Having ticked off several Belgian classics and one monument in the shape of Milan-San Remo, the final days of March are seen out with a race tilted more in the favour of the sprinters than the strongmen of the cobbles; Gent-Wevelgem once again poised to be an exciting race in the face of some potentially miserable weather. Possessing a rich and longstanding history in the Belgian cycling calendar, there is no doubt that Gent-Wevelgem is a classic, but one which differs considerably from the brutal contests of the Tour of Flanders or E3 Harelbeke. Instead, the climbs are fewer and somewhat less arduous, while a longer flat conclusion to the day shifts the dynamic away from those more synonymous with last gasp charges over leg shattering hellingen. This 243km challenge is by no means simple though, boasting ten climbs in total, with much of the attention focused upon two ascents of the historic Kemmelberg; the second of which featuring ramps of 23%. No doubt an elite group shall form ahead of the final stretch into Wevelgem, setting up an exciting pursuit with those desperately trying to stay in contention for the win behind, many of whom will be anticipating a bunch sprint of sorts to crown the victor.
Peter Sagan is in fantastic form currently, yet still finds victory elusive, stunning many when finishing behind Michal Kwiatkowski at E3; a race which looked destined to be his as the flamme rouge passed overhead. His issue seems to be the blunting of his top speed at the end of a gruelling contest, something he will hope to be less decisive at Gent-Wevelgem where the largely shared impetus to force a sprint should save him energy. Assuming he makes the right moves and leans on others to do a greater share of the work, Sagan could finally strike upon the glory his rainbow bands deserve.
Etixx-QuickStep have picked up where they left off during last year’s classics campaign, already squandering numerical advantages at decisive moments on several occasions in 2016 and the pressure will be on today to rectify this. Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin looked dangerous at E3, but choked when it mattered most, both will fancy their chances in a sprint and will be confident of arriving in good condition here too. The Belgian outfits wildcard however is Colombian Fernando Gaviria, his turn of pace in 2016 thus far has been blistering, but it remains uncertain as to how well he shall cope with the race and the weather.
Fabian Cancellara has never won this race, but judging by his showings so far this season, there is little to suggest he cannot change this today. The Swiss legend should make the anticipated selection on the Kemmelberg, leaving him the possibility of attacking solo and giving his rivals the unenviable task of reeling him back in, or hold on for a reduced sprint finish which he has form of dominating after a testing race such as this.
The likes of Giacomo Nizzolo, Bryan Coquard and Nacer Bouhanni are all types of sprinter who could survive the rigours of the Kemmelberg’s attacks in good shape and ride themselves back into contention should a late move break free. All three have taken victories in 2016, including at the end of some testing days given their reputation as pure sprinters; it would be foolish to underestimate the dogged determination of a sprinter to stay in contention when he feels there is a trophy with his name on it if he makes the cut.
Admittedly, this race should end in a sprint, but there will be plenty of strong riders out who are poised to instigate a winning move which stays away and contests the win amongst their limited ranks. Ian Stannard makes surviving a race such as this look easier than it really is and he will be a marked man given his immense strength for helping a move to stick. Edward Theuns, Jens Debusschere and Tiesj Benoot are all likely protagonists in a breakaway winning move, all three having ridden impressively this Spring, while a Belgian winner would be a huge victory for the home fans too.
1st Peter Sagan 2nd Fabian Cancellara 3rd Edward Theuns