Back on 5 April 1989, Gent-Wevelgem was held on a wet Wednesday and was a mighty 265km long. Sandwiched between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, back then Wevelgem was considered something of a consolation prize, which seems uncharitable, given the route with its ten bergs, the distance and, that year, the atrocious weather.
This was the edition where Sean Yates came as close as he ever would to winning a Classic, even if his fifth at Paris-Roubaix in 1994 was noteworthy. That Spring, Yates’ 7-Eleven team was on a roll, with Dag-Otto Lauritzen finishing third in the Tour of Flanders three days earlier, a race Yates had finished in the main group.
“I had actually given Dag-Otto my wheel when he punctured on the Patersberg, I felt I owed him it after he had been feeding me chocolate and waffles every night, trying to fatten me up,” chuckles Yates. “I ended up doing a two-up time trial with Jean-Marie Wampers from Panasonic to get back into the group. He was going good – and went on to win Roubaix the next Sunday.”
That Wednesday in Gent, morale was high and the form was good. “It was a fast start and I had good legs, so I was at the front, tried a couple of attacks, got a yard or two and then a hundred and we were away,” recalls Yates, “there wasn’t a lot of wind that year, not like there usually is, and the break all rode.”
The escapees – Ariostea’s Bruno Cenghialta, Louis De Konig of Panasonic, Gerrit Solleveld representing the Dutch SuperConfex squad and Yates riding his first season for the American outfit 7-Eleven – toiled to a maximum lead of 10 and a half minutes at De Panne up on the coast and, as they turned to be blown helpfully back to Wevelgem, the breakaway put in a solid team time trial performance, all wrapped in layers of clothing against the persistent rain, temperature lowered by snow on the side of some climbs.
With 45km to go, the foursome still had six minutes on a bunch led by big-hitter Classic teams who had missed the move. TVM, Hitachi, Histor were active and Sean Kelly, PDM’s winner the previous year was screaming at his team to get to the front and chase, but to no avail.
Yates – the only one of the leaders who had opted for shorts -“I don’t feel the cold” – was rarely off the front as young Dutchman De Koning clung on at the back. After the final climb of the Kemmelberg with 40km to go, it was down to just Yates and Solleveld, with the others dropped and absorbed by the much reduced peloton.
“I made a mistake. I was feeling good and should have attacked on the concrete about one kilometre before the cobbles on the Kemmel. I had a 24 sprocket and Solleveld only had a 21. If I had attacked I reckon he would have had to have walked up it,” laughs Yates.
Inside the final kilometre, after some half-hearted foxing, which saw Yates freewheel, the Englishman led out. Solleveld came round him to win.
“There wasn’t a big gap and I was confident I could beat him because I could normally sprint OK from a small bunch, but he came past me,” recalls Yates. Solleveld – who won the Catch Sprint competition in the 1986 Tour – was clearly no mug in a gallop.
Just 10 seconds later, Ariostea’s Rolf Sorensen claimed third, sprinting into a jam of following cars and motorbikes. For Yates, the arrival at 7-Eleven of Steve Bauer the following year saw him slot into his preferred support role, and that bone-chilling day in Wevelgem would be the last time he sprinted for a Classic win.
Ironically, it might never have happened, for the simple reason that 7-Eleven didn’t have enough riders to start the race. The organisers demanded a minimum of six rider teams and the American squad could only assemble five.
A no-start loomed unless another rider could sign-on in Gent ‘s Sportpalais.
“Eric Heiden was studying medicine at Stamford at the time, so we flew him over for the day,” reveals Jim Ochowicz, the general manager of the team. “He had a UCI licence and signed on, but never started, and was flying back to America before Sean had even got back to Wevelgem.” Truly, those were different times.