Wow! The gauntlet has well and truly been thrown down for the week of Belgian Classics after Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) took E3 Harelbeke with a signature solo attack. Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem is the 75th running of the race and sees many of the same riders taking to the road to battle the cobbles and each other on the way to the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Easter Sunday. Tom Boonen (OPQS) will certainly want to show the peloton that he has what it takes this spring, but will this put paid to teammate Mark Cavendish‘s hopes for a win? Cancellara will want a second win in 3 days, while Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will certainly want to put the fear of God into everyone with his climbing and his hot sprint to the end. Should be a ripper!
What kind of race is it?
This 235km one-day classic, traditionally ridden on the Sunday before Ronde, is the most sprinter-friendly of the Belgian classics due to its flat finish, although the 10 climbs could drop the sprinters before they get anywhere near the line.
The most recent winners of the race are:
2008: Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
2009: Edvald Boasson Hagen (Columbia-Highroad)
2010: Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Columbia)
2011: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
2012: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)
What happened last year?
Tom Boonen gave us a glimpse of what was to come in Flanders and Roubaix with this race. His OPQS team made sure they neutralised the Sky train of Cavendish by putting in a devastating attack on the first climb of the Kemmelberg that left Cavendish chasing the rest of the day. With an audacious breakaway, which included Jon Izaguirre (Euskaltel), up the road (could a carrot win a Classic?), OPQS kept a tight rein on the rest of the peloton. They kept the pace fierce, with only Cancellara and Sagan able to break free at the top of the Monteberg in an effort to ride away and bridge the gap to Izaguirre and Anders Lund (SaxoBank) – and presumably steam right past them. Boonen, however, kept his cool in the attack and his team reeled everyone in to set up an elite group of riders heading for the sprint finish. Boonen was the one who raised his arms in victory. (Read last year’s full review here.)
1. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 5:32:44
2. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time
3. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) s/t
4. Oscar Freire (Katusha) s/t
5. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) s/t
This year’s race
First things first – the weather. Snow flurries are predicted, the high temperature for the day is freezing but with a hellacious wind in the offing, this will feel a whole lot colder. Depending on the extent of the snow, the race might have to be shortened or indeed cancelled, although that’s obviously a last resort, especially as it’s the 75th. If it does go ahead as planned, this is what the race should look like.
There’s an ever so slight route change this year: there’s one less climb to make 10. Otherwise, the route runs along the coast into France before heading east to Wevelgem. The Casselberg is tackled twice, about halfway through the race, and the Kemmelberg twice nearer the end of the race. The final climb of the day is the Monteberg, where there will probably be a flurry of attacks if the strong men still have dangerous sprinters with them.
Who to watch
Let’s talk about the big men first. Cancellara has an almost identical team as he had in E3 and, at this point, will almost certainly try to get the psychological edge on Peter Sagan, as Tom Boonen doesn’t seem to be in quite the form as he was last year at this time, due in large part to his earlier elbow infection and possibly a knock-on effect from not completing Milan-SanRemo, as Cancellara and Sagan have done.
Tom has the added complication of a certain Mark Cavendish in the team. Or is it a complication? If Tom isn’t feeling quite up to par yet, perhaps the team strategy will be for him to do a lot of work to keep Cav in the front on the climbs and let the Manx Missile launch on the flat sprint to the line. That’s a difficult one to call and it may or may not be a point of friction between the team’s two superstars. I suspect that it’ll be worked out on the road.
But if Gent is the best suited of the Belgian Classics for a sprinter, does this mean Peter Sagan will get his win on Sunday? He came in 2nd last year and is certainly showing a lot of strength this season, what with his 2nd in Strade Bianche, Milan-SanRemo and E3. I suspect those second places have been gnawing at him and he’ll be hellbent on that top step on Sunday.
In my book, Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan are the ones to beat in this race, but of course once we’ve said this, that means none of them are going to win it. So who else is in the mix? BMC have some significant firepower on the start line with Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Daniel Oss – E3’s 3rd place winner – and Taylor Phinney, whose performance in Milan-SanRemo shows that he’s ready to do battle anywhere, anytime and in any conditions.
Team Sky have been preparing for the Classics and although they have nothing to show for it so far, Geraint Thomas has been just bubbling under now for a few weeks – don’t forget he finished 4th in E3. With everyone’s eyes on the big three, could G harness the power of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Ian Stannard and Bernie Eisel to launch a winning attack while the peloton’s attention is directed at the others? I wouldn’t put it past him.
Lotto-Belisol has the sprint whisperer Greg Henderson and Marcel Sieberg to help keep Andre Greipel in the running on the climbs and the Argonauts have John Degenkolb and Koen de Kort on duty to joust with the others. Saxo-Tinkoff’s Daniele Bennati and Matti Breschel both tend to do well in this race and once again we have Juan Antonio Flecha from Vacansoleil-DCM in the peloton as well.
For livestreaming of this race, check cyclingfans.