No more gifted victories: Why this year’s men’s Gent-Wevelgem could be the most exciting yet

The Alpecin-Deceuninck duo of Van der Poel and Philipsen, against Soudal–Quick-Step’s flying Tim Merlier, combined with Lidl-Trek’s impressive line-up, is going to make for fireworks

When Visma-Lease a Bike teammates Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte crossed the line of last year’s Gent-Wevelgem hand in hand, they were rightly applauded for having the unmatched physical ability to drop the rest of the field on the steep climbs that shaped the finale of the race. At the same time, it was hard not to feel a little bit dejected by the finish, and by the fact that one team had the ability to decide the outcome of one of the biggest one-day races in the season. There was no explosive finale, no tight sprint, instead, first and second place riders on the podium were decided long before the finishing straight came into view. 

But that was last year, and the peloton has changed again since then. Each season, there seems to be one dominant team or rider, and it’s fair to say that Visma-Lease a Bike took that title in 2024. Gent-Wevelgem was just one race out of many that the Dutch team in yellow monopolised and there was a time when another Visma victory led to eye-rolling – it was a predictable outcome. After a winter goes by and the WorldTour peloton has been in hibernation for a few months, when March rolls around, the Classics fire up and everything seems to change all over again. Looking at the start list for this year’s edition of Gent-Wevelgem, it’s hard to even imagine that we’ll have a predictable ending to the race in 2024.

It’s true that the one rider who stands out – and he’ll also stand out on the start line in his bright white world champion bib shorts – is Mathieu van der Poel. There’s no denying that, on paper, the Dutchman is one of the strongest in the Gent-Wevelgem field this season, but this doesn’t automatically mean that he’ll be able to win the race. Both Van der Poel’s aid and his obstacle on the way to his first Gent-Wevelgem victory will be his teammate and Milan-Sanremo winner, Jasper Philipsen. The Belgian showed on the Poggio last weekend that he’s in good form, surviving the climb to outsprint the rest of the reduced bunch at the finish line in Sanremo.

Philipsen was only able to do that, however, because of the unwavering support from Van der Poel in the closing kilometres of the race. The world champion chose not to work with Tadej Pogačar in order to allow Philipsen to remain in contact with the group on the Poggio and then chased down every move so that his teammate could have a chance to win. Will Van der Poel be prepared to do the same in Gent-Wevelgem? The Dutchman will be keen to open his 2024 win tally and knows he can make a difference on the final climbs in the race – just as Laporte and Van Aert did last year. Alpecin-Deceuninck are going to have a difficult choice to make regarding their approach to the race: do they give Van der Poel free rein, or try to keep things together for another Philipsen powerhouse sprint?

Of course, taking Philipsen to sprint for the line comes with risks in itself. While he’s proven he’s one of the fastest men in the peloton, Philipsen has got things wrong in finishes on occasion this season, namely losing out to Tim Merlier of Soudal–Quick-Step at the end of Nokere Koerse a few weeks ago. Does Alpecin really trust Philipsen to finish it off, especially with the fatigue in his legs after a hectic and hilly closing 50 kilometres of the race?

It’s not just Merlier who Alpecin-Deceuninck will need to watch out for if Gent-Wevelgem culminates in a sprint to the line, either. Lidl-Trek will be bringing Mads Pedersen to the race, a rider who thrives after a tough and attritional finale. Pedersen and his teammate Jasper Stuyven both found their way into the front group of Milan-Sanremo last weekend, and they will be looking to do the same in the Flanders fields. Jayco-Alula also bring a formidably fast duo of Dylan Groenewegen and Micheal Matthews, both of whom have shown their form so far this year, with Matthews losing out on Sanremo victory by just half a wheel to Philipsen a week ago. Then, there are the likes of Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny), Jordi Meeus and Danny van Poppel (Bora-Hansgrohe), Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty) John Degenkolb (Team dsm-firmenich PostNL), Pascal Ackermann (Israel-Premier Tech) and Alexander Kristoff (Uno-X Mobility), who are all fast sprinters that could be in with a shot if they make it to the finish in Wevelgem in the front group.

While Visma-Lease a Bike might struggle to maintain the dominance they showed in this race last year, they certainly shouldn’t be counted out for a win in Gent-Wevelgem either, though they may have to race in a different way. The team’s young sprinter, Olav Kooij, has impressed so far this year, outsprinting Merlier and Pedersen to take stage wins in both the UAE Tour and Paris-Nice. Whether the Dutch rider will be able to make it over those hilly sections in the closing stages of Gent-Wevelgem remains to be seen, but Visma-Lease a Bike still has plenty of options if not. Christophe Laporte returns to the race as defending champion, while Tiesj Benoot is another card that Visma could play.

It seems that the conflict most teams are going to have to grapple with is whether to try and keep things together for a bunch kick, or take some risks and go for attacks on the closing climbs with the aim of getting away solo or with a small group at the finish. With the complications and intricacies of the Gent-Wevelgem parcours, and the unique balancing act that teams such as Alpecin-Deceuninck will have to manage, it’s hard to imagine that the race will end up in two teammates hand holding this year.

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