Gent-Wevelgem: The race that found its feet

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A quick glance at some of the photographs and video footage emerging from last Sunday’s Milan-San Remo reveals just how tough pro cycling can be.

To the non-initiated who view cyclists as nothing more than lycra-clad show ponies who like to ponce around in coffee shops, the images may come as quite a shock.

And it gets no easier for our two wheeled warriors this weekend, as the Flemish cobbled classics seek to inflict further pain upon legs and bodies that have already endured more punishment than they were ever designed to take.

Last year, fading star Tom Boonen walked away as hero, his career resurrected after a clean sweep of the windswept Belgian races.

Starting with the E3 Harelbeke and ending with Paris-Roubaix, his remarkable fortnight of racing also took in Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.

He became the first cyclist to win the cobbled quadruple.

After an interrupted early season, Boonen is back for more. Tonight he will once again line-up in the E3 and follow it up two days later with a start in Gent-Wevelgem, a fascinating race that, while taking time to establish itself on the international calender, has blossomed to become one of the most popular and well followed contests of the cycling year.

Part of the reason the race has become so popular is because of the Kemmelberg – an iconic, cobbled climb that reaches double figure gradients near its crest and often decides the make-up of the final selection.

It is ascended twice, and if the sprinters can hang on here (and across the final ascent of the Monteberg), they stand a good chance of making it across the flats to the finish some 30 kilometres away.

It is often considered to be a sprinters’ race, but the many punchy climbs (10 this year) that punctuate its second half suit the attacking rider so much more.

Indeed it is a race of two halves.

At first, wind is the enemy. The opening 120 kilometres wind their way across flat and blowy farm land. Headwinds are the norm, followed by cross winds as the race hits the coast before doubling back inland. Echelons are not uncommon.

Then the wind is forgotten and it is all about hitting the climbs as near to the front of the pack as possible as the narrow roads and lane ways of northern Belgium fling the riders headlong into the Monts de Flandre.

If the sprinters can claw their way over the hills and still be in contact with the leaders, the relatively flat final 30 kilometres gives them ample opportunity to prepare themselves for the finale.

Should they have fallen behind, or an attacking rider has tried his luck and opened up a gap, those final flat kilometres will allow those with a good team still around them to mount a successful chase.

They will have their noses buried in their handlebars though!

Last year’s race ended in a sprint. Boonen, confidence sky high from his victory in the E3 just two days before, outsmarted an eager Peter Sagan. Matti Breschel finished third, while Oscar Freire and Edvald Boasson Hagen were hot on their heels.

Daniele Bennati, Johan Van Summeren, Filippo Pozzato, Matthew Goss and Fabian Cancellara were also in the bunch – the mix of sprinters and classic specialists highlighting the uncertain character of this race.

This year’s contest promises to be no different. Boonen will be shooting for a record fourth Gent-Wevelgem victory, but will need a huge turn around in form.

He pulled out of last week’s frigid Milan-San Remo early so will go in fresher than some of his opponents, but more likely than not he will remain forever locked with Robert Van Eenaeme, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Mario Cipollini as a three time winner.

His Omega Pharma-Quick Step team mate Mark Cavendish will not be without a chance.

‘Cav’ performed well on the Cipressa and the Poggio last week at Milan-San Remo, crossing with the bunch and recording a top ten finish, so he can’t be completely discounted here. He will need plenty of help though and all will depend on the form of Boonen.

Sky, as always, seem to have multiple options. Milan-San Remo nearly man Ian Stannard proved he was one of cycling’s true hard men last week, a pre-requisite for racing on the cobbles of Belgium.

But Sky’s focus will be on former winner Edvald Boasson Hagen. With Bernaud Eisel (also a former winner) and Australia’s Matthew Hayman as support, ‘Eddy Bos’ has to be considered one of the favourites.

Notorious under performers BMC have a trio of riders seemingly ready made for this race. Phillipe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd have to be considered when discussing potential winners, but neither can be picked with confidence.

Gilbert has finished third here, but is probably best suited to the Ardennes classics, and perhaps that is where his focus lays. Hushovd has won here, but it was seven years ago, and his star seems to be on the wane. Wins are few and far between for the God of Thunder these days.

Taylor Phinney however is on the rise. The young American with the best blood lines in cycling rode an amazing race at Milan-San Remo. While he was dropped on the final climb, he managed to fight his way back to the lead group in the dying seconds to record the same finishing time as the leaders.

The flat run into the finish at Gent-Wevelgem may be just what he needs.

Orica-GreenEDGE take in a strong team. In Baden Cooke, Matt Goss and Leigh Howard they have riders who can contest a sprint, while Mitch Docker, Sebastian Langeveld, Jens Mouris, Stuart O’Grady and Svein Tuft make a pretty handy support crew.

Howard, who had success earlier in the year with two victories at the Mallorca Challenge, may be one to watch. If he gets up to win, remember you read it here first!

Much of the attention though will be focused on two men – RadioShack Leopard’s Fabian Cancellara and Cannodale’s Peter Sagan.

Cancellara has been marked out of races recently and has been stung by a sequence of minor placings in races he has dominated in the past. Sagan is still searching for his first classic victory.

He came agonisingly close last year with second place here, third at Amstel Gold, fourth at Milan-San Remo and fifth at the Tour of Flanders.

His second at Milan-San Remo last week suggests he will be in the mix again, but will it translate to a victory? A win is getting closer, but as the near misses mount up, the pressure grows.

He was bitterly disappointed to be pipped on the line by Gerald Ciolek at San Remo and it remains to be seen how he will back up after such a demanding day, both physically and mentally.

There are others who will challenge. Andre Greipel, Mark Renshaw, Heinrich Haussler, Filippo Pozzato and John Degenkolb will all go into the race with varying degrees of confidence, but it is doubtful they will add their names to the illustrious list of former winners.

Jacques Anquetil, Bernaud Hinault and the incomparable Eddy Merckx light up the Gent-Wevelgem honour board, their success, along with the inclusion of the Kemmelberg, have helped the race find its place in the cycling world.

First appearing in 1934, it didn’t become a race for professionals until 1945. The route and date of the race have been changed several times, but once the Kemmelberg was included in 1955, its character began to emerge.

With wet and slippery cobbles, overhanging trees and a steadily increasing gradient, the Kemmelberg is the major feature of Gent-Wevelgem. The scene of gruesome fighting during world war one (120,000 soldiers died on its slopes throughout the German spring offensive of 1918), the Kemmelberg can now celebrate happier times, although it still claims its victims.

A nasty crash in 2007 saw its treacherous descent (up to 20 percent downward gradient) altered to make the ride safer. Watching the video still makes me cringe.

For the last word on Gent-Wevelgem we turn to 2005 winner Nico Mattan. Interviewed by CycleSport magazine for its Iconic Climbs series, Mattan stated, “The golden rule in Belgian racing is to be near the front when the decisions are made.”

That remains true today. Whether the race is about to split because of the wind, or an attack is about to explode on a climb, the only place to be on the narrow, winding roads of the Flemish countryside, is near the front.

Let the action begin.

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