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QuickStep search for response to Van Aert's dominance at Gent-Wevelgem - Preview

HARELBEKE BELGIUM MARCH 25 LR Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo Visma Kasper Asgreen of Denmark and Team QuickStep Alpha Vinyl and Christophe Laporte of France and Team Jumbo Visma compete during the 65th E3 Saxo Bank Classic 2022 a 2039km one day race from Harelbeke to Harelbeke E3SaxobankClassic WorldTour on March 25 2022 in Harelbeke Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
QuickStep (Kasper Asgreen in cenger) were outgunned by Wout van Aert (left) and Jumbo-Visma at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic (Image credit: Tim de WaeleGetty Images)

QuickStep-AlphaVinyl rarely fall flat in two races in a row in the Spring, but the topography of this Classics campaign seems to be contoured differently to those of years past.

For once, the team in blue are no longer the defining landmark in the Flemish Ardennes. Instead, the peloton sits in the shadow of Jumbo-Visma, who towered over everybody at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic as Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte scored a one-two win of astonishing dominance.

Winner of Gent-Wevelgem a year ago, Van Aert is the logical favourite to defend that title on Sunday, though much of the intrigue ought to be provided by QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, who remain a team in search of themselves as the Tour of Flanders draws ever closer.

They have already notched up 15 wins in 2022, of course, so their travails are relative, but their low-key outing in Harelbeke, where 10th-placed Kasper Asgreen was their best finisher, was of a piece with a flat showing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month. The Ronde fast approaches, and time is running out.

At least Patrick Lefevere could find a humorous way to deal with his team's woes in his column in Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday morning, as he pointed out that many of the mainstays of his cobbled Classics unit had been laid low by illness in recent weeks, while Jumbo-Visma have enjoyed a comparatively clear bill of health.

"To put it bluntly, we should have organised an orgy in December instead of a super-COVID-safe training camp. Then everyone would have gotten sick by then," Lefevere wrote. "That plays a part in Jumbo-Visma's dominance: they had their miseries then, we have them now."

Those miseries have had a hand in QuickStep-AlphaVinyl's team selection this weekend. Rather than field more or less their entire Tour of Flanders team in both Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, as Jumbo-Visma are doing, QuickStep withheld Yves Lampaert on Friday in order to keep him fresh for Sunday, while Iljo Keisse has also been drafted into the line-up here together with sprinter Fabio Jakobsen.

The approach vaguely recalls how QuickStep held Tom Boonen back from E3 Harelbeke in 2011 in order to spare him for Gent-Wevelgem the following day. Back then, E3 Harelbeke was not yet in the WorldTour and QuickStep, enduring the worst season of their existence, were in dire need of the points on offer in Wevelgem. Boonen duly relieved the pressure with a sprint win on Menenstraat.

The situation isn't entirely analogous here, given that the modern, multi-faceted QuickStep-AlphaVinyl will remain safely among the very top echelon of WorldTour teams regardless of what happens on the cobbles. But, like in 2011, when Fabian Cancellara's dominance at Harelbeke made him the Van Aert of the day, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl start Gent-Wevelgem seeking something they haven't needed in a long time – reassurance.

The inclusion of Jakobsen, who already saved their Opening Weekend with a fine Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne victory, suggests that a bunch finish is QuickStep's preferred way to take on Van Aert, but Gent-Wevelgem rarely if ever runs according to the anticipated script.

Witness, for instance, last year's no-holds-barred edition, where the decisive echelon went clear with 180km left to race. Remarkably, QuickStep's only representative in the move was their sprinter, Sam Bennett, while riders like Davide Ballerini and Lampaert spent the bulk of the afternoon grimly trying to bridge across.

It goes without saying that QuickStep, who also line out with Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal, cannot afford similar missteps this time out, not least because Van Aert and his Jumbo-Visma cohort seem incapable of putting a pedal stroke askew this Spring.

Join Cyclingnews for live coverage of the 2022 Spring Classics, including Gent-Wevelgem, and check-in after each race for our full report, results, gallery, news and features.

The contenders

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) won Gent-Wevelgem 2021

Wout van Aert beat Giacomo Nizzolo and Matteo Trentin to the win last year (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Van Aert showed at both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Saxo Bank Classic that he is, by some distance, the strongest rider on the cobbles this Spring (at least until Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel get here), and, despite recent misfires at Paris-Nice, he remains one of the fastest finishers in the peloton to boot.

He is, in other words, capable of winning Gent-Wevelgem in every scenario, while the overwhelming power of his Jumbo-Visma team makes him nigh-on impossible to outmanoeuvre. Depending on the circumstances, Tiesj Benoot, Laporte and Nathan Van Hooydonck are also potential winners.

Although this race has a different rhythm, most of the E3 Saxo Bank contenders will expect to be in the mix again here, including Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious), Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Dylan van Baarle and Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers). The British team will also welcome Tom Pidcock back to action following his recent stomach issues.

Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) made such an assured debut on the cobbles in Harelbeke that he has been drafted in to lead his team here alongside Alexander Kristoff, and his finishing speed makes him an obvious contender in the event of a group finish.

Those who fell short in Harelbeke will also be seeking a response here, including Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal), Greg Van Avermaert, Oliver Naesen (AG2R Citroën), Anthony Turgis, Peter Sagan (Team TotalEnergies), and the Trek-Segafredo trio of Jasper Stuyven, Quinn Simmons and Mads Pedersen. The Dane, so impressive in the sprints at Paris-Nice, is perhaps their best option here.

As usual, Gent-Wevelgem has attracted a number of notable fast men, including Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates), Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco), Elia Viviani (Ineos), and the Alpecin-Fenix pairing of Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen. Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) is back in the peloton after suffering a delayed concussion at Paris-Nice, while Tom Pidcock (Ineos) also makes an early return to action after stomach issues forced him to miss Strade Bianche and abandon Milan-San Remo.

The route

For the third year in a row, Gent-Wevelgem starts from beneath the Menin Gate in Ypres, and although there are no climbs in the first 150km, the opening hours of the race are not to be underestimated.

Indeed, the most attritional editions of recent years – 2015, 2019 and 2021 – all saw the race ignite long before it hit the cobbles and hills. The exposed marshland around the De Moeren (after 96km), in particular, is prey to North Sea winds and the possibility of echelons is obvious.

After tackling the Scherpenberg and the Baneberg, the peloton tackles the Monteberg and Kemmelberg pairing for the first time with 86km remaining, before crossing into the Province of Hainault to tackle the three dirt road sections of the Plugstreets, which were added to the parcours in 2017.

The second Monteberg-Kemmelberg combination comes with just over 50km remaining before the race doubles back to take in the Scherpenberg and Baneberg once again.

The final ascent is the symbolic centrepiece of the race, as the riders tackle the Kemmelberg for the third time, this time from its steeper, western side. From the summit, there are still 34km to the finish. In theory, enough time for the sprinters to claw their way back into contention, but it all depends on what has gone before.

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Barry Ryan

Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.

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