Belgium holds its first WorldTour race of the year this weekend with Gent-Wevelgem, perhaps the most prestigious cobbled Classic after Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Scheduled the Sunday before the Ronde since last year - it was previously held on the Wednesday between Flanders and Roubaix - the event has gained even more importance on the calendar, attracting an impressive selection of Classics contenders eager to perform.
Taking place one day after its direct rival race the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem has often been called the "sprinters' Classic" due to its flat finishing terrain. The race traditionally starts in Deinze, then sets off westward towards the Belgian coastline before moving southwards again towards the famous 'bergs' that can nevertheless be raced hard enough to make a real selection.
This year, the 201km-course has been slightly modified to include a longer flat first half, as well as one additional climb. After more than 130km, the riders will reach a looping circuit over eight climbs, which will be tackled twice, before heading towards Wevelgem. Among the climbs is the dreaded Kemmelberg, whose descent sometimes proves to be even more decisive than its ascent.
Even if there are still 35 kilometres to the finish after the last climb - which makes it possible for a small peloton to come together again - the race does not end in a bunch sprint as often as imagined. In the last few years, only three larger group sprints decided the winner: Tom Boonen in 2004, Thor Hushovd in 2006 and Oscar Freire in 2008. Depending on weather conditions and race circumstances, it can be a true race of attrition especially if the wind breaks up the bunch in the finale.
It was in this way that 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 this time alongside his team captain Mark Cavendish who missed out on the race in 2010.
The list of other contenders is long, starting with Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step). At first, the Belgian had been pencilled in to race the E3 Prijs on Saturday, but then his team changed its mind due its failure to secure a single WorldTour point since this start of the season. Boonen and Chavanel - who pointed at Wevelgem as one of his biggest season goals this year - will thus be highly motivated to do well.
Belgian rival team Omega Pharma-Lotto is bound to take advantage of the pressure weighing upon Patrick Lefevere's squad and has two great cards to play: Philippe Gilbert and André Greipel. The Belgian is again in top shape this spring and has already scored two victories, Monte Paschi Strade Bianche and stage five of Tirreno-Adriatico, while German sprinter Greipel will be motivated just by the sole thought of racing against former teammate Cavendish.
But the list of possible winners is long and further includes Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), Alessandro Ballan and Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek), Geraint Thomas and Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky), Allan Davis and Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana) as well as Filippo Pozzato (Katusha).
And even if 2008 winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and 2009 winner Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) are prevented from attending because of illnesses and injuries, this year's Gent-Wevelgem is again certain to provide for very attractive racing - that may or may not end in a bunch sprint.