While the tendency for so many cobbled races is to reflect the challenges of the Tour of Flanders as closely as possible, Gent-Wevelgem holds resolutely to its own identity as a day that gives the sprinters more than a puncher’s chance of landing victory.
That is in due in no small part to the parcours. Whereas so many races criss-cross the postage stamp of Flemish Ardennes around Oudenaarde, Gent-Wevelgem heads towards the cobbles and hills of West Flanders – and, of course, its exposed flatlands. Two laps over the Baneberg-Kemmelberg-Monteberg combination pose the principal difficulty of the day in terms of climbing, but crosswinds as the race loops towards the Franco-Belgian border early on, also have the habit of turning Gent-Wevelgem into a far stiffer test than it appears on paper.
Some 34 kilometres separate the final ascent of the Monteberg from the finish, and solo winners in Wevelgem are a relative rarity, at least compared to other Flemish classics. Instead, Gent-Wevelgem is a tough, attritional event, as the sprinters endeavour to survive echelon after echelon, selection after selection, on the 239 kilometre trek through some of the battlefields of the First World War.
The weather forecast for Sunday is rather grim. Rain and wind is expected to be general all over West Flanders for the duration and, so the thinking goes, the bleaker the conditions, the smaller the leading group at the finish.
After setting out from Deinze on Sunday morning, the peloton faces a flat 120 kilometres up to and along the windswept coast and then towards the Casselberg, which is tackled twice in quick succession. The Catsberg then brings the race to the circuit that ought to see the greatest selections.
The Baneberg, Kemmelberg and Monteberg follow within twelve kilometres of one another, though, mercifully, there are almost 30 flat kilometres before the race doubles around to rattle through that combination for the second time. The Kemmelberg is the toughest climb and the emotional centrepiece of the race. The highest point in West Flanders, it was a battleground during the First World War and is since a mass grave to some 5,294 French soldiers.
The Kemmelberg always forces a selection, though is rarely decisive by itself. When the peloton passes the memorial monument at the summit for the second time, they still face 38 kilometres, including the Monteberg and the long flat run-in to Wevelgem. There is sure to be aggression in the finale, but even allowing for the conditions, with so many sprinters on show, it will be difficult to deny the fast men.
Last year’s winner John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) seems the perfect prototype of a Gent-Wevelgem rider and after landing Milan-San Remo a week ago, the German arrives at the race utterly unfettered by pressure. Degenkolb is assured on the cobbles and, crucially, his finishing speed is rarely blunted no matter how hard the race.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), the man he beat into second place at La Primavera, is of similar stock and the miserable conditions expected on Sunday should only increase the Norwegian’s chances further. He took fourth place at E3 Harelbeke on Friday and declared himself pleased that his condition is improving.
Etixx-Quickstep are always a force to be reckoned with in any cobbled race, and in Mark Cavendish they may hold the trump card on Sunday. Gent-Wevelgem is one of the few targets missing from the Manxman's palmarès, and particularly in the absence of Tom Boonen, he is surely the Belgian squad’s best option. Cavendish dealt comfortably with the cobbles and hills en route to Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne victory in March and will look for a repeat here.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) soloed to victory at the truncated Gent-Wevelgem two years ago and he lines up aiming to bounce back from a mixed afternoon at E3 Harelbeke, where he impressed by making the winning move but then perplexed by dropping out of it in the finale.
Sagan’s victor in Harelbeke, Geraint Thomas, is part of a strong Team Sky squad with Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins, though Elia Viviani is perhaps the man most likely to shine on Sunday if the race ends in a sprint. BMC boast the in-form Daniel Oss and Greg Van Avermaet, though no pure sprinter, while Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) would also need the race to break up early.
The fast men lining up in Deinze include André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), who crashed out of contention in the finale last year, Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), Adam Blythe (Orica-GreenEdge), Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tyler Farrar and Edvald Boasson (MTN-Qhubeka).
There will be particular interest, too, in the progress of French duo Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis). Démare took a close second place behind Degenkolb last year and has expressly targeted victory this time around. Bouhanni, meanwhile, is lining up for the first time after leaving FDJ in search of greater freedom, and after his sixth place finish at Milan-San Remo, he is optimistic of better in Belgium. Both men are without a win so far this season, and success in Wevelgem would put an altogether different complexion on their campaigns.
Watch our video of the top ten 10 riders to watch during the first weekend of the Belgian Classics. Subscribe to the Cyclingnews YouTube channel to all the our videos first.