Welcome back to Belgium, the home of the cobbled classics and classic champions like Tom Boonen and Phillipe Gilbert. Whilst many can’t wait until the start of the Grand Tours, it is the Classics that rekindle my passion and inspire me to get out on the bike.
Gent Wevelgem enters into its 75th year of carrying riders through the Belgian countryside and rolling over the classic cobbles that spectators love to watch. The route is 238km long and has seen past winners like Eddy Merckx (is there anything he hasn’t won?) Sean Kelly, Mario Cipollini and of course most recently, Fabian Cancellara.
Generally known as “The Sprinters Classic” due to its flat finish, this route still throws in a few challenges that will separate the men from the boys and catch out the inexperienced riders. Weather can also be quite a test, throw in a few climbs, include two ascents of the cobbled road up the Kemmelberg and you have a mixture for a strong, healthy competition.
The Kemmelberg stands at 156m high and was an important battle ground during WW1, both lives and races have been won and lost here and with the start list holding the greatest of the new classic fighters it could be a competition worth watching.
There has been some questions when it comes to Boonen’s performance at Sundays Milan San Remo. Battling through miserable conditions used to be quite known to the Belgian puncheur and sprinter, but his recent surgery has led many to wonder if he is fit enough to defend his last 2 wins of the first of the Belgian races. In saying that he has been seen on the front of the peloton in Paris Nice getting in the miles he needs and looking comfortable in the process.
Again Fabian Cancellara will be there and hopefully he has found a new confidence after his solo attack and win at E3 Harelbeke. He has shown that he has the ability to ride away from the peloton when he has the passion to do so, and he can entertain us with his explosive power and somewhat dramatic tempo.
It would seem that yet again Sagan has played into the betting crowd and not only is he a race favourite but a fan favourite too. Sagan was another podium finisher Friday’s race, placing second behind Cancellara. There is no doubt that he is strong and although young, has the experience and determination to cross the line first. However, Sagan is now a marked man, and may find it difficult to pull away from the rest of the peloton.
Milan San Remo showed us that there is still place for surprise finishes. Ciolek definitely wasn’t named as the race favourite and I don’t recall his name turning up in any predictions. So could it be another winner we have not looked at, a non favourite to cross that line first?
Vacansoleil has a plan this year that includes a stronger presence in the classics, they even purchased Juan Antonio Fletcher to help them get over the cobbles, but they were silent in Sunday’s Milan San Remo and E3 Harelbeke and I’m not certain if their team captain Kris Boekmans is up for the challenge.
Sky have brought together a good mix of riders, with Boasson Hagen leading the group and so has BMC Racing team, including the young talent of Taylor Phinney as well as the older more sophisticated Thor Hushovd, likely there to support Gilbert on his classic campaign. Boasson Hagen was seen to ease back from the race during the foul weather at Milan San Remo, could that be because he is saving himself for this weekend?
Lars Bak (Lotto Belisol) last spotted in the break that almost stayed away at the recent Milan San Remo is back for his attempt to prove his strength and ability to top a podium, but will the fact that Andre Greipel is in the team mean that he may find himself working for his sprinter, rather than for his own success?
There are plenty of questions with regards to fitness, passion, experience and loyalty to a team mate that have been raised with regards to how Gent Wevelgem may pan out. Predictions are often proven to be incorrect but sometimes riders play right into our plans and we can foresee the outcome just because we have watched the riders enough to know how they perform.
Sunday is another chapter in the classics, one that is thought to be for the sprinters, it also means that we are now even closer to the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. We finally get a chance to see the array of new bikes created to ride over cobbles, learn about how the riders prepare mentally for the races ahead and be a part of the greatest sport ever created.