Only time can tell what impact the impending snow will have on this year’s Ghent-Wevelgem, already shortened to 192km. Nevertheless Mark Cavendish will line up in Gistel on Sunday morning as one of the principal favourites for the 75th edition of the Belgian classic.
On paper however, Cavendish stands little hope. His highest place in the race was in 2008 when he finished 17th behind Oscar Freire. He wasn’t even the highest placed Brit that year – Roger Hammond came tenth when the pair both rode for Highroad – and in subsequent editions he has failed to finish any higher than 55th.
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With several crucial climbs, including double ascents of the Casselberg and Kemmelberg, you’d be forgiven for ruling him out again. But look a bit closer and you’ll find some compelling reasons why Cavendish could be in the thick of the action come 5pm on race day.
He dreams of winning
Cavendish has made no secret of his desire to become the first British winner of the race since Barry Hoban in 1974; Ghent-Wevelgem is definitively on his list. Omega Pharma-Quickstep directeur sportif Brian Holm knows Cavendish better than most and told Cycling Weekly in January how his friend and rider dreams of winning a cobbled classic.
Barry Hoban beats Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck in 1974
“Cav loves the history of cycling; he loves Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck,” Holm said. “He’s always dreaming about doing a classic and making it to the finish line on his own, with somebody chasing him, and winning with 35 seconds.”
It could come down to a sprint
A brave person would put money on Cavendish being able to craft a dream solo win for himself, as Fabian Cancellara achieved at Friday’s E3-Harelbeke, but that doesn’t rule him out.
There has been a bunch sprint in Wevelgem most recently in 2011 and 2008, while a group of 30 contested the win last year. The possible withdrawal of the race-splitting ascents of the Kemmelberg could make this outcome even more likely.
He’s in good form
A ninth place in Milan-San Remo proved Cavendish’s form off the back of a tough Tirreno-Adriatico and a successful early season in the Middle East, in particular when it comes to fast and tricky climbs. It also showed he can cope with whatever the European weather can throw at him.
A strong team
Omega Pharma-Quickstep have possibly the strongest classics team assembled, including riders capable of winning the race in their own right. They should have no problem keeping Cavendish and Boonen out of trouble and well-looked after, and will stand the best chance of bringing them to the front of the race should they find themselves distanced from the front group as Cavendish did in 2012.
Cavendish will have a strong team at his disposal again
Tom Boonen isn’t at his best
Having dismissed the race in a 2011 interview with Cycle Sport, Tom Boonen then went on to win the next two editions. However his lack of race-winning form was plain for everyone to see during Friday’s E3-Harelbeke.
Boonen could be a favourite alongside Cavendish, but whether he has the ability to make the race too hard for a sprint remains to be seen. Should the pair both make it to the finish in a large group, it would take a bold directeur sportif to make the call to race for the Belgian.
He has fresh legs
Cavendish’s last race was Milan-San Remo last weekend, whereas many of his rivals spent five hours in the cold Flemish winds on Friday. It’s hard to say if that will have an impact – Tom Boonen won both races last season – but there will be some tired bodies on the start line.
What do they say?
Cycling Weekly asked a selection of cycling fans on the Oude Kwaremont during the E3-Harelbeke for their opinion: can Mark Cavendish win Ghent-Wevelgem?
Saumon Christalle, Lille
“He’s in a team where he can learn to win these kinds of races. I think he can win a race like Ghent-Wevelgem, but we need to see the circumstances with the weather and the way the race unfolds.”
Cornette Jacques, Kortrijk
“I hope he wins! I certainly like him as a racer; he’s a great sprinter and he’s a real athlete. He knows he’s a champion and he’s better than other riders. I think he can win.”
Jorben Isembaert, Simon Staelens, Maxim Remmery, Jasper Vanholst and Reinout Van Zandycke, Kortrijk
“He can win… if he has some good weather. As long as he can survive the Kemmelberg then he’s a big favourite. Last year the race came down to a sprint.
“If Cavendish wins we’ll be happy because he’s with Quickstep. He’ll become more popular in Belgium if he wins, everyone knows he’s a talent. If he works for the team then that would be even better!”