Tom Boonen may be gone, but the road to victory at the cobbled Classics still runs through Quick-Step Floors. Same as it ever was. An ominously strong collective showing at E3 Harelbeke helped deliver Niki Terpstra to a tubthumping solo win, and the boys in blue will expect to repeat that kind of dominance at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Terpstra returns to the fray alongside Philippe Gilbert – whose fierce acceleration on the Karnemelkbeekstraat on Friday underlined his pre-Ronde form – Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert, while Elia Viviani provides an enviable option in the event of a bunch finish on Vanackerestraat.
The modern Gent-Wevelgem is a race that can unfold in a variety of ways. The exposed, windswept run around De Moeren, the plugstreets and the twin ascents of the Kemmelberg all have the potential to shatter the field to pieces, but the flat, 34km run-in to the line means that there is always the chance the race can come back together. No matter how the cards are dealt, Quick-Step will hold a playable hand.
The past two winners, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) have yet to hit full flight in the Classics this year, but the campaign is still young, and both men are equipped to handle most situations that arise at Gent-Wevelgem.
A year ago, Van Avermaet seemed incapable of taking a bad decision, but he appeared a little more hesitant on Friday, unsure of whether to twist or stick when Quick-Step took matters in hand, though he showed sustained flashes of form on the hills and sprinted to third place in Harelbeke.
It was a rather more trying afternoon for Sagan, who crashed early on and looked out of sorts thereafter, rolling home more than three minutes down. Given his form at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier in the month, one imagines it was but a temporary blip, though Sunday will surely reveal more.
While E3 Harelbeke couches itself very much as a miniature Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem is a race with a character unto itself. The fundamentals required for the Ronde – raw strength, positioning, the ability to ride well on cobbles – are all given a work-out here too, of course, but the racing takes place away from the Flemish Ardennes and follows a very different rhythm.
At 250 kilometres in length, Gent-Wevelgem is the longest Classic outside of the Monuments, and can essentially be broken into three parts. The first 150 kilometres or so are pan flat as the peloton departs Deinze and heads towards the North Sea coast and the Franco-Belgian border. Although this year’s parcours doesn’t quite reach the seafront, the bracing North Sea winds tend to make themselves felt near Veurne and De Moeren, and there is the distinct risk of the race breaking into echelons at that early juncture.
The next phase of the race comes in the pocket of hills that pepper the Franco-Belgian border, beginning with the Katsberg with 113km remaining, the first of 11 hellingen on the route. The early hills have the feel of a softening-up process, before the strongmen begin to show themselves in earnest on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg with 75km to go. The Monteberg and Baneberg follow, as well as three sections of dirt road – the so-called plugstreets introduced last year – before the riders come back over the Kemmel for the second time with 35km remaining.
Sagan, in particular, has impressed on the Kemmelberg in recent years, but wind direction could play a large part in deciding whether a group of attackers can stay clear of the fast men on the run-in to the finish in Wevelgem. That, and another seemingly elemental force in these parts – the tactics of the Quick-Step team.
Quick-Step, as stated, line out with multiple options for the race. Viviani was not scheduled to race here initially, but the injury of Fernando Gaviria altered his plans, and he warmed up for the main event by claiming his seventh win of the season at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday. Gilbert's form has not yielded a win yet in 2018, but has hardly gone unnoticed either. Saturday's Het Nieuwsblad listed him as the lone five-star favourite for the race.
Along with Van Avermaet and Sagan, Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Jens Keukeleire (Lotto Soudal) will all expect to be prominent come the final haul up the Kemmelberg.
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) have the speed to compete in a sprint and the strength to win from a reduced group. Other fast men in a deep field include Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), 2014 winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Magnus Cort (Astana), Sacha Modolo (EF-Drapac), Bryan Coquard (Vital Concept) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida).