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Hello and welcome to the Cyclingnews coverage of Gent-Wevelgem.
The race has been underway for almost an hour but there has been little action so far as the riders head out to the coast.
The 196 riders who rolled out of Gent face 204km of racing.
This year, the course has been slightly modified to include a longer flat first half, as well as one additional climb. After more than 130km of racing, the riders will reach a circuit that includes eight short climbs, which will be tackled twice, before they head towards Wevelgem and the finish. Among the climbs is the dreaded Kemmelberg, whose descent sometimes proves to be even more decisive than its ascent.
There 35 kilometres to the finish after the last climb - which makes it possible for a small peloton to come together again and for a thrilling finale. Gent-Wevelgem is known as the sprinter's classic but these days does not end in a bunch sprint as often as imagined. In the last few years, only three larger group sprints have decided the winner: Tom Boonen in 2004, Thor Hushovd in 2006 and Oscar Freire in 2008. Depending on weather conditions and race circumstances, the race can be a battle of attrition especially if the wind breaks up the bunch in the finale.
A split in the finale helped Bernhard Eisel (HTC-High Road) took the victory from a six-man group last year, after crosswinds had made life difficult for everyone. The Austrian will be back to defend his title, but has been ill in recent weeks. This year he will be riding with team captain Mark Cavendish who missed out on the race in 2010 and Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss.
The only rider not to start was Belarus' Aleksandr Koetsjinski (Katyusha).
The big names riding include Gilbert, Boonen, Cavendish, Hushovd, Farrar, Eisel, Greipel, Bennati, Van Avermaet and Pozzato. Anyone of them could win today.
Thanks for kicking off live Stephen. Sorry folks, we had a bit of trouble with the CN blimp this morning but it's all okay now.
Conditions at the start this morning were close to perfect. Over-cast but no rain and no wind to speak of.
There's a chance of rain later on today though. Last night we did have light showers - the first we've had since being in Belgium - we arrived on Monday.
Stephen's already talked about the route for today's race so lets have a look through some of the favourites.
Actually, before we do look at the big hitters for today, we bumped into George Hincapie - himself a big hitter - and he confirmed to CN that he would be racing for one more season. So good news for all the BMC, American and Hincapie fans out there. He's 37 so he'll be pushing 39 when he final hangs up his wheels.
You can read about this and watch a little video interview with George, right here. No backing down now, George, we've got this on film!
And while we're on the subject of video, we spent yesterday's E3 with Skil-Shimano. We recorded a series of video throughout the day and you can watch them all right here.
One last shameless plug of video and then we'll get back to the race (I promise). You can watch Fabian Cancellara's post-race press conference from yesterday, right here.
So Eisel wears number 1 today, having won last year. A few of the HTC riders have a bit of a cold at the moment but they were in fine spirits at the start. Along with Eisel they have Cavendish and Goss on the start line and don't forget they've won this race three of the last four years. That's a pretty impressive record, even if two of the riders have now left the team.
Hushovd is also racing today but after yesterday's exploits Garmin will be back Tyler Farrar. It's one of the biggest objectives of the season, according to Jonathan Vaughters, and Farrar was strong in last year's race, almost bridging to the lead group. If he can get over the climbs today he has to be a favourite.
And there's also Boonen. Who knows what effect yesterday's race and Cancellara's win will have on him. But all of Belgium will be watching to see how he responds. Anything short of victory and questions will be raised - certainly from within the home press.
The first hour of racing has been completed at an average of 51kph. Fast. All flat roads to start with and the bunch is all together.
We spoke to HTC's Rolf Aldag at the start today and this is what he had to say:
Let’s see how the race goes. Even Alex Rasmussen if he gets over the climbs and gets in a group is hard to beat in a sprint out of a group. We have to see.
The biggest and most important thing is that we don’t lose control of the race. If we’re in a situation where we have to chase and puts guys on the front, then it’s not going to be funny anymore.
On skipping Harelbeke for Gent-Wevelgem:
We’ve won three out of four, but don’t tell anyone else or they might consider us as the favourite.
I think that the balance in the last couple of years has been good for us. We’ve skipped Harelbeke. It’s a super nice race but we don’t have a team to do two such hard races in two days, so we really shifted our focus to Gent-Wevelgem and it paid off, but now I’ve seen a lot of teams do the same and copy that idea, and not bring the guys to Harelbeke, so it’s going to be more difficult, we’re going to have to deal with more fresh riders.
On Cavendish’s form:
I hope it’s good. He won in Oman and the positive news is that he is more stable that’s for sure. Last year he struggled really with getting together, but he’s a lot more stable right now. He has big goals with riding all three Grand Tours, and this is what he needs, to be very stable all season
Meanwhile we've had our first meaningful move of the race as Thomas Voeckler attacks. He's joined by Schmitz, Zingle, Van Vooren and Timmer. They have a minutes lead on the pack.
We also spoke to Mike Sayers from BMC, who had this to say on today's race.
"We’ve got as good a team as we could have for what is an important race, a WorldTour race. We’ve got all of our best guys here."
"I think Belgium’s been going through summertime. It’s been great weather all week, perfect for training, perfect for doing the recon. Today is calm, a little chilly but not bad. I think it’ll just be the riders and the course that determine the winner."
"The only guy we’ll have next week who isn’t here is Quinziato, but he’s coming tomorrow for De Panne."
"He wasn’t feeling 100% and we just wanted to give him extra rest and extra time to prepare so he’ll be here tomorrow"
"As you’ve seen up to this point, it seems to be pefect, so moving right along, no problem."
On BMC being more aggressive:
"The team’s getting stronger for sure. The team has strengthened itself on all fronts this year. Greg [Van Avermaet] has been a great addition to the team along with Quinziato, so I think every guy we added this year has brought something to the team: experience or aggressive riding or better knowledge or whatever, so I just think all around we’ve made the team better."
The leaders have two minutes now.
Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar), Bram Schmitz (Veranda's Willems – Accent), Romain Zingle (Cofidis), Steven Van Vooren (Topsport Vlaanderen – Mercator) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano)
Peloton at 2 minutes
So it looks like we've got our break for the day. Voeckler raced yesterday too but he's clearly hoping to make the most of his strong recent form.
One favourite we've not talked about today yet is Gilbert. We didn't catch him at the start but we did talk to his team boss, Marc Sergeant. Here's what he had to say.
"Obviously it’s a race which is not as selective as yesterday but the middle section is pretty hard, it’s narrow, so something can happen. There can be a small group or a breakaway, and if there’s a sprint we still have André."
On Cancellar's win yesterday:
"It was astonishing. After all the bad luck he had, the effort he made was incredible. And it was so predictable, you saw he was so strong and he came back by doing the work himself, and then he had O’Grady to help him. It was great."
We also talked to Jonathan Vaughters.
"Today’s is one of Tyler’s big objectives for the year, but you saw yesterday a race can go a number of different ways. I know in the end Cancellara won but you could see for a while that we were playing a good card with Sep, so who knows exactly how all of this pans out today. In theory it’s a good opportunity for Tyler and for the team to win one of these things."
On Haussler not racing G-W
"It makes it harder. If you’re going for the win like Haussler was yesterday then I think it’s pretty tough. I think it’s difficult for sure. I think it’s hard when you’re absolutely flat out to try to win two days in a row like that. But then there’s guys like Roger Hammond who want to race both days, but again his job is a little bit different."
We also talked to Ted King, now of Liquigas. He'll be working for Sagan today:
"At the Giro di Sardegna I had a knee injury. I was working for Sagan and it was big to come away with the victory but it took me off the bike for a week, then two weeks’ therapy."
"I just finished up Coppi e Bartali, so that was sort of a test for the knee. It came out fine, so I’m really excited for this week.
Looking after Sagan. This might be his first classics, but the guy is a champion for sure in the making. It’s a tall order so I’ll be looking out for him most of the day."
And finally we talked to Sky's Chris Sutton. He won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne a few weeks ago and says he's feeling really strong.
"I’m feeling pretty good, had a good few days. We did a recon of the Tour of Flanders and a recon of Gent-Wevelgem the other day, then a nice easy ride yesterday. Team spirit is high and everybody is raring to go and race hard. The team’s just going so well right now, we proved it again the other day in Waregem with G coming second and then Hayman coming second in the bunch sprint behind Farrar."
"We’ll see what happens. I’m feeling pretty good but we’ve got so many cards to play, everybody’s going so strong. Flecha, Hayman, Ian Stannard, G… Hendy’s going great. He had a big win in Paris-Nice but then he got a bit sick after that so we’re not sure if he’s 100%, so we’re just going to talk out on the road and see what happens. If it comes down to the sprint and I’m there, then it’s all go for me. If I’m not feeling good then we’ll go for Hendy, but it could be a breakaway. G could be away solo or Flecha, or Stannard."
Good work from the leaders by the way and they've got a gap of five minutes.
Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar), Bram Schmitz (Veranda's Willems – Accent), Romain Zingle (Cofidis), Steven Van Vooren (Topsport Vlaanderen – Mercator) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano)
Peloton at 5 minutes
We've also put together a start line gallery from this morning. Here it is!
Thoughts on today's racing, Cancellara, Hincapie, and predictions for the finish, ping them into me at http://twitter.com/dnlbenson
Already we have a reaction from the bunch and the gap is coming down. It's 3.20. We've not hit the first set of climbs yet, and they come around the 110km mark.
We've raced 94 km in two hours so the group and the peloton aren't hanging around. The leaders will hit the first set of climbs, starting with the Mont de Cats in roughly 10km.
Weber_M @dnlbenson Be nice if George won but predict he will set up Van Avermaet. Problem is most may see today as only chance to Win - no Fabian
Pozzato's first race in Belgium since last month but today is also Sagan's first experience of a semi-Classic/Classic. It will be interesting to see how he goes. Not many people are focussing on him today and his inexperience could be a factor but if he's strong and on form - which he is, then he'll be a factor in the race.
And that long run in between the final climb and the finish - roughly 30km - will be crucial. If some of the dropped riders have even a sniff of coming back for the sprint, they will go full gas. Really if a small group wants to go clear and stay clear then they'll have to form before the final couple of climbs in order to build up a lead.
DavidMcCormack @dnlbenson Cancellara has clearly hit peak condition. Seán Kelly says you can only keep that for 2wks though...and P-R is still 2wks away! Then again, Cancellara is so far ahead of the competition, he probably doesn't need peak condition to win.
The lead is down slightly, it's 2.50 to the five leaders.
The leaders are still working well together. Voeckler comes through and takes his turn on the front, followed by Timmer.
The lead still comes down and it's 2.20
au_sesquip @dnlbenson will the crosswinds play a part today?
They could well do. It's not too windy out there but there is a slight cross wind. Teams like Rabobank will be looking to exploit that if they can but as ever positioning is going to be crucial, especially on the climbs. They come so quickly, one after the other, that there's little chance to recovery. If you want to win this race you have to pay attention and be at the front - the first 15-20 guys.
Almost onto the first climb for the five leaders. Timmer is leading them. The gap is still at 2.20.
The course change actually suits someone like Cav. The long flat run in will give him a chance to get back on if he's dropped. HTC do have a few cards to play. Their biggest problem maybe their health - a few of them are down with colds.
Onto the Catsberg for the leaders!
The gap is coming down though. It's 1.47
The rain has held off so far as Sky, BMC and the Shack lead the main field. The Shack have Hunter and McEwen here today.
Just 1.17 now is the gap. Hayman powering ahead on the front of the peloton.
Hunt takes over and take a big turn on the front, he doesn't really make up much time but he does string things out and move some of the other Sky riders to the front as the road narrows. Smart riding from the experienced Englishman.
Flecha moves up, with Greipel on his wheel. He's another man who could do well if it all comes back together for a sprint.
The roads narrow but that doesn't stop the riders taking risks and jumping onto the pavements. Still 78km to go. The gap has gone back out to 1.52
An Euskatel rider has a puncture and is forced to wait for the car. The five leaders, meanwhile are still plugging away.
I jumped the gun a bit before, they're now on the Catsberg and who else but Voeckler leads them up. He's already putting the others into difficulty and someone is dropped.
Schmitz is the man dropped and Timmer is finding it tough too. Voeckler still on the fron doing all the work.
Timmer is dropped as the bunch now reach the climb. Lets see who has been caught out with poor positioning.
The bunch come to a complete stop as a quick step rider is forced to stop. I think that's boonen. yes it is. What a bad time to have a problem with your bike.
He's sitting down on the road as he waits for his team car. Quick Steps season just goes from bad to worse.
Finally he gets a new bike and he's on his way.
FDJ move up to the front and already the field is all over the place. Boonen is chasing back through the cars. No teammates with him though.
Back in the break and Voeckler has dropped two riders but the gap has gone out to two minutes.
The main field is starting to come back together but Boonen is still off the back. No teammates but he's sheltering from the wind, behind his team car.
He'll get back on but that's a big waste of energy and might of course miss an important move.
Boonen is roughly 30km off the back of the bunch. Van Impe waits for him.
Boonen has made it back to the bunch. Cancellara came back from things like this yesterday. What can Boonen do?
FDJ and BMC setting the pace on the front. Both teams have options for today.
Schmitz is back in the bunch now.
We hit another climb and Voeckler again set the pace, his two companions more than happy for him to do all the work. The gap goes out to 2.20.
The Frenchman puts down the hammer. Not sure why he's trying to drop these two other riders. Surely they'd be useful on the downhill and flat sections?
FDJ looking really good. Chavanel, meanwhile patrols the front of the bunch.
philgrant80 @dnlbenson personally there Is nothing that boonen or Gilbert can do to compare to what cancellara did yesterday Fabian is a machine
An Astana rider runs wide but stays upright. Behind him the rest of the field are forced to stop.
And the gap goes up to 2.59
Timmer is now caught by the main field.
Zingle comes through and takes a turn on the less strenuous part of the circuit. They'll do all of this twice.
Problem for Boom and he's at the back, calling for the team car.
Ah he's waiting for Wynants who had a puncture.
Rabobank have lost a little bit of their shine in recent weeks after the splendid start the season they had. Still very much contenders for today though.
Daniel Oss on the front now, Gilbert too as the break tackle the Kemmelberg. Do I need to tell you who is leading the break?
Voeckler has a gap but more importantly Cav has a flat and takes Brammier's wheel. Big moment now as Cav will need to get back on.
No rain by the way so the Kemmel is dry.
Gilbert on the front and setting the pace, Flecha behind. The race has started.
Boonen follows Flecha, Sagan is there too. Pippo as well. No break but things are stringing out
Farrar near the front. Cav is still chasing but is on his own.
Two BMC riders near the front, Ballan is one of them.
Thomas is there too but Hayman is clear.
Cavendish over the top. Maybe 30 seconds down on the bunch.
A HTC rider has waited for him though. Possibly Renshaw.
No, it's Danny Pate.
Hincapie, Hayman and a Saxo rider are clear, with roughly 100 meters on the Gilbert group. It's Cooke.
The bunch are now on the Monteberg, Hincapie setting the pace in the second group on the road. he's with Hayman and Cooke. More riders are trying to bridge over though.
A Shack rider has latched onto the Cookie, Hayman group.
Hushovd trying to make it to the second group .First time we've seen him today.
Hushovd makes it to the second group too. Dangerous little move here but the bunch aren't letting them make much progress, the gap roughly 10 seconds.
Boonen has made it over to this group now. The leaders have 1.11.
50km to go now. This group looks good. Gilbert is here too.
Correction, it's Steegmans not Boonen in the second group.
Gilbert's group has 20 seconds on the field as Voeckler gains goes on the attack.
Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar), Romain Zingle (Cofidis), Steven Van Vooren (Topsport Vlaanderen – Mercator)
Chasers: Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo), George Hincapie (Team BMC), Matt Hayman (Team Sky), Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank), Gert Steegmans (Quickstep), Geoffroy Lequatre (RadioShack), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), Jelle Wallays (Topsport-Vlaanderen) at 1:15
Peloton: just behind.
Rabobank wont like this and they'll have to chase. HTC too if they've given up on Cav for today.
Iglinsky goes now.
tonydeebo @dnlbenson Reading the live coverage. are Cav and Goss on the McClarens again? I guess they won't use them for the big cobbles.
They are. Eisel too.
The Gilbert group has been caught and the Belgian has a puncture.
He's back with the peloton now.
About to tackle the Kemmel again.
Bozic and Maarten Tjallingii go clear as Thomas has a problem with his bike.
Voeckler is going along now at the head of the race.
The bunch are closing though, the gap is just 33 seconds.
Flecha and Sagan are going now.
it doesn't look like anyone can make a big difference. Van Avermaet leads a small group over the top but the gap is very small. Should all come back together.
Voeckler still alone on the front. He has just 18 seconds. Van Avermaet and Sagan are caught. Bennati is up there. As Flecha attacks. he;'s brought back straight away though.
Pippo shows himself on the front as Oss goes on the attack.
Sky leading the chase though and it looks like this move wont stick.
Just one one more climb before the finish, it's looking like a bunch sprint.
Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar)
Peloton: 11 seconds
Stannard doing the work on the front, setting a good but not blistering pace. Is Sutton in here?
Nuyens attacks! BMC go with him
But Stannard looks up, adjusts his speed and brings it back together.
All back together. Voeckler is caught.
Now the question is who can control the bunch until the finish because we're going to see lots of attacks. We've got one now, with Chavanel there with three other riders. Stannard and two riders from Liquigas.
Sky marking moves here. No real reaction from the bunch and the gap is growing.
Sagan is with Chavanel and Stannard and Bodnar. This is a really good group. Bodnar will bury himself for Sagan.
Lotto on the front, and Gilbert attacks but he's not going to get clear like that.
Cooke on his wheel. This could be that Greipel is in the bunch and Gilbert is just working for him. He's stringing the bunch out.
Hushovd now on the front and setting the pace, for Farrar. The leaders have 12seconds.
Sagan takes a turn on the front. The other Liquigas riders sit on the front and mark moves. Eisel moves up and takes a turn though. Goss will be in the bunch then, no sign of Cav since he was dropped. The gap goes up to 20 seconds.
232 seconds now. 27 seconds. It's going up. The bunch need to react soon if they're to bring this back but right now they're not organised enough. FDJ setting the pace.
Bak on the head of the peloton. The gap up to 37 seconds as Chavanel drives it on. Even Voeckler does a turn on the front of the bunch. HTC don't seem to have the numbers here, they'll need some help.
The peloton has around 30-40 riders.
the lead is now 42 seconds.
The bunch, lead by Lotto and HTC are finally clawing back to the four leaders. The gap is 37 seconds.
Still not sure if Cav is in bunch. We've not seen him since he punctured.
With Goss out of the race - he quit earlier, it's safe to assume that Cavendish is in this lead group. He must be why HTC are working so hard. Danny Pate was the man who brought him back when he punctured. How important was that role today
Saxo also setting the pace. Garmin happy to let the other teams do the work for now. The gap is still holding though, it's at 32 seconds with 22km to go.
There's Cavendish. He is in there.
Crash and Cav is down!
Hunt and Hayman also down. .
Cavendish was near the back, looks like a tangle of wheels with a Movistar rider. he's not happy.
He's back on his bike and chasing.
Again Cav is forced to chase. One teammates comes back for him.
In fact that's not a teammate, it's someone from Topsport. Race over for Cavendish now. Surely he cant come back now?
It's all on Eisel now for HTC.
27 seconds the gap. As I hand you back to Stephen Farrand for the finale.
There are just 16km to go now and yet again the race is balanced on a knife edge.
The crash that dealyed Mark Cavendish seems to have split the peloton in two groups.
Gilbert now attacks from the front group of chasers. He's decided it's time to put his cards on the table. but he's not getting uch help for now.
With the weather warm and dry, this year's Gent-Wevelgem has been a very tactical race. And there could be more mind games before the finish.
The front chase group is big and wiht plenty of team leaders but just isn't organised and fully committed to chasing.
Up front the four breakaways are still working smoothly. If it comes down to a sprint, Peter Sagan must be the favourite.
Stannard is also fast and Chavanel is no slouch in a sprint but it is likely to be a tactical finish, with Bodnar and Sagan chasing down any attacks.
Behind it is now BMC that is leading the chase and upping the pace. Markus Burghardt has done a long turn, and so has Ballan.
We're inside the final 10km now. The tension is rising but the gap is holding at 22 seconds. Can the four stay away?
The roads are wide and exposed, meaning the chasers can often see the break just in front.
The gap is gradually coming down thanks to the work by BMC.
Thomas Voeckler is now doing his turn on the front and other riders are ready to do their bit. This is going to be close, very close.
Stannard is going hard on the front. He perhaps realises losing to Sagan is better than nothing.
There are huge crowds along the roads but that is not slowing the chase. The gap is now just nine seconds.
There are about 30 riders behind, all waiting for the sprint. The gap to the four is just 10 seconds. As Bodnar sits up and is caught.
Sagan, Chavanel and Stannard are still going for it. But the chasers are just 150 metres behind.
Stannard jumps and goes for it.
Stannard has a gap and is going for glory.
Stannard has a 50 metres on Sagan and 50 mon the chasers. Can he do it?
The sprinters are coming.
Stannard is caught wiht 150m to go.
The sprinters take control, with Farrar leading out, but Tom Boonen came through and timed his sprint perfectly to win.
Boonen crossed the line with a huge smile on his face. That has taken the pressure off him and the Quick Step team.
There was a crash after the line with Leonard Ducque (Cofidis) tangling with Yoann Offredo (FDJ). Both seem okay.
Boonen got an excellent lead out from Gert Steegmans.
It seems the crash was caused by a television camera man.
Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek) was second, Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) was third and Andrei Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) made a late charge to ake fourth.
That's about it from a sunny Belgium. With exactly a week to the Tour of Flanders, we know that both Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and most of the other big names for the classics, are all on form. It's going to be a great Ronde.
Before then most of the riders will ride the KBC-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, the three days of De Panne. We'll have lots of news, race shots and other galleries from each stage.
That's al lfrom today's live coverage. We'll have a full report, a huge gallery of race photos and exclusive news on Cyclingnews very soon.