The men’s cobbled classics season continues on Sunday with the 75th edition of Gent-Wevelgem, which is arguably the most distinct of all the Flemish classics. Unlike the other highlights of the Belgian spring, Gent-Wevelgem stays clear of the Flemish Ardennes and the bergs that define races like the Tour of Flanders, E3 Saxo Classic and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and instead poses its own unique challenges.
There are climbs, but they are concentrated in the region of Heuvelland in West Flanders. And though they are testing (most of all the Kemmelberg, which towers above the rest as the race’s definitive climb), it’s often the exposed flat sections that are the most decisive if the weather is foul and wind blows — which, looking at the forecast ahead of Sunday, is a distinct possibility this year.
Last year Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty) made history as the first African to win a major Belgian classic, beating Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma), Dries Van Gestel (Team TotalEnergies) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) in a four-up sprint. Although the long distance between the race’s final climb to the finish makes this one of the more sprinter-friendly classics, the difficulty of what comes before it means a small group finish like this is the most common scenario; the last bunch finish was in 2019, and groups between four and nine have contested for the win in each of the last three editions.
Despite its misleading name, these days Gent-Wevelgem begins in Ypres, from where the riders transverse north-west towards De Panne. The closer they approach the coastline, the greater the threat of crosswinds, and the race sometimes ignites during this early phase of the race even before a single climb is tackled. If the wind blows and echelons form, intense chases can take place between multiple groups, and inattentive pre-race favourites can see themselves unceremoniously dumped out of contention with hours still to ride.
The first of the day’s nine climbs, the Scherpenberg, comes after almost 100km have completed of the 260km-long race, and after that they come thick and fast. The Baneberg and Monteberg are next five and 11 kilometres later, and then it’s the big one: the Kemmelberg. Known for its treacherous cobblestones and gradients of up to 20%, this is the milestone the race is famous for, although this first of its three ascents is tackled via the easier Belvedère side.
The gradient levels out for a little while, but the race remains very much active as the riders take on the three ‘plugsteets’. These short unpaved sections have become an important part of the race since their introduction in 2017, and also serve as the setting for the race’s commemoration of the victims of World War One.
Route image provided by Gent-Wevelgem
There's a brief moment of respite once the riders have completed the last plugstreet 65km from the finish, before they head back to do another circuit of the Monteberg and Kemmelberg. Then things really heat up in the final 45km as they arrive at the final three climbs of the race: the Scherpenberg, the Baneberg, and the Kemmelberg, this time via the viscously steep Ossuaire side that makes it such a famous climb.
This final ascent of the Kemmelberg is the pivotal moment of the race, as it provides one final, very inviting springboard for an attack to go clear. After that, it’s 34km of flat to the finish in Wevelgem, usually involving a tense chase between the leading group, and tactical manoeuvrings as attackers figure out a way to slip clear of the faster sprinters.
Of The Big Three who contested for victory at E3 Saxo Classic on Friday, neither Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) will race again until the Tour of Flanders next Sunday, leaving Wout van Aert as the obvious favourite for victory at Gent-Wevelgem. Van Aert won the 2021 edition, and has the advantage of being equally capable from winning via an attack as from a sprint, but could be fatigued from the significant effort of following Van der Poel and Pogačar’s attacks on Friday.
He may therefore ride a more defensive race, in which case Jumbo-Visma teammate Christophe Laporte (who was runner-up here last year) could play a more prominent role, while Olav Kooij provides the team a strong option should the race culminate in a large sprint.
Another rider who impressed during Friday’s E3 Saxo Classic was Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious), who was unfortunate to place as low as seventh having earlier almost managed to stay with the big three of the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont. He, too, will surely feel some after-effects from having had to dig so deep.
Stefan Küng (sixth) and Søren Kragh Andersen (ninth) were among the other best performers at E3, but may well take more of a back seat if their respective Groupama-FDJ and Alpecin-Deceuninck teams opt to prioritise a sprint finish. Groupama-FDJ have Arnaud Demare, who’s beginning to show some signs of form, while Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Jasper Philipsen may really fancy his chances in the event of bad weather having mastered his way to victory at Wednesday's windy Brugge-De Panne classic.
Other fast finishers include defending champion Biniam Girmay (Intermarché–Circus–Wanty), who’s still struggling for form; Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny), who will be a serious contender if he can handle the bergs the way he did at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 2019 and 2020 winners Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Alexander Kristoff (Uno-X); and Iván García Cortina (Movistar), one of the revelations of E3 Saxo Classics, where he placed fifth.
Tim Merlier is arguably the quickest finisher of the lot, and Soudal-QuickStep may lean on him for a result given that he’s one of their few on form classics riders at the moment. And it’s worth looking out again for Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) after he followed up his runner-up finish at Milan-Sanremo with a top ten at E3 Saxo Bank.
Gent-Wevelgem is always a tough race to call given the many different scenarios that can play out here, from a very selective race in horrible conditions to a mass bunch sprint. But one rider who can flourish in either circumstance is Mads Pedersen.
He has proven pedigree here having won the 2020 edition from a nine-man group, great form having won a bunch sprint at Paris-Nice and finished sixth at Milan-Sanremo, and is relatively well rested having fallen out of contention relatively early at E3 Saxo Bank Classic. As his victory at the 2019 Yorkshire World Championships also demonstrates, he also flourishes in bad weather, so current forecasts predicting rain could play in his favour.