A month since the European calendar kicked into gear, the Women's WorldTour races are coming thick and fast. The focus is still on one-day action, and Gent-Wevelgem is the fourth course on the menu for the peloton.
For 2017, the race organisers have taken advantage of the new rules that allow longer distances and have set out a 145km test between Ieper and Wevelgem. The race is only in its sixth edition, but it has quickly gone from a national event to one of the most prestigious on the spring calendar. It is flatter than some of the Classics, but aggressive racing sees the race decided by a solo breakaway more often than not. While it only has five climbs, its position also makes it a key preparation race for the Tour of Flanders a week later.
Last year, Boels Dolmans dominated the start of the WorldTour calendar. While they have won one outing this year, the rest of the teams have brought it to them and there have been three different winners from three different teams who have stood on the top step. Can it continue at Gent-Wevelgem or will we see a team claim their second win?
A wide open field
One Tour of Flanders contender that won't be in action is WorldTour leader Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5). The Italian is one of the few riders who has been in action at all of the WorldTour races so far after taking the lead when she won the opening round at Strade Bianche. The Wiggle-High5 team will, instead, be looking to Jolien D'hoore and Giorgia Bronzini to pick up the mantle. It will be Bronzini's first appearance at the race while D'hoore just missed out on the podium in 2015.
Canyon-SRAM is still in the hunt for their first victory of the season, but they come into the race with the best shot at taking over the WorldTour lead. Elena Cecchini has also raced all three rounds of the WorldTour so far this season and has managed a top 10 finish in all of them, including a second place at Ronde van Drenthe and a fifth at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda. She has the speed to win from a reduced bunch as do her teammates Hannah Barnes and Lisa Brennauer, who finished second in 2016.
Boels Dolmans bring with them two former champions in Chantal Blaak, who won last year's edition, and inaugural winner Lizzie Deignan. As well as Deignan and Blaak, they have options elsewhere in their line-up. World champion Amalie Dideriksen notched up her first win of the season at the Ronde van Drenthe and, unlike many of her teammates, missed last weekend's Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Amy Pieters finished fourth at last year’s race, in the chasing group behind Blaak. Megan Guarnier and Anna van der Breggen have both had difficult starts to the season, and they will be looking for a solid block of racing ahead of the Ardennes, and are likely to be deployed in domestique roles.
Team Sunweb has enjoyed a superb start to the season with strong performances from Lucinda Brand, Coryn Rivera and Ellen van Dijk. All three of them will be present on the start line Ieper as well former Gent-Wevelgem winner Floortje Mackaij. Rivera showed at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda that she has the turn of speed to take the honours from a bunch sprint, while Brand has the credentials to mix things up with a breakaway. Van Dijk could also force a breakaway, but she will also be a key team player.
It would be remiss not to mention Cervelo-Bigla's Lotta Lepisto, who pulled out a great performance mid-week to win at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Other riders to keep an eye out for would be Ale Cipollini pair Chloe Hosking and Janneke Ensing, and pretty much anyone in the Orica-Scott team - who has been as aggressive as ever in the early part of the season – and FDJ's Roxanne Knetemann.
Starting in Boezinge just north-west of Ieper, the riders will complete a short loop towards Elverdinge four times before heading south for the climbing section of the route. After 70 kilometres, the Kemmelberg is the first of five ascents to be dealt with, quickly followed by the Monteberg.
The peloton will complete that loop for a second time, taking in the Baneberg at the 92-kilometre mark before riding up the Kemmelberg and the Monteberg again. After the Monteberg, the race winds itself northwards on undulating roads before switching east, direction Wevelgem.
It is the tightly packed ascents of the Kemmelberg and the Monteberg are likely to define the race. While the race-winning attack may not go here, as there is still some 40 kilometres to run from the Monteberg, but the tactical moves on their ascents will plant the seeds.