70th Gent-Wevelgem - ProT
Belgium, April 9, 2008
Three-time World Champ the first Spaniard to win Gent-Wevelgem
Oscar Freire won the 70th Gent-Wevelgem from a bunch sprint, forced by his strong Rabobank team, which reeled in the last breakaway attempts with two kilometres remaining. The 32 year-old Spaniard was perfectly led-out and started the sprint early, with more than 250m to go, on the right hand side of the road. Neither Aurélien Clerc (Bouygues Telecom) nor Wouter Weylandt (Quick Step) could come around and finished in second and third, respectively.
An exhausted Freire said that "I had good legs, but the race was difficult to control. There was a head wind in the end."
He was aware of the historic implication of his victory. "It's great, I am the first Spaniard who has won here." But he was convinced that sooner or later it had to come that way. Juan Antonio "Flecha could have won it, if there wouldn't have been any motorbikes; seems it was the organiser's fault [in 2005 - ed.] And I was close last year." And he was happy that unlike last year, when he had to surrender to Team T-Mobile in the decisive break, "this year, I could celebrate a beautiful victory."
Swiss Clerc was not too unhappy by finishing behind the favorito numero uno. "Well, although I had good legs, Freire did create a big gap on us, so I'm not too disappointed. Of course, a win in a race like this would've been fantastic," Clerc daydreamed about things that didn't happen. He had the best possible position to start sprinting. "I sat on Freire's wheel, and that wheel delivered me a great result," Clerc smiled.
The second assent of the Kemmelberg lit up the action with 39 kilometres to go, but could not prevent a bunch sprint in the end. The danger break of Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), Matti Breschel (Team CSC) and Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), which developed the second time up the cobbled 'Kemmel,' was interrupted when Breschel flatted. The peloton did break in half after the Kemmelberg, reducing the number of potential contenders quite a bit.
CSC's attempt to let first Kurt-Asle Arvesen – with Martin Elmiger (Ag2r-La Mondiale) – and then Stuart O'Grady – with Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Frédéric Guesdon (Française des Jeux) – slip off the front seemed to be working when the two groups merged, with ten kilometres to go. However, with the first peloton never more than a good half-dozen seconds behind, the bunch sprint materialised, when the last attempts by O'Grady and Quinziato were stopped cold at 1800 metres to go.
The high speeds through the streets of Wevelgem prevented any last-minute attacks, where Team Liquigas tried to control things before Rabobank re-emerged ahead of the peloton on the finishing straight to deliver its star rider for a long, final push to the line.
One rider was extremely irritated after the race. Mark Cavendish couldn't deliver the win for High Road, since he didn't even sprint. "Too dangerous, too dangerous," the British rider shouted. "There was no wind and people sprinted who can't even sprint. Okay, it's their right, as it's a one-day race." Cavendish continued fuming. "I nearly crashed five times in the last two kilometres. Five times!" Did he have the legs to win? "Yes, but I didn't even sprint."
Freire confirmed that the sprints are dangerous, but it was nothing new for him. "Dangerous? Yes, between us cyclists. But in the end it was a great race." He admitted there are "some dangerous sprinters out there," but would not give names. Freire just stated that "it's modern cycling. Positioning is very important."
Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) rode a strong race and featured in the first group that made it over the Kemmelberg, which is often a key moment in the Belgian race. "On the Kemmelberg I went full gas and afterwards I noticed that I didn't have any team-mates around," McEwen explained. When asked whether a team-mate could've helped him into a better position, McEwen agreed. "Of course, it would be of some help. It doesn't matter who would've done it, as long as there would be someone. I tried to find my own way in the sprint, but I received a couple of nudges during the build-up. I was in a good position, but I ended up riding in the wind during the final kilometre."
The 35 year-old is still without a win in the 2008 season, although illness and some crashes bothered his build-up this season (see feature). "I haven't been able to think about winning up until now. I hoped on today, but it didn't happen. Actually I'm okay with the current situation. It's the press that makes a big deal out of it." Two weeks ago, McEwen pointed out that he is keen on winning one of the 'semi-classics' this season -- namely Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs -- the first two events have been claimed by Sylvian Chavanel and Oscar Freire, so next week is the last chance for him to add to his rich palmarès during the Spring Classics season.
Flecha gained 40 points in the ProTour competition, tying him with Nick Nuyens for fourth. Despite being sick and not able to start the race, German André Greipel (High Road) kept his lead, with 62 points. Ronde van Vlaanderen winner, Stijn Devolder (Quick Step), holds second with 50 points, and José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d'Epargne) is in third with 45 points.
How it unfolded
The riders of the 70th Gent-Wevelgem rolled out of the start town, Deinze, around 11:45 under partly-cloudy skies. Non-starters were Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) and ProTour leader André Greipel (High Road).
Immediately attacks marked the race as it travelled westward towards De Panne. Active in a group of 18 riders were Servais Knaven (High Road), Artur Gajek (Team Milram) and Alessandro Donati (Acqua Sapone-Caffè Mokambo). Three kilometres later, with 195 kilometres remaining, the group was pulled back by the fast-charging peloton, led for some time by Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux).
Olivier Kaisen (Silence-Lotto) surged at 187 kilometres remaining, but the move by the Belgian came to nothing. It was not until kilometre 107 (with 102km to go) that any rider was allowed space, and that privilege was granted to one rider, Italian Ermanno Capelli (Saunier Duval-Scott). The 22 year-old quickly gained an advantage, and by kilometre 125 (with 84km to go) he had nine minutes.
The gap shot up to over 10 minutes with 85 kilometre remaining with teams High Road and Silence-Lotto leading the charge. However, the gap was down by one minute on the first approach to the town of Kemmel.
Alexandre Blain (Cofidis) and Roy Curvers (Skil-Shimano) were involved in a little incident at kilometre 136. Both riders were able to continue racing, trying to re-join the Liquigas-led peloton. Capelli maintained 8'03" at this point.
Capelli started the Monteberg, kilometre 140, with 6'40" in hand. At the foot of the Kemmelberg, with 61 kilometers remaining, Capelli had 6'10" over the peloton. The Italian climbed with grace, managing his strength for the race finale. Matti Breschel (Team CSC) led Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) over the top of Kemmelberg with a gap on the main pack and 4'46" behind the leader.
Gilbert launched an attack with 53 kilometres remaining to bridge the gap crated by Pozzato and Breschel, who were now some 40 seconds off the main group. Five kilometres later, the Belgian joined the Italian and Dane; the trio were 3'13" behind Capelli and 1'20" ahead of the peloton.
Matti Breschel (Team CSC) flatted at kilometre 171 and was forced to return to the peloton. The duo pressed on. Capelli hit the base of the Kemmelberg with 1'57" on Pozzato and Gilbert, and 2'55" on the peloton. Ballan was up front and active withinin the peloton.
The race started to really take shape over the top of the second passage of the Kemmelberg, where Capelli had 45" over Pozzato and Gilbert. A group formed with Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), they got a small gap over the main group, which was being led by Rabobank for Freire.
At 30 kilometres to go, Capelli had 25" on Pozzato and Gilbert and 38" on the main chase. Gilbert led Pozzato when they tagged Capelli at 27 kilometres from Wevelgem. Capelli held on the back, as the trio had 20 seconds over the Rabobank charge. In addition to the Dutch team, there was Team High Road gathering at the front for Mark Cavendish.
Two kilometres later it was gruppo compatto. The next move came with 18 kilometres remaining, when E3 Prijs winner, Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Team CSC), launched free and then was joined by Martin Elmiger (AG2R La Mondiale). The Norwegian/Swiss duo gained 15 seconds.
Frédéric Guesdon (Française des Jeux) and Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) worked off the front, being marked by Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC). The trio were five seconds off the front duo and 10 seconds ahead of the main chase at 12 kilometres remaining. Two kilometres later, the three joined the duo, to form a move of five, which had two CSC riders: O'Grady and Arvesen.
Their fight was good, but the gap was slim and their capture came with 1,800 metres to go.