Fans have already seen the biggest names in the early season classics trade blows amongst themselves during Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, but the anticipated contest at Gent – Wevelgem offers differing prospects once again. The course may have a greater number of flat kilometres than what the riders have tackled already during their Spring campaign, but that is not to say that plenty of murderous hellingen are not waiting to break the spirits of the peloton as the ranks begin to thin. Stretching for a total of 249km from the historic city of Gent to Wevelgem, the race has often been one which leans closer to the talents of the toughest sprinters than the thoroughbred cobblestone crunching specialists, alongside both Scheldeprijs and Kuurne – Brussels – Kuurne. After approximately 130km of racing upon relatively flat roads, the eleven climbs soon begin to be ticked off rapidly, the race retaining a familiar format while building upon the recent addition of another pass of the Kemmelberg. Another new feature of the race is the use of several roads which are unpaved, making the battle for position more intense in order to avoid being caught up behind any potential punctured riders. The majority of the hellingen will prove simple enough, but much of the day’s anxiety shall hang above the second Kemmelberg pass, approaching from the steeper side which reaches a maximum gradient of approximately 23%. An elite group of riders is likely to have formed by this point of the race and should contest the outcome of 2017’s Gent – Wevelgem amongst themselves with the fastest bunch kick possible after such a draining affair.
Peter Sagan did not really feature during Friday’s E3 Harelebeke and shall be extremely motivated to perform well with the ambition of defending his title from last year. The topography should play into Sagan’s hands favourably, something which is evident given his convincing history of results at this race in the last five seasons. He will need to ride aggressively in order to drop several faster finishing classics specialists, though given his sparkling form right now, it seems a challenge well within the abilities of the day’s favourite.
John Degenkolb is building strongly ahead of his main target of Paris – Roubaix and looked to be one of the only riders of Sagan’s ilk to follow the world champion when dropping the hammer on the Poggio during Milan – San Remo. He possesses a strong team of riders who are skilled enough to keep him safe throughout the day and bring back any threatening looking moves which do not feature the German sprinter if required. Trek – Segafredo will be confident of Degenkolb taking the win in a sprint against anyone after such a tough affair, marking them out as key protagonists throughout the day in order to assure his presence once they reach Wevelgem.
Alexander Kritstoff will be one of the greatest threats to the likes of Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb in a sprint finish for the title, as the Norwegian strongman is notorious for surviving attritional races with his ruthless turn of pace still intact. He may not be in the scintillating form of a couple of years ago, but his recent showing at Milan – San Remo provided a glimpse of the past, taking fourth place ahead of rivals for today Fernando Gaviria and John Degenkolb. It is likely he will keep a low profile for as long as possible, but once Kristoff is forced to break cover, viewers will realise the true race is on.
Fernando Gaviria has an incredible sprinting ability which has already delivered him victories against the world’s fastest sprinters in races much more simple than Gent – Wevelgem. The Colombian is still developing as a classics rider, yet came close to securing a monument on his Milan – San Remo debut last year and took 5th this season there too. As a young rider, the skill of staying in contention without going too deep is not as well honed as a rider like Alexander Kristoff, but his palmarés suggest he is not far off that heading into this battle.
Greg Van Avermaet took the win at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, so will arrive here aware of the form he is currently enjoying in the Spring yet again. The Belgian rider may have seen his impetus to win here reduced somewhat as a result of his recent win, but knowing what he can do in terms of racing could allow him to ride a more patient race in hope of catching the sprinters by surprise with a late move. There is no doubt that somebody will look to make a move on the final pass of the Kemmelberg and many shall expect Avermaet to be right up there in the mix, if not leading the charge.
Other riders who have the potential to win from either a sprint or small breakaway are Tom Boonen, Dylan Groenewegen, Fabio Felline, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Matteo Trentin, Luke Rowe and Michael Matthews.
1st John Degenkolb 2nd Alexander Kristoff 3rd Peter Sagan