By Hedwig Kröner
With Belgian semi-classic Gent-Wevelgem coming up this Wednesday, ProTour teams continue their stay in the Northern European country after the Ronde van Vlaanderen this week-end. Swiss sprinter Aurélien Clerc is especially looking forward to the flattish route across Flanders, having finished second in Wevelgem last year. Together with his team AG2R La Mondiale - whose line-up after the Ronde hasn't changed - the 29-year-old hopes to perform well and maybe even top his 2008 result.
Speaking to Cyclingnews from Belgium on Tuesday morning, Clerc didn't hide the fact that Gent-Wevelgem is a major goal for him. "Of the three races this week [Ronde van Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix - ed.] Gent-Wevelgem suits me the most," he said. "It's clear that this race is my objective."
Even though Clerc comes from the Swiss mountains, he developed a liking for the Belgian spring including its sometimes difficult weather conditions. Wind and rain, in fact, do not repel the rider. "Of course, I'd prefer it to be dry," he said. "But I don't mind [the rain and wind] at all. It only makes the race harder and more nervous. Bad weather can change the face of the race quite a lot, but it doesn't bother me."
On Tuesday, the weather forecast predicted rain and south-west wind up to 55 km/h for Wednesday, so Clerc and the other contenders might get their share of typical Flandrian spring climate. "It's a race where you don't get to the finish with the whole peloton, as it always eliminates many riders," reflected the AG2R rider. "In order to make a good sprint, you have to be in perfect condition and not have used all your energy once you get to the finish. If there is a lot of wind and rain, there might be many small groups in the finale and it will be even more difficult.
Positioning at Kemmelberg important
"The last climb is about 30 kilometres off the finish - the Kemmel - and that's where a good placing is important. That's where the groups are created, so it's really the key to the race. If there's wind, then it gets even more dangerous as the selection is even more thorough. The weather conditions influence this race enormously."
With other teammates including experienced all-rounders Martin Elmiger and Sébastien Hinault, AG2R has more than one card to play. Still, Clerc will be the team's man if he arrives in Wevelgem with the best. "If the race finishes in a group sprint like last year, I will get my chance," he said.
Losing out to three-time world champion Oscar Freire last year, Clerc nevertheless didn't have any regrets. "You're always a bit disappointed [to get second - ed.] when you're sprinting for victory, but after a short while, you get over it. Once you're on the podium of a prestigious race such as Gent-Wevelgem..."
Still, Clerc revealed that his heart beats even more for the queen of the cobbled classics, Paris-Roubaix. "For me, that's the most beautiful race of the year," he added. "It's the hardest one. I never had any great results there [Clerc finished 35th last year - ed.], but I love it. I manage to race it and finish, so I'd like to achieve a better result this year."