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Gent-Wevelgem preview: Harder, faster, better, stronger?

For many, Edvald Boasson Hagen's victory in the 2009 edition of Gent-Wevelgem cemented his status as one of cycling's most prodigious talents. Indeed, the twelve months that have followed that breakthrough performance only served to enhance the Norwegian's reputation across the cycling world, and it seems only appropriate that the race which kicked it all off has undergone its own form of personal development for 2010.

Organisers of the 2010 Gent-Wevelgem have called this year's race a "transition" in their quest to elevate the status and reputation of the event. A change from its traditional mid-week position to a date one week prior to the Tour of Flanders has already served to boost its status in the eyes of those that will be contenders on the first weekend in April. While a proposal to stretch the course out to almost 260 kilometres fell by the wayside, the peloton will face a formidable series of 16 Flemish climbs on their 219 kilometre journey to Wevelgem; an increase of 14 climbs over the 2009 edition.

Harder? Definitely. Faster? Likely. Better? The organisers of the event certainly hope so, and have subsequently done everything they can to boost the race's standing next to Flanders and Roubaix. This year's edition will even include an international foray, as the peloton cross the border into France for the climbs of the Mont des Cats and Mont Noir.

For all the changes to its date and route, the event will still commence outside the city of its title. The race will begin in the market square of Deinze, some 15 kilometres west of Gent's centre. The peloton will stream towards the Belgian coastline before a prompt turn south and into the hills of southern Flanders. Two loops will follow, with the Sherpenberg, Mont des Cats, Berthen, Mont Noir, Baneberg, Rode berg and Monteberg to be tackled twice. The always crucial Kemmelberg will also play double duty on race day, with the second ascent to precede the 35 kilometre run into the finish.

Irrespective of the additional climbs, the final ascent of the Kemmelberg is likely to shape the race's ultimate result. The then-Columbia rider, Boasson Hagen used the same point last year to launch his race-winning attack, before outfoxing fellow escapee Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) in a sprint finale. In spite of the increased altitude gain of the route, it would take a brave observer to discount the now-Sky captain, who, if he can double-up, would be the first rider to do so since Mario Cipollini's pair in 1992 and 1993.

Another former winner, Oscar Freire (Rabobank), will go into this year's edition as a favourite to repeat his 2008 success. His sprint victory at Milan-San Remo last Saturday demonstrated a rich vein of form, but it's his renowned versatility that could see him add 'multiple Gent-Wevelgem champion' to his status as the only Spaniard to have won the event.

As anticipated by race organisers, the contenders for this year's race will largely match the lists being drawn up for Flanders a week later. Tom Boonen (Quick Step) was a late edition to his team's Gent-Wevelgem this week. His second place finish to Freire at San Remo may have seen him miss-out on the elusive title, but his demeanour at the Italian Classic was enough to suggest that the next month could be one of the biggest of his already storied career.

Like Boonen, Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) was philosophical after Milan-San Remo and immediately signalled Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège as his true calling this year. Both Gilbert and Boonen carry an enormous burden of expectation when racing in Belgium, and although Walloon Gilbert will not face the same fever-pitch as his Flandrian rival in Deinze, the gauntlet of their expected Classics' tussle could be laid down on the road to Wevelgem.

With Matti Breschel's mid-week victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Saxo Bank's Classics juggernaut appears to building up a head of steam at precisely the right time. Fabian Cancellara's work for his Danish teammate during Wednesday's race demonstrated that he, too, is coming in the right sort of shape to contend at Flanders and Roubaix, in the fortnight following Gent-Wevelgem.

Gent-based Tyler Farrar would desperately love to triumph in his 'home' race debut. At this stage last year Farrar was nursing a broken collarbone, courtesy of a tumble at Milan-San Remo. Safely past that obstacle this year, albeit without a hoped-for result, he will return to Belgian roads for the first time since his third place finish at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Those looking for an outsider to could do worse than back Dutchman Theo Bos. In his second season as a road professional, the Cervélo TestTeam sprinter has proven capable of winning against the best. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and his former Rabobank teammate Graeme Brown among his scalps so far this year.

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