Reigning champion Alexander Kristoff heads a very strong line-up of sprinters and Classics specialists at Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields for the 82nd running of the Belgian race, which, for the first time since its inaugural edition in 1934, will be taking place in the autumn rather than the spring.
A field packed with big names also includes Mathieu van der Poel, who was fourth last year, Tour de France points jersey winner Sam Bennett, 2019 world champion Mads Pedersen and double Tour stage-winner Wout van Aert.
Initially billed as one half of a 'Weekend of the Low Countries' double-header along with the Amstel Gold Race, Gent-Wevelgem will instead be the sole focus for Classics specialists following the cancellation of the Dutch race as a result of COVID-related restrictions.
The organisers of the Belgian race have also had to adapt to the ongoing health crisis, removing the sections of the route that went into France, which has resulted in it being shortened to 238km, a dozen fewer than last year. The race has, however, retained its fundamental feature, the iconic climb of the Kemmelberg, as well as the Plugstreets gravel sections that were introduced for the first time in 2018.
Like the women's WorldTour event that takes place on the same day, the race will start in Ypres under the Menin Gate, the memorial to unknown British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the Battles of Ypres in the First World War.
The race organisers haven't, though, announced any precise route details beyond that point, in order to encourage fans to follow the action on television rather than the roadside. But they have confirmed that the Catsberg, Zwarte Berg and Vert Mont climbs won't appear this year, and also that the riders will tackle the Kemmelberg three times rather than twice.
After 130km on the flat, the first of 11 climbs, the Scherpenberg, will arrive with a little more than 100km left to race. Preceded by the Baneberg and the Monteberg, the Kemmelberg will be the final hurdle in the initial group of five ascents. The three gravel/dirt sections close to the village of Ploegsteert, dubbed 'Plugstreets' by Allied soldiers, follow soon after.
A second passage over the Monteberg and Kemmelberg begins the second section in the low hills typical of this part of Western Flanders. The Kemmelberg features again as the last rise in this series. From the summit, there are 40 mostly flat kilometres remaining.
For the most part, they're on narrow lanes that twist incessantly, making it difficult for what remains of the peloton to chase down any breakaway groups. Nearer to the finish in Wevelgem, the riders will reach straighter and wider roads where breakaways are more likely to be chased down.
In addition to UAE Emirates' leader Kristoff, who led in a 30-strong front group last year, there are two other past winners of the race in the field. Edvald Boasson Hagen, whose success dates back more than a decade to 2009, will be one of NTT's protected riders, alongside sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo.
Winner in 2014 and runner-up last year, John Degenkolb heads a Lotto-Soudal attack that also features Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan, winner of two stages at the Tour de France.
Tour green jersey Sam Bennett, talked up as a future Classics contender by Deceuninck-QuickStep management recently, is set to make his first Gent-Wevelgem appearance since 2017 as part of a formidably strong team that also includes Yves Lampaert, Bob Jungels, Kasper Asgreen, Zdenek Štybar and Florian Sénéchal. In short, the Belgian outfit is as stacked with talent as usual on home terrain.
Bahrain McLaren also have strength in depth, Sonny Colbrelli, Phil Bauhaus and Iván García Cortina their key men on a team that also features Britons Mark Cavendish and Fred Wright.
Mathieu van der Poel will be one of the key names to look out for after his close second place in Brabantse Pijl. Alpecin-Fenix teammate Tim Merlier also has a strong sprint.
Jumbo-Visma also have strong options in Wout van Aert and Mike Teunissen, as do Ineos Grenadiers, who include Luke Rowe, Owain Doull and Gianni Moscon in their seven-man line-up.
Mads Pedersen, the winner of the under-23 version of this race in 2016, will lead Trek-Segafredo, one of the in-form teams of the moment, alongside fellow fast finishers Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns.
Meanwhile, Team Sunweb, who've also been making significant waves, will be looking to Tiesj Benoot and sprinter Cees Bol to continue their recent run of success.
AG2R La Mondiale will be led by Oliver Naesen, the Belgian in form with a second place on the final stage of the BinckBank Tour despite getting injured in a crash earlier in the race.
Bora-Hansgrohe will look to their sprint specialist Pascal Ackermann for a result with Daniel Oss and Jempy Drucker also on hand. CCC's Matteo Trentin is another to look out for, leading solo after Greg Van Avermaet's season-ending injury.
Other names to keep an eye on include Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie), EF duo Alberto Bettiol and Sep Vanmarcke, Luka Mezgec (Mitchelton-Scott) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis).
Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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