Both the men's and women's peloton will contest yet more cobbled climbs on Sunday, as the next classic in the calendar rolls around: Gent-Wevelgem.
The men's race covers 249.8 kilometres, whilst the women will compete over 159km, with both races sharing a start in Ypres and finishing in Wevelgem. This will be the first year that the women's route has covered the windy and exposed stretch to De De Moeren, and crested the Kemmelberg not once, but twice.
Here's what we'll be looking out for...
DOMINEERING VAN AERT AND JUMBO-VISMA LOOK TO CONTINUE WINNING STREAK
In past spring campaigns we’ve pondered how anyone might be able to stop QuickStep in the classics, but so far this year they’ve been usurped by Jumbo-Visma, who are riding in an even more dominant fashion.
In particular, Friday’s E3 SaxoBank was a major statement from the Dutch team. The race was all but over with almost 40km still to ride, after Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte rode away from the group of favourites on the Paterberg. They eventually crossed the line arm in arm, just as they had done earlier this year at Paris-Nice, in what was a striking image of their dominance.
The team’s improvement has also come as a major booster for Van Aert, who made it two wins in two Belgian classics with victory on Friday following his earlier success at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Although he has been similarly strong in past seasons, often he has been undone by tactical stalemates — like, for instance, at the 2020 Gent-Wevelgem, where he and Mathieu van der Poel marked each other out of victory. But these kinds of scenarios have not transpired this year, as his domestiques have been on hand to assist him and force other teams on the back foot.
The incredibly impressive Laporte will once again be at his side on Sunday, as well as his other key helpers from E3 SaxoBank, Tiesj Benoot and Mike Teunissen. With this kind of firepower, a defence of his 2021 Gent-Wevelgem title looks likely.
BALSAMO AND WIEBES RENIEW FLEDGLING RIVALRY
A new rivalry is emerging between two of the world’s most exciting young riders, who are set to face-off at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Between them, 23-year-old Loreno Wiebes (DSM) and 24-year-old Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) have won three of the four World Tour events so far this season, and currently look a league ahead of the rest in sprint finishes.
Wiebes came out on top in their first showdown of the season at Ronde van Drenthe, but Balsamo held of the Dutchman during last Thursday’s climactic sprint at Classic Brugge-De Panne (pictured above), sealing her second successive World Tour victory following her Trofeo Alfredo Binda title, and ending Wiebes run of three successive wins during March.
Given that four of the last five Gent-Wevelgem editions have ended in bunch sprints, Balsamo and Wiebes are top favourites for victory, but picking one over the other is near impossible.
Wiebes is perhaps the purer sprinter, so is perhaps more at risk of being distanced on the Kemmelberg or the race’s other climbs, but has proven herself to be resolute in similarly tricky races.
Trek-Segafredo may use their considerable resources to try to put Wiebes under pressure, with Elisa Longo Borghini and Ellen van Dijk both set to ride for the team.
For the sake of the race, though, it’d be fascinating to watch both of them make it to the finish together, and face-off again in what is becoming one of the sport’s most interesting rivalries.
QUICKSTEP-ALPHAVINYL AND ALPECIN-FENIX WITH THE PICK OF THE SPRINTERS
Although Wout Van Aert has won the two toughest cobbled classics so far this sprint, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl and Alpecin-Fenix have generally triumphed in the classics that have ended in bunch sprints.
Gent-Wevelgem is always a finely balanced contest which can end in a bunch sprint or see a small group go away, and these two teams will likely see that scenario as their best chance of defeating Van Aert.
As probably the quickest sprinter in the world right now, and winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Fabio Jakobsen is QuickStep’s man. The obstacles standing before the final flat stretch to the finish in Wevelgem will pose significant difficulty for the Dutchman, but the team will know that if he can survive them, he’ll take some beating in a sprint.
For Alpecin-Fenix, Tim Merlier has established himself as a master of winning bunch sprints in cobbled classics, recently adding Classic Brugge-De Panne and Nokere Koerse to the five Belgian classics he won last year. With Jasper Philipsen also set to ride, the team are also able to hedge their bets should one be dropped before the finish.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) proved he could handle the race’s climbs last year by remaining in the select lead group, only to fall away after being sick during the run-in to the finish, so could well be a contender this year.
Two-time podium finisher Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) will be eager to at last win a race he appears perfectly suited to, while young sprinter Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Soudal), impressive Brit Fred Wright (Bahrain-Victorious) and Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) are outside contenders — especially the latter following his near miss at Classic Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday.
And although 2019 winner Alexander Kristoff is set to lead Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux rather than Biniam Girmay, can the team resist selecting their prodigious talent and fast finisher following his revelatory performance at E3 SaxoBank Classic on Friday?
KOPECKY AND OTHER SPRINTERS GUNNING FOR A MORE SELECTIVE RACE
As superior as Balsamo and Wiebes have looked so far in the sprints this season, there are several other fast finishers who will be plotting victory at Gent-Wevelgem.
Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) attempted to split Wednesday’s Classic Brugge-De Panne in the crosswinds, to be let down by the mildness of the breeze, but may find conditions more favourable at Gent-Wevelgem, a race well-known for its strong winds (although the current forecast isn’t anything to get excited about). With powerful riders like Chantal van den Brock-Blaak and Christine Majerus riding, Kopecky’s SD Worx could explore the race to pieces, either in the winds or on the climbs.
Another fast finisher who would benefit from a hard race is Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), who will ride as defending champion following her victory here last year. We haven’t seen much of the Dutchwoman on the road yet this year, with her appearances so far restricted to just a seventh place at Strade Bianche, but the aura she carries is sure to make everyone else nervous.
Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ) was third behind Balsamo and Wiebes at Classic Brugge-De Panne, and won this race before back in 2018, so must be considered a contender. And in the absence of Annemiek van Vleuten, Movistar will be united behind Emma Norsgaard, who picked up her first win of the season recently at Le Samyn.
ATTACKERS HOPING TO DEFY THE SPRINTERS
Gent-Wevelgem — and the men’s race in particular — is far from guaranteed to end in a bunch sprint, and there are several riders who will be resolved to do everything they can to prevent that from happening.
Friday’s E3 SaxoBank Classic showed us which classics specialists in the men’s peloton are on form, and who therefore we should expect to go out on the attack: Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Milan-San Remo winner Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) and the Ineos Grenadiers duo of Dylan van Baarle and Jhonathan Narvaez were all part of the select group that formed at the E3, and so can be expected to be at the front of the race come the milestone of the Kemmelberg.
Kasper Asgreen is another option for QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, and could try to mark moves while other teammates help sprinter Fabio Jakobsen, including Yves Lampaert, who is set to race for the first time since pulling out of Paris-Nice.
It’s also worth keeping an eye out for other riders who skipped the E3 like Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal) and Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), while the likes of Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM) and the Ag2r Citroen duo of Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen are hoping to bounce back after disappointing rides that day.
Recent history suggests that a sprint is more likely in the women’s race, although that’s unlikely to deter aggressive racers like Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and Grace Brown (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) from having a go.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.