To paraphrase Gary Lineker’s famous quote about the Germans and football, the Flemish Classics this spring have been simple affairs: a few hundred riders race around Belgium for a few hours, and in the end a Jumbo-Visma rider wins. At Gent-Wevelgem this weekend it was Christophe Laporte who was the team’s triumphant rider, following in the footsteps of Dylan van Baarle at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Tiesj Benoot at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Wout van Aert at the E3 Saxo Classic to treat us once more to the familiar sight of a yellow-clad rider celebrating victory in Belgium.
This time, the sense of déjà vu at seeing yet another Jumbo-Visma victory was even more acute, as this race and finale played out in an almost identical fashion as the E3 Saxo Classic last year. Just as at that race, Laporte and Van Aert rode away on the race’s most significant climb (here, the Kemmelberg, that time, the Paterberg), worked together all the way to the finish to hold off the chasers, and made it all the way to the finish. Upon arriving at the finish, they once again decided to cross the line arm-in-arm rather than compete in a sprint.
The only difference was that whereas last time Laporte allowed Van Aert to nudge his bike ahead and take the win, this time Van Aert repaid the favour, and it felt like just reward for the sterling job he has done since signing for Jumbo-Visma last season. The Frenchman has provided invaluable support not just to Van Aert in the Classics, but also the team’s top stage race candidates. In fact, this wasn’t just the second time he has been part of a Jumbo-Visma clean sweep at the finish, but the third; at the opening stage of the 2022 Paris-Nice, in what was just his second ever race for the team, he rode away with Van Aert and Primož Roglič to take a stunning podium clean sweep. He later played a key role as part of the Tour de France line-up that helped Jonas Vingegaard win the yellow jersey.
Yet for all his impressive performances and assistance, Gent-Wevelgem was the first time Laporte has won a major Classic. He came very close last year at the same race when he was out-sprinted at the line by Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty), and also took silver medal in the Worlds behind Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep), but until now a major victory worthy of his talent had eluded him.
Of the two riders, Van Aert appeared stronger than Laporte. There was a moment on the day’s penultimate climb when Laporte was seen calling Van Aert’s name to indicate that he was struggling with the pace being set, and on the final ascent of the Kemmelberg a gap of a few seconds opened up between them. But each time Van Aert slowed down to remain with his teammate, and generously offered the win to his teammate at the finish. Looking ahead to the Tour of Flanders, there is little doubt that Van Aert remains the team’s strongest and senior rider, but Laporte provides yet another exceptional option, and, with a Classics win now eventually in the bag, might be ready for the next step and win a Monument.
The result also means that Jumbo-Visma become the first team since BMC in 2017 to win all three of Het Nieuwsblad, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem in the same season, and whereas for BMC that feat was achieved all by the same rider (Greg Van Avermaet), all of Jumbo’s wins have come from different riders. Not even QuickStep during their heyday achieved this particular hat-trick, and if anything Jumbo-Visma have improved upon the Belgian team’s trademark of dominating Classics through strength in numbers.
Talking of Soudal-QuickStep, they were once again left frustrated by what was, by their standards, another abject display. Lining up with both Tim Merlier and Fabio Jakobsen, it was clear they were banking on a sprint finish, but, despite signalling their intent to do so by putting Tim Declercq to work at the front of the peloton in the early stages of the race, they weren’t able to control the race as desired.
Jakobsen’s tactics in particular backfired, as he tried to single-handedly bridge up to a breakaway group that had gone clear on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg. He spent the next few kilometres wearing himself out in no-man’s land, until eventually giving up and dropping back into the peloton and allowing his teammates to lead the chase in the peloton — something he should have done in the first place.
In hindsight, this might have been the pivotal moment of the race, as had Jakobsen bridged it up to that leading group, it’s plausible that he could have made it to the finish. With Jumbo-Visma represented (through Laporte and Nathan Van Hooydonck) and multiple other strong riders also present (including Bahrain-Victorious’s Matej Mohorič, Trek-Segafredo’s Mads Pedersen and Alpecin-Deceucninck’s Søren Kragh Andersen), the group had the firepower to succeed, and there would have been few teams in the peloton with an incentive to chase. But with no Soudal-QuickStep representative, Kasper Asgreen set a searing pace to bring them back just prior to the second ascent of the Kemmelberg 55km from the finish, setting up Van Aert and Laporte for their race-winning attack.
Despite having so many numbers, there was nothing either Soudal-QuickStep or any of the teams could do to bring back the Jumbo-Visma duo in the long pursuit that followed. And although they spent some time looking at each other, it wasn’t for a lack of trying — exhaustion was so prevalent that the peloton continued to diminish in size on the flat run-in to the finish, with the likes of Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Dstny) being distanced despite having survived the climbs.
By the finish, the peloton was only 21 riders in size, and wasn’t even able to sprint for a third-place after Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech), Frederik Frison (Lotto-Dstny), Mikkel Bjerg (UAE Team Emirates) and Mads Pedersen slipped clear in the final stages, with 34-year-old Vanmarcke rolling back the years to claim his spot on the podium. It might not have been especially windy this year, but the rain, cold, length and climbs evidently took their toll, on what was another thrillingly attritional edition of Gent-Wevelgem.