will try to recover so that he has a good preparation for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen next Sunday, and then we will have to take one day at a time.”
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), meanwhile, was back in action after skipping E3 Harelbeke as a precaution due to an illness of his own. Winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico already this year, the Belgian downplayed his chances at the start. “No Easter eggs for me today. I’m feeling ok, but I’m not 100 percent,” he said. “If I can finish the race today, I’ll definitely be ok for the Tour of Flanders.”
The long trek to the Franco-Belgian border, through West Flanders flatlands redolent of Jacques Brel’s Plat Pays leaves the peloton exposed to the North Sea winds, and while conditions are not as extreme as twelve months ago, this race’s intrinsic difficulties remain.
"I expect a hard race, a tough race, a windy race. It’s going to be nervous. Gent-Wevelgem is famous for this. My priority is to come home healthy," Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) said. ““It is how it is, eh. It’s the same for everyone. It’s Gent-Wevelgem. So Gent-Wevelgem’s history is almost always like this – cold, snow, wind, the Kemmel. It is how it is.”
An untimely mechanical issue compromised Cancellara at E3 Harelbeke, but his forceful chase back and eventual 4th place augured well for his prospects at Flanders and Roubaix. “I went pretty deep so I don’t know much how I’ve recovered, because my almost coffee stop on the road was something unexpected,” he said.
“For me Harelbeke was important. Today we’ll see if it goes good, if the legs are there. But we have other cards to play and it’s important to have this. Edward [Theuns] is very fast and that’s important. Having him and Jasper [Stuyven] on the team is very nice. “
Cancellara is riding Gent-Wevelgem for the last time, but he is reluctant to dwell on the valedictory feel to his final Spring campaign in the professional peloton. “In Belgium it’s always really something special, but right now I don’t see it as every time being the last,” he said. “I’m focused on racing. I will take all the memories and nice warm things out, and enjoy them later.”
Fernando Gaviria, meanwhile, is lining out at Gent-Wevelgem for the first time in his short career and he is backed by a very strong Etixx-QuickStep team. The Colombian was in the mix for victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and will hope to compete with André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) et al in the event of a bunch sprint.
“I can learn a lot today. It’s a new race for me and it’s a particular one, with a lot of wind and difficult roads. Positioning will be important,” said Gaviria, who added that he had shelved his disappointment at crashing in the final kilometre of Milan-San Remo. “I can’t go back and change it, so I’m just getting on with things.”
Milan-San Remo winner Arnaud Démare (FDJ) warned that the wind would be an important factor. “With wind like that, it’s not necessarily going to be a sprint, so you have to pay attention to the echelons,” he said.
Démare’s rival Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) was a late addition to the start list after he abandoned the Volta a Catalunya midweek – having already won the first two stages. “I’m enjoying good form. I did well in Catalunya by winning two stages, but I already felt bad during the second stage. It was a stomach problem,” he said. “On Friday I was feeling better and we decided to race here, and I got the ok to race here. There’s foul weather expected but I hope to feature in the front group if there’s a sprint for the victory.”
Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) has won Gent-Wevelgem three times, in 2004, 2011 and 2012. Another victory this afternoon would put him ahead of Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy, Mario Cipollini and Robert Van Eenaeme as the outright record holder. “It’s going to be a very nice race, I think,” he said.