There’s no denying it: Gent-Wevelgem gets somewhat overshadowed by the bigger Classics that sit around it.
For years it could only muster itself a midweek date on the international calendar, sandwiched between two monsters of the spring: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Indeed, set in Flanders, with an early spring date and furnished with a smattering of steep and cobbled hills, Gent-Wevelgem was very much viewed as the Tour of Flanders’ poorer cousin.
Even after shifting to a Sunday date in 2011, its fixture one week before the Ronde still scents Gent-Wevelgem with the air of a cobbles warm-up. Yet the race it is now coupled with, the E3 Harelbeke two days before, also competes for this role, sharing more common ground and a similar character to the Tour of Flanders.
Take the 2011 editions of these two races. While Wevelgem was won by darling son of Flanders Tom Boonen, absolutely no-one could see past Fabian Cancellara as the favourite for the Ronde after a dominant performance at E3 (neither would win).
On an entirely more serious note, the race has been marred by some horrific incidents: Wilfred Nelissen’s snapped leg, Jimmy Casper’s face-plant, and in 2016, the heart-breaking death of Wanty-Gobert rider Antoine Demoitié.
But Gent-Wevelgem remains worth standing up for. It is Flanders’ second biggest Classic – the semi-classic tag once attached to sub-Monuments now demoted for use around ailing French Cup races.
As much as we love the Tour of Flanders, there’s a case to be made that Gent-Wevelgem (which is actually promoted by the same group) does a number of things better. Here they are:
1. Touring Flanders
Defining the geographical area of Flanders has its complications. These days, anywhere in the northern portion of Belgium is considered to be in the Flemish Community – even Brussels where French is more commonly spoken. But it’s the modern provinces of East and West Flanders that formed the core of the historic County of Flanders.
While Gent-Wevelgem spends about as much time in West Flanders as the Tour of Flanders does in East (and we are talking a mere three or four kilometres each), the broad sweep the former traces out towards the seaside and across old battlefields, far better lends itself to the notion of a tour than the convoluted tangle of adjoined kermesse circuits that the latter –obsessed with seeking out every cobbled climb it can find- gets lost in the moment it drops south of Oudenaarde.
2. Catering to sprinters
It’s a habit of old bunch sprinters to become good Classic riders. And if there was ever a gateway drug for this transformation, Gent-Wevelgem is it. Look at a list of recent winners and many of them have been quite capable bunch gallopers. Some of these wins were taken from mass charges but others have seen sprinters take rare forays off the front. This included a win for Mario Cipollini from a five-rider escape in 2002. The following year he got disqualified from the event for throwing his bidon at a motorbike.
3. Being faithful to its finish
Gent-Wevelgem by definition finishes in Wevelgem. It has every year since returning from a war enforced hiatus in 1945. The Tour of Flanders has finished in seven different locations since its first edition in 1913, the most recent move from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde in 2012 causing such upset that fans held a mock funeral for the Muur in Gerardsbergen.
By the logic of its name, it might also be assumed then that Gent-Wevelgem starts in Gent. Not anymore, but Dienze, 20-odd km down the road, does at least sit in the Gent arrondissement. Embarrassingly for this argument, Gent-Wevelgem has only started in the actual city it takes name from on one instance more than Flanders. Despite its infidelity with finish towns, the Tour of Flanders consistently started in Gent for every edition up until 1976.
4. Bad weather
Participants may not necessarily see any positive in this, but cycling fans are a sadistic bunch wishing weather upon televised races that they’d not so much as put their bins out in. The Tour of Flanders is hardly guaranteed wall to wall sunshine, but Gent has trumped it for ‘epic’ conditions in recent years with freezing weather (pictured above) forcing a relocated start in 2013 and the wind in 2015 literally blowing riders off the road.
Not unrelated, Gent-Wevelgem’s flirtations with the North Sea coast and its arcing course across the pan flat plains of West Flanders mean that crosswinds at some point in the race are inevitable. That the roads are often wide, straight and exposed further encourages echelons to be formed. These are a far rarer sight in the Tour of Flanders where the network of narrow back lanes, ever-changing trajectory and disruption of the bunch over its onslaught of climbs leaves less opportunity –or incentive- for riders to get organised.
6. Commemorating the wars
Both Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders take place in a landscape that was ravaged by battles of the First and Second World War. While the Tour of Flanders’ historical focus is almost entirely self-indulgent –the race even has its own museum in Oudenaarde– Ghent-Wevelgem goes out of its way to commemorate the multiple tragedies that befell the region. In Ypres, the race passes under the Menin Gate – a memorial to the missing British and Commonwealth soldiers of the First World War and where the Last Post is sounded every evening.
Gent-Wevelgem’s race defining hill, the Kemmelberg, was itself the site of vicious fighting in 1918, with countless men losing their lives and its usually tranquil wooded slopes blasted bare. Other war tributes include rebranding the race’s full name to ‘Ghent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields’, taking the race down a series of gravelly roads around the battlefields of Ploegsteert, and announcing the launch of a new Great War Remembrance Race that will take place this summer.
Past editions of the race have also climbed the cobbled hills of Cassel, up and down which the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ Prince Frederik may or may not have marched his troops during the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 18th Century.
7. International relations
Another nod to the First World War is a trophy presented last year to Sam Bewley and Jack Bauer in commemoration, amongst others, of the seven members of New Zealand’s Cycle Corp that were killed in fighting on the Kemmelberg. Taken back to their homeland, the Kemmelberg Trophy is now awarded to the national Under 23 champion each season, with James Fouche its 2018 recipient.
While both races do their little bit for Belgian unity with a few kilometres in French speaking Wallonia, Gent-Wevelgem also crosses international borders with a deviation into northern France itself. There’s not many top one-day races that do this. Gent-Wevelgem first did as long ago as 1957 but gave up the idea the following year due to the administrative difficulties.
Thanks to the Schengen Agreement of 1985, the modern permeability of many European frontiers means taking the race into a neighbouring country is as easy as Willy Voet –who got stopped just down the road from Wevelgem- imagined trafficking EPO would be. For a couple of kilometres the race rides a road that defines the border with houses on one side Belgian, French on the other.
And once fully across it, the visit is more than a token effort with the race’s first six categorised climbs taking place in France.