The cycling world will again focus its attention on Belgium and the roads between Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday as the spring Classics continue. It is a busy weekend with Criterium International, the final stage at the Volta a Catalunya and the women’s World Cup in Cittiglio, Italy but the pièce de résistance comes in the form of 76th edition of one of Belgium’s most treasured one day races and the debate about if anyone can stop Peter Sagan (Cannondale) winning for a second consecutive year.
Having switched to Sunday from its previous mid-week slot, Gent-Wevelgem has become a reliable indication of form ahead of the Tour of Flanders which takes place a week later. It is also a highly coveted race to win in its own right and the route typically offers sprinters the chance to shine on the same stage as the most powerful and talented cobbled warriors.
The race route has been modified for this year to pay respect to those who lost their lives in the First World War but the Kemmelberg remains an integral part of the course with the other minor climbs of the race virtually untouched. It should again make for a finely balanced affair as the likes of Cannonale and Omega Pharma-QuickStep look to isolate the pure sprinters before the finish.
The route traditionally moved north west and towards the blustery coastline but instead, after the start in Deinze, the race heads west.
A break may have formed by the time the race hits the first of nine climbs, the Casselberg, but the 19% pitches will give the peloton an indicator of what is to come with the same climb repeated at the 120km mark. There’s little respite with two further climbs before the first ascent of the Kemmelberg. If the roads are wet the riders will struggle, the cobbles becoming slippery even when rooted in the saddle, while the descent becomes even more treacherous and often decisive.
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There’s a slight break with the next climb at the Baneberg at 185km introduces the final loop over the Kemmelberg and Monteberg before the flat 30km run-in to the finish.
At this stage of the season, momentum and moral is key and a poor start to the Classics season is often difficult to turn around for even the most experienced stars. For that reason Peter Sagan will start as the favourite. Unlike his five-star billing for Milan-San Remo, this time it’s far more deserving for the former champion who impressed in E3 Harelbeke on Friday.
Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) aren’t as fast as Sagan in a sprint but the route may not be selective enough for them to distance Sagan. Omega Pharma-QuickStep is sure to try to dictate the nature of the race and all the non-sprinters will be hoping that the race is as hard as possible on the final assault of the Kemmelberg. As ever, the wind could also play a major factor.
Tom Boonen’s chances may rest on how well he recovers from his crash on Friday but if the race comes down to a sprint – as it often does – then the likes of John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Gerald Ciolek (MTN) all stand a chance.