Set to go ahead despite the recent terrorist attack in Brussels, the race will be the last of three popular Belgian cobbled classics in the space of five days, following Wednesday’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Friday’s E3 Harelbeke.
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Last year’s edition was an extraordinary spectacle, as gale force winds and rainy conditions blew the race apart. Echelons formed very early in the race and set-up a rollercoaster battle between a select group of riders, while others were literally blown off their bikes from the wind, and only 39 of the 200 participating riders made it to the finish.
There’s unlikely to be a repeat of those scenes this year, as the weather is forecast to be nowhere near as extreme. Consequently, we should expect a race more in line with how Ghent-Wevelgem usually pans out – a finely tuned balance between those hoping to win from a bunch sprint, and those hoping for an attack to stick.
The balance looks to have swung a little towards the attackers, as this edition will see the riders take on the steeper side of the Kemmelberg for the first time in 22 years. Situated 34km from the finish, and described as one of the most difficult bergs in Belgium even when climbed from its easier side, the Kemmelberg is the climb most synonymous with Ghent-Wevelgem, and the best platform for an attacker to make their move with an excruciating maximum gradient of 23% (up from 17% on the previously-used side).
This increased difficulty will help any attacking puncheurs and roleurs, but what makes this race suited to sprinters is the 34km of flat terrain that follows its peak. Sprinters’ teams have brought the race back together for a bunch sprint on this final stretch in five of the previous ten editions, and therefore riders with a quick finish will go into the race as favourites.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) looks ideally suited, as a bunch sprint specialist who consistently gets over the climbs. He’ll be eager to land a big win having missed out in Milan-San Remo last week despite making it to the Via Roma the lead group.
Similarly Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) is likely to be one the quickest sprinters to survive the race’s ten climbs and compete in a potential bunch finish – although he won the 2013 edition with a solo attack.
Sprinters Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) are both generally quicker in a sprint, and therefore stand a chance, but have in the past missed out on the chance to sprint for victory due to the severity of the cobbles and climbs. Instead, sprinters like Milan-San Remo victor Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Dwars Door Vlaanderen winner Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) and runner-up Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie).
Watch: Tour of Flanders 2016 preview
One sprinter who can’t be discounted is 21-year old Fernando Gaviria (Etixx-QuickStep). The Colombian has been winning sprints at a canter this season, and defied expectations by remaining at the front of the race by the end of his first ever Milan-San Remo, only to crash in the finale. He mistimed his sprint in a similar position at Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, but is he can get his finish right this time he’ll be difficult to stop.
Etixx-QuickStep contain plenty of other riders who would prefer to animate the race, including Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and three-time winner Tom Boonen. Along with the likes of Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and the on-form Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), they’ll be eager to make attacks.
Sky also bring a strong team, with Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe likely to attack, and Elia Viviani included in case the race does boil down to a bunch sprint. However the race plays out, we should see a Sky rider at least in contention for the win.
Gent-Wevelgem 2016: Teams
Ag2r La Mondiale (France)
CCC Sprandi-Polkowice (Poland)
Dimension Data (RSA)
Direct Energie (France)
IAM Cycling (Switzerland)
Roompot Oranje Peloton (Netherlands)
Team Sky (Great Britain)
Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise (Belgium)
Wanty-Groupe Gobert (Belgium)
Gent-Wevelgem: Recent winners
2015: Luca Paolini (Katusha)
2014: John Degenkolb
2013: Peter Sagan
2012: Tom Boonen
2011: Tom Boonen
2010: Bernhard Eisel
2009: Edvald Boasson-Hagen
2008: Oscar Freire
2007: Marcus Burghardt
2006: Thor Hushovd
Gent-Wevelgem: Last year’s top 10 (2015)
1. Luca Paolini (Ita) Katusha in 6-20-55
2. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Etixx-QuickStep at 0-11
3. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky at same time
4. Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Etixx-QuickStep at 0-18
5. Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto-Soudal at 0-26
6. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) LottoNL-Jumbo at 0-40
7. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto-Soudal at 1-51
8. Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing at 4-15
9. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha at 6-54
10. Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff-Saxo at same time