Marta Bastianelli (Virtu Cycling) will line up as the defending champion at the weekend's fifth round of the Women's WorldTour – Gent-Wevelgem, but the series leader is willing to forgo a second consecutive victory with her sights set, instead, on Tour of Flanders in April and the World Championships in Yorkshire in September.
Gent-Wevelgem is as prestigious a race as they come in pro cycling, with both WorldTour men's and women's fields taking the start line in the historical Spring Classic on Sunday, the men in Gent and the women in Ieper, and both finish in Wevelgem.
Its rich history is embedded in the men's event that began in the 1930s and has seen winners Eddy Merckx, Robert Van Eanaeme, Rik Van Looy, Tom Boonen among its Belgian champions, and along with Italian Mario Cipollini and Slovakian Peter Sagan, they have all won it three times.
The women's race, though only in its eighth edition, has risen quickly to become a staple on the calendar. Its first winner was Lizzie Deignan in 2012 and it was shortly after that added to the Women's WorldTour upon the series creation in 2016. Its position among the one-days such as Tour of Flanders and the Ardennes Classics has given organisers its due recognition for hosting world-class races for both men and women, both of which offer live streaming for its fans to spectate from home.
This year's race will once again begin in Ieper and follow a 137km route to Wevelgem. Although it's a flatter route compared to some of the other Classics, it does include dirt sectors and a succession of three sharp climbs; Beneberg, Kemelberg, and the Monteberg, that the peloton tackle twice, followed by some 30km of flat to the finish. It is more likely to come down to a small group sprint rather than a mass bunch, but anything can happen in a Classic.
Although the main climb is the Kemelberg, Canyon-SRAM's Hannah Barnes noted that other factors could affect the race.
"The Kemmelberg is the main focus for a lot of riders but last year the crosswinds in the final 15km was where the race was won and lost," Barnes said.
In January, organisers of Gent-Wevelgem confirmed the 24 teams that will take part in this year's race, with top-ranked teams such as Boels Dolmans and Mitchelton-Scott set to headline the event. And the proof of its importance, being that all of the top 15 teams, which WorldTour organisers are required to invite, will be on the start line including CCC-Liv, the new Trek-Segafredo women's team, Sunweb and Canyon-SRAM.
The remaining seven of the top-15 teams that received automatic spots are WNT Rotor Pro Cycling, Valcar Cylance Cycling, Movistar, Team Tibco Silicon Valley Bank, Parkhotel Valkenburg. FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope and Bigla.
All fingers point to Bastianelli's ability to defend her title after winning Ronde van Drenthe two weeks ago, but she has noted in an interview with Cyclingnews at the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne on Thursday that her main goals lay further into the season as she would like to win a second world title in Yorkshire.
Twice runner-up at Gent-Wevelgem, Jolien D'hoore, was forced to the sidelines with a broken collarbone at Drentse 8 but her Boels Dolmans team will field former winner Chantal Blaak.
Trek-Segafredo will start with Lotta Lepistö, the 2017 winner. Sunweb's Floortje Mackaij and WNT-Rotor's Kirsten Wild each won titles before the race was part of the Women's WorldTour, and will start on Sunday.
Wild has shown her winning form at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, where she won the bunch sprint this week. She will line up with teammate Lisa Brennauer, who finished on the podium in the 2016 edition, and proved a valuable lead-out in Wild's De Panne victory.
Mackaij will start with her Sunweb teammate and former podium finisher Coryn Rivera.
Trek-Segafredo field a talented mix of riders alongside Lepistö with breakaway and time trial specialist Ellen van Dijk, all-rounder Elisa Longo Borghini, and fellow sprinter Letizia Paternoster. The team couldn't quite pull it together for the sprint in De Panne, however, with Lepistö finishing fourth.
Barnes will be on the start line with Canyon-SRAM teammate and last year's third-place rider Lisa Klein, Kasia Niewiadoma, Alice Barnes, Elena Cecchini and Alexis Ryan.
"You have to stay concentrated throughout the race," Hannah Barnes said. "The race has been won with a solo attack and it's been won out of a bunch sprint. Even an all-round type of rider can do well on Sunday."
Marianna Vos will line up with her CCC Liv team, also on the hunt for a victory in the Belgian Classics, and with proven top form after winning Trofeo Alfredo Binda from a breakaway sprint last week in Italy.
Chloe Hosking has finished on the podium in Gent-Wevelgem in the past, but has yet to perform to that level in any of the Classics this year. The Australian racing for Ale Cipollini will surely want to be a contender in a potential sprint.
Amanda Spratt will be the go-to rider for Mitchleton-Scott, and she is surrounded by a support crew that includes Grace Brown, Gracie Elvin and Sarah Roy, all capable of winning in their own right.
Third place in De Panne, Lotte Kopecky will want to improve on that performance for her Lotto Soudal team in Wevelgem.
Check in with Cyclingnews following the race for the full report, results and gallery from Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
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