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The prospects of a headwind in the final and early crosswinds point to a fast sprinter with a good condition to survive the climbs and a strong team to keep him positioned throughout the race. Mark Cavendish fits the bill and enters the rac...

Photo: Sirotti
















23.03.2013 @ 20:02 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After yesterday's clash between the major favourites for the Tour of Flanders, the biggest classics specialists step into the background in tomorrow's third leg of the holy period of Flemish racing, the Gent-Wevelgem. While the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel will use the cobbled climbs to get a last gauge of their form, the biggest sprinters fancy their chances to have a shot at classics glory.


Going into its 75th edition, Gent-Wevelgem is one of the most historical races on the calendar and has long been regarded as the third big cobbled classic: the little sister of the more famous Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.


For a long period it was held on the Wednesday between those two big races, and that calendar date did not serve the race any good. For the biggest stars, the race was mostly regarded as a way to keep the legs going between their major objectives, and often they chose to abandon along the way to avoid any unnecessary risks.


In 2010, the race was moved to its current date on the Sunday ahead of Flanders. With organizers also deciding to toughen the course, the race regained some of its former glory. Since then the importance of WorldTour points has further added to the importance of the event, and for the last couple of years the race has been able to gather all the biggest sprinters and the greatest classics specialist on the start line in Deinze.


Even with the harder course, the race does, however, not require the toughness of the Tour of Flanders and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, and so it is no wonder that many sprinters see the race as one of their big chances to go for success on the Belgian cobbles - the other being the Scheldeprijs. Along with Milan-Sanremo, the Gent-Wevelgem has ended up as the most important classic for a sprinter to add to his palmares, and this year's start list does nothing to hide this fact.


While the sprinters struggle to survive the climbs and keep their options open for a final sprint, the classics specialists use the race's key climbs, the Monteberg and the Kemmelberg, to accelerate in one last test of their form, and if the weather causes havoc on the race, some of them may even try to foil the sprinters and get one last boost of confidence before the major objectives.


Last year, the race ended up in a select bunch sprint after a frantic chase of a group containing then world champion Mark Cavendish failed to bring the Manxman back in contention. Tom Boonen took his second consecutive victory in the race after beating Peter Sagan and Matti Breschel in the final dash to the line and thus took his second of four memorable victories on the Belgian cobbles in 2012.


The course

The race starts in the city of Deinze and goes in a Northwestern direction towards the Belgian coast. This early phase takes place on completely flat roads and serves the purpose of creating the day's early break and accumulate fatigue in the rider's legs.


After 50 km, they reach the sea and turn left to travel along the seafront for another 40 km. With no topographical challenges, this portion of the course is usually raced under calm circumstances, but as always that may chance if the wind makes its presence felt. What is usually a place to save some energy, may turn out to be the site of a major selection if the weather decides to cause havoc on the peloton, and riders losing ground here may as well give up on any hope of glory in Wevelgem later in the afternoon.


After 90 km, the race heads south and leaves the coast to approach the course's hilly zone near the Belgian-French border. After 135 km, the riders get the opportunity to get their climbing legs going on a small circuit containing the Casselberg which has to be climbed twice.


The action kicks off in earnest  another 12 km later when the peloton tackles the Catsberg. 8 climbs now come in quick succession during the next 39 km with the key climbs of the Monteberg and Kemmelberg both to be tackled twice. The latter is known as a steep, cobbled climb which can do real damage on a tired peloton. However, it rose to fame more due to its treacherous, cobbled descent which was previously a key ingredient in the race. After a number of dramatic crashes and plenty of rider criticism, organizers decided some years ago  to lead the peloton onto a safer, asphalted road at the top of the climb, and this will be the case again this year.


The battle for position will be hectic on the approach to the hilly zone. Sprinters will try to enter the climbs in the best position while up ahead the early break will try desperately to keep ahead over the climbs with the hope of making the final selection.


Attacks usually go thick and fast - especially on the Kemmelberg where the classics specialists use the opportunity to test their legs - and after the last passage of the Monteberg, it is time to take stock of the situation. The final flat 42 km will now be the scene for a frantic chase between the different groups with any dropped sprinters trying to get back into contention before they reach the finish line in Wevelgem after 238 km.


The weather

The weather is a key ingredient of any Belgian race, and its role is maybe even more notable in Gent-Wevelgem than in any other of the Belgian races. What is usually an affair for the strong sprinters may turn into a battle between the hardest classics specialists in windy, rainy and cold conditions. That was certainly the case in 2007, 2009 and 2010 where Marcus Burghardt, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernhard Eisel triumphed in epic conditions from very select groups of hard men.


After a rather pleasant day with spring like temperatures in Harelbeke yesterday, the riders should be back to what they have seen for most of this season. The weather forecasts predict dry conditions, but it will be an extremely windy and cold day. With temperatures hovering around the 0 degree mark, it will once again be a difficult task to keep the cold away, and we could be in for a day with plenty of abandonments.


A strong wind will blow from an easterly direction opening the possibility for a selection in the crosswinds in the middle part of the race. However, a strong headwind in the final 100 km will make it difficult for any attackers to keep a gap on the final flat run-in to the finish in Wevelgem - a fact which certainly favours the sprinters.


The favourites

The prospects of a cold day with a headwind on the final run-in and the possibility of early crosswinds point to a fast sprinter with a good condition to survive the climbs, an ability to endure the cold and a strong team to keep him positioned throughout the race. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) fits the bill perfectly and enters the race as the major favourite.


Gent-Wevelgem has always been a big target for the Manxman, and last year he placed heavy emphasis on his attempt to win Milan-Sanremo and the Belgian semi-classic in the rainbow jersey. It ended up in complete failure as he was dropped on the Le Manie climb in La Primavera and was one of the first riders just behind the split at the top of the Kemmelberg. A frantic chase from his Sky team was not enough to bring him back, and once again he left Wevelgem disillusioned.


This year may very well be the season where the former world champion can finally tick off Gent-Wevelgem on his to-do-list. In Milan-Sanremo, he was greatly aided by the removal of Le Manie, but unlike most of his rival sprinters, he managed to survive the Poggio in the main group, and he sprinted to a fine 9th place - his best performance in the race since his 2009 victory. There is no doubt that he heads to Belgium in a perfect condition, and with a strong team to position him ahead of the climbs and bring back any dangerous breaks, he will be difficult to beat.


His major rival should once again be Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol). The German still chases his first classics victory, and Gent-Wevelgem may very well be his best opportunity. He is usually a stronger climber than his British archrival, and his performances in the hills of Tirreno-Adriatico suggested that he is strong at the moment. However, he failed to keep in touch with the peloton on the Cipressa in Milan-Sanremo, and the lack of classics success seems to be down to some problems handling the longer distances. Hence, the fact that Gent-Wevelgem is shorter than La Primavera should serve "the Gorilla", and he is certainly the most likely to beat Cavendish in a final sprint. Finally, he is assisted by his usual support crew of Greg Henderson, Jurgen Roelandts and Marcel Sieberg, and if they all manage to survive the climbs, he will undoubtedly have the best lead-out train.


Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) was disappointed to crash out of Milan-Sanremo, but there is no doubt that the Australian is in great condition. His stage victory in Tirreno-Adriatico was a great boost of confidence, and he climbs better than both Greipel and Cavendish. Last year he made the selection, but somehow managed to only end up 12th in the final sprint, and this year he will be out for revenge. Expect to see his team take plenty of responsibility to get rid of the likes of Greipel and Cavendish and thus recreate the golden opportunity he missed last year.


Peter Sagan (Cannondale) enters every classic in a favourite position, and Gent-Wevelgem is of course no exception. The Slovakian has great ambitions and has pointed to the race as one of four classics he would like to win this year - the others being Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race. Being one of the strongest on the climbs, there is no doubt that he will make all selections throughout the day, and his - and his team's - main task will be to create a hard race to get rid of the faster finishers. His Cannondale outfit proved its strength in yesterday's E3, but they may be disadvantaged by the headwind on the final run-in to Wevelgem. Furthermore, the Slovakian has to share leadership responsibilities with Elia Viviani who has pointed to tomorrow's race as the one classic in which he would like to go for the win.


As the winner of the latest two editions of the race, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) deserves a special mention. He used his powerful sprint to secure those two victories, but this year he has decided to put his services completely behind Cavendish. The race will mainly serve as his final preparation for the Tour of Flanders, but if Cavendish is dropped, the Belgian champion will be ready to sprint. If this scenario is realized, it will most probably be as a consequence of a challenging race, and few riders have a better final kick towards the end of a very hard fight than the mighty classics king. He showed that yesterday when he beat Paolini and Boasson Hagen to win the sprint of the second chase group, and he will be ready to put that kick on show again, should his faster teammate fail to enter Wevelgem in the front group.


Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) was once the world's fastest sprinter. That is no longer the case, but the veteran Italian is still dangerous in any sprint finish. Gent-Wevelgem is one of the very few of his targets missing on his palmares, and this year could be his final chance to make up for that lack. For the first time in years, his spring has not been hampered by illness, and he was climbing extremely strong in the Paris-Nice. The cold was his undoing in Sanremo and that may be the case again tomorrow, but the most victorious among the active riders should be able to handle the climbs and be present in a final bunch kick.


Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r) is a dark horse in tomorrow's race. He is certainly not the strongest climber among the sprinters, but he is one of the fastest on the line. When on form, he handles the Belgian hellingen quite well as evidenced by his performance at the end of a hard first stage in last year's Driedaagse de Panne, and he is clearly strong right now. Last Saturday, he ended up second in a very hard edition of the Classique Loire Atlantique, and if he has been able to maintain that condition, he has a chance to survive tomorrow's climbs. If this is the case, he will be a danger man.


Finally, Mark Renshaw (Blanco) could be the man to save Blanco's cobbled classics season. With the team's Flanders and Roubaix captains Lars Boom and Sep Vanmarcke clearly not at their best, their Australian sprinter in Gent-Wevelgem could very well end up being their best chance for a top result. Renshaw has built up a certain endurance and climbing strength over the years, and he had a remarkable performance in last year's Milan-Sanremo. Even though he was not able to replicate that in this year's edition of the Italian classic, his performances in Paris-Nice suggested that his form is not bad. He may be an unlikely winner of the race, but if all goes his way, he has the finishing kick to end up on the podium.


***** Mark Cavendish

**** Andre Greipel, Matthew Goss

*** Peter Sagan, Alessandro Petacchi, Tom Boonen, Yauheni Hutarovich, Mark Renshaw

** Edvald Boasson Hagen, Alexander Kristoff, Tyler Farrar, Daniele Bennati, John Degenkolb, Giacomo Nizzolo, Jurgen Roelandts

* Heinrich Haussler, Manuel Belletti, Borut Bozic, Arnaud Demare, Elia Viviani, Bryan Coquard, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Grega Bole, Daniel Oss



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