Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields Preview
The sacred week of Flandres continues, this time moving more to the West-Flandres region for the classic that most fits the sprinters (excluding the newly remodeled Driedaagse De Panne). It's a race that's seen Eddy Merckx, Mario Cippolini, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan win 3 times, it certainly has an amazing list of winners that provide the race with a very good reputation.
It's been part of the UCI Pro Tour and World Tour ever since they've existed, and the racing here is always in the weekend previous to the Tour de Flandres, and is the only one of the cobbled classics that matches the distance of the epitome of the Ronde.
The route is a somewhat familiar route to the classic, it features like last year 251 kilometers in lenght, one of the biggest races in the calendar. The profile isn't as hard as it's Flandrien relatives, but it's the race that gives the Kemmelberg it's reputation as it isn't used in any of the other major classics. The first 135 kilometers are almost pan-flat and get the riders prepared for the hilly part that comes next.
After, in the space of just 14 kilometers there are 4 bergs that will warm up the race, but the flat that follows means it will likely only be in for fatigue-inducing, or an attempt to try and reduce or get a gap bigger.
The real climbs of the day start in the 170Km mark, the Baneberg won't give the peloton much trouble, but the positioning of it alongside what's coming is gonna be grueling even for the best riders. In the highest point of West-Flandres, the riders will climb from the village of Kemmel in the first passing, the hard-right turn into the cobbles is well known for the riders and the climb is around 350 meters at 11.5% (1.4Km at 6.1% in total). With 75Km only to the finish it can easily be the place for the sprinters to be put under pressure, although most teams will try to keep their fast men as safe as possible.
Some years ago there was a novelty introduced into the race. With it's usual sprint wins the organizers tried to get a harder route, but that didn't come through the means of more climbs, but from the passages in the Plugstreets. These are fast gravel roads in the Flandres fields (as the race name suggests) with a great historical meaning in the region during WW1. These stretches of road come with 61Km to go, the sectors are almost directly back-to-back and are 2100, 1300 and 600 meters in lenght.
With very exposed and narrow roads, a very fast run-in and technical entrances to each sector, it is a major danger and worry of every rider to be well positioned, and will be a very hard portion of the race, where last year BMC put lots of riders under serious dificulties in the crosswinds.
The race then will go once again back to the Baneberg, and will get ready for the final climb of the day.
Out from the west side, passing through the Ossuary where the riders will know the cobbles are straight ahead, this side of the climb is the one that's been marking the race in some of the last editions. It's arguably the hardest side through where to ride up the Kemmelberg, it can be seen with different gradients in sight. In total the climb is voer 700 meters at 9.2% average gradient.
The difference between this side, and what makes it harder, is that there is no such thing as a run-in. The first 500 meters of the climb are on a paved road and is 6.6 in it's average gradient, and the last 200 meters on the road are already pitching up to 10%.
With ultra-steep gradients ahead in the cobbles, the riders will enter already under 20Km/h as the road slowly steepens all the way to the top. They enter the cobbles already in a hard 10% gradient and it gets only harder from there on. The final 200 meters are in the cobbles, the average gradient is 16.5% and it pitches up to 22% in it's bulk, the place where every year there is a ferocious attack.
Cancellara, Sagan and van Avermaet have been protagonists on it in the last few years, it's a 1-minute full on effort in the climb, that takes the riders to the absolute maximum as an immense power output is needed just to stay on the bike, on some of the hardest gradients in Flandres.
With the climbing and the cobbles out of the way comes the final part of the route, and perhaps the most important. To this point the climbers and the slow-sprinting men had to have done their attacking in the race mostly, from here on out it's almost completely flat until the line and that includes it's final 35 where the Kemmelberg summits.
The wind direction plays a vital part, as a tailwind usually encourages small groups to be able to stay away from a self-organizing peloton, whilst a headwind would directly affect the chances of anyone staying away.
What we'll see tomorrow is a bit of both. In majority, it should favour the sprinters, the connection to Ypres, right after the Kemmelberg will be in a headwind, around 10Km/h. Not a decisive wind strenght, but it shouldn't help anyone whop wants to escape.
So with 24 kilometers to go the race will pass through Ypres where they will turn into a crosswind. This is where we should finally see some attacks from the leading group in case it's a big one like last year. There will be lots of riders who won't want to take the sprinters to the line, so this is the last place where they can use their strenghts.
Passing through the town of Menon is where it changes again, the final 4 kilometers will again be in a headwind, favourable for an organized chase which will certainly be the case in the bigger groups. This also means the sprinters will have to time their effort very well as it will be into a headwind, a late launch and nerves of steel will be needed to win in Wevelgem.
The tradition is that the race, despite it's dificulties, finishes in a bunch sprint. That happens usually because after the Kemmelberg some of the main sprinters have teammates with them, or not far, and like this year there will be a headwind right after the climb, those few minutes of emergency to shut down gaps will be somewhat easier. For that reason I give the small bunch/group sprint the likely scenario.
With Deceuninck's track record and team here it's hard to ignore Viviani has the major favourite. Not the only one that's for sure, but the team is covered for every single scenario. Zdenek Stybar, Phillipe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert are able to attack the race, counter-attack or reel back in the attacks according to team orders. Fabio Jakobsen and Max Richeze are two riders who can do a superb leadout, but it isn't very likely to see them in the end, despite Richeze being well suited to the race. Iljo Keisse is the only rider that from the start is assumed to take care of the chasing. As for Viviani himself he came in second last year, clearly disapointed from it due to bad positioning, in the time the team did a brilliant work chasing down the attacks and set him up very well, the same scenario can happen this year.
In De Panne he was only third though, beaten by Dylan Gronewegen and Fernando Gaviria. Tomorrow only Gaviria will be racing here and with high expectations. He will surely struggle over the race's dificulties but if he can latch on to a good group and make it to the front, he can become part of the major candidate for the win lot. With him are also Kristoff and Consonni, both good sprinters in their own rights, but the team will have to be very careful in how to play the cards they have.
But the elephant in the room hasn't been mentioned yet. Peter Sagan has won the race 3 times already, it seems to be one of the few where tactical pressure doesn't affect him as much as usually there are allies in the pure sprinters. In fact he won here last year, so why am I not putting him as a big favourite? Well, I could give the "he cracked in the Tiegemberg when van Avermaet attacked", but there was clearly a mechanical. Then I can say "he was sick before Tirreno and doesn't seem to be in peak form", but if in a sprint finish form isn't the most decisive factor. I'm not naming him as a likely winner cause even though he's been having mishaps he is still gonna be the rider who will at some point be forced to work. He doesn't look the strongest going uphill, compared to the likes of GVA and Stybar, and he isn't the fastest sprinter, against Viviani and Gaviria. But like we've seen in 2017 his rivals always try to force him to work and that sometimes derails his race completely. In Milano-Sanremo he seemed set for the win in the final sprint but the pressure put onto him and the chasing he did drained his power for the sprint, and that's a scenario that isn't unusual.
Arnaud Démare has had 12th, 2nd, 15th, 5th, 78th and 2nd since 2013 in the race, the distance is a factor that suits his skills as he is an endurance specialist. He's been on the podium twice and tomorrow he'll have a shot to make it 3, he starts out as somewhat of an outsider but has what it takes to finally win the race aswell. Matteo Trentin is another rider to take into consideration, another one who likes the long distances and has a strong sprint. The Italian can climb better though, and in the possibility of a small group flying off in the Kemmelberg there's a chance he can get in it and become a serious threat.
Sonny Colbrelli and John Degenkolb are two other good calls, the German has won here in 2014 and the Italian had a great ride in Harelbeke just yesterday. Both don't have the top speed of others but have a very strong punch that suits the climbs that will be faced.
Other sprinters who can be solid outsiders are Jens Keukeleire, Jens Debusschere, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Jurgen Roelandts and Cristophe Laporte.
But then we have the riders that won't want a sprint finish and will certainly fight to prevent it. Harelbeke's Top4 (exluding Stybar) will all be here as team leaders. Grev van Avermaet and Alberto Bettiol are solid sprinters but never will they have a chance of beating the likes of Sagan and Trentin for example. Both have been showing terrific form lately and they will be two riders to watch and follow very closely, surely the same mindset as the Deceuninck riders will have.
Wout van Aert may have less of an obbligation to attack as he'll have Mike Teunissen and Danny van Poppel as backups, but that will surely be no barrier to the Belgian's intents, he is yet to get a big win the cobbles and every chance he has he'll try to seize.
Oliver Naesen cracking in the Tiegemberg came as a bit of a surprise. If it wasn't for that he'd be ranked as a major favourite aswell, he's been showing terrific form all season long, Paris-Nice and Milano-Sanremo came to prove that. His spring his being a big success but his major goals are yet to come, and after friday he could use a boost of motivation in Wevelgem. Not the fastest of sprinters but he is capable of squeezing inbetween them, other than being a very powerful rider capable of rolling through the flatlands very well. Another Belgian to take into account is Tiesj Benoot, he hasn't shown the best legs but he's been up there in the crucial moments so far.
There are two other jokers, Niki Terpstra is the first one, he hasn't been showing the power of last year but that was to be expected, he is still nevertheless a big threat in case he gets away inside a group, he's one of the big riders capable of making gaps like no other. The other is Mathieu van der Poel. The hype in the cycling world is great for him and this is his debut at World Tour racing. What can be expected of him is hard to say really, he's shown he has the endurance for long racing, he has the legs for the sharp climbs and a good sprint. But the team and lack of experience may be the factors that will affect him more.
There's a list of other riders to be considered, but either haven't shown the best indications of form yet or will struggle against such competition. Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen, Michael Valgren, Silvan Dillier, Matej Mohoric, Sebastian Langeveld, Soren Kragh Andersen, Cees Bol and Max Walscheid and Lars Boom. Sky with Stannard/Rowe/Moscon also have a strong trio, but the results haven't been falling to their side.
Deceuninck - The main team one would say. Unbeatable record on the classics so far, they've got a rider capable of winning in every situation, they are definetely the team to bea.
Bora/Bahrain/Mitchelton/FDJ/UAE/Trek - These are the teams that will have an interest in keeping the race together, all will be leaded by sprinters and with such a big fleet there will surely be a scenario with a lot of riders able to chase the attackers over the Kemmelberg.
AG2R/Jumbo-Visma/CCC/EF/Lotto Soudal/Direct Energie - These are those that will likely race agressively, in a sprint they have very few expectations to actually win so over the hills and the Plugstreets these should be forcing the pace in front.
Dimension Data/Katusha/Sunweb/Cofidis/Movistar - All have solid leaders who can sprint, but they'll need some luck and a great tactical display to be able to sneak in the final Top5.
Corendon/Sky/Astana - Teams with some jokers, some riders who we can't be very sure what to expect, they should be agressive teams but no rider who can really win the race (van der Poel isn't a safe option).
Wanty/Sport Vlaanderen/Rompoot/Wallonie - The remaining Pro Continental teams, they should be mainly focusing on getting in the breakaway and trying to fet riders to have an advantage over the peloton before the important moments of the race. As we seen with Rompoot last year it can be a very profitable strategy.
⭐ van Aert, Gilbert, Lampaert, Colbrelli, Degenkolb, Bettiol, Terpstra
With his current form I believe Deceuninck, like last year, will try to get the win for Viviani. He has the skills necessary to win here like he showed last year, and if the team unites around him it can be more than enough to take him to the line, where he should in that (and any) case be the fastest.
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