KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — When it comes to cobbled semi-classics, WorldTour status reigns supreme.
That’s the consensus among top team managers, who are largely bypassing Saturday’s Tour of Flanders warm-up, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, in order to field teams at Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem.
Because of its move last year, from the Wednesday between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix to the Sunday preceding Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and Harelbeke now share the spotlight in the lead-up to the cobbled classics.
Now its 73rd edition, Ghent-Wevelgem is a UCI WorldTour event, meaning all UCI ProTeams are obligated to attend. E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, held for the 54th time this year, is part of the UCI Europe Tour.
And while Ghent-Wevelgem is a demanding race marked by strong coastal winds and the cobbled climb of the Kemmelberg, the Harelbeke — which uses many of the same climbs as the Tour of Flanders, including Oude Kwaremont, Eikenberg and Paterberg — is a better predictor of how De Ronde will play out.
In 2010 the top two finishers at Harelbeke, Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, finished in the same order one week later at De Ronde.
Though many teams will compete in both events, several have chosen only to focus on Ghent-Wevelgem, including RadioShack, HTC-Highroad, Team Sky and BMC Racing. Belgian team Quick Step is fielding squads for both races; however Boonen will only race at Ghent-Wevelgem.
“We chose this option because at this point in the season the team needs to rack up some important points for the team standings,” Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere said. “So we decided to put Tom Boonen in the Ghent-Wevelgem; our aim is to ride a good race and collect valuable points for our team classification.”
A four-time winner at Harelbeke and the winner of Ghent-Wevelgem in 2004, Boonen has been an outspoken critic of the date change that pits the races against each other.
“It isn’t easy for me to choose between two races of such stature and tradition,” Boonen said. “I would have liked to race in both of them, but we’ve chosen Ghent-Wevelgem because for us at this time the WorldTour is really important.”
HTC-Highroad brings a strong squad to Ghent-Wevelgem including 2010 winner Bernard Eisel, Mark Cavendish and recent Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss. Eisel has been suffering from a cold but he is determined to take part in Sunday’s race.
“I was 100 percent preparing for the classics, but I’ve had a very uneven build-up to these races,” Eisel said. “I got sick before Strade Bianche, then I got better again in Tirreno-Adriatico, then these last few days I’ve been really ill with a cold.”
Eisel is confident that even if he doesn’t feel 100 percent, other teammates could take his place. “Matt is going really well, I saw him racing last week and you can tell that even if he’s not in top form and it comes to a sprint, Gossy will be the man.”
The BMC Racing Team will contest Ghent-Wevelgem, Three Days of De Panne and the Tour of Flanders, but not Harelbeke. Italian Manuel Quinziato was scratched from BMC’s Ghent-Wevelgem roster as he continues to recover from an illness that also kept him out of Milan-San Remo. “We decided it would be best for him to keep training and recovering,” BMC Racing Team director John Lelangue said. “We hope we have him back on the racing schedule in De Panne.”
The main holdout for Harelbeke over Ghent-Wevelgem is last year’s winner, Cancellara. Leopard-Trek is sending squads to both races, with Cancellara racing only at Harelbeke.
Two former winners will miss Ghent-Wevelgem — 2008 winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank), out with a respiratory infection, and 2009 champ Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky), who is nursing Achilles’ pain.
VeloNews managing editor Neal Rogers is in Belgium for E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Three Days of De Panne and the Tour of Flanders. Look for an extensive preview of this year’s cobbled classics Friday on velonews.com. You can follow his adventures (and the races) on Twitter: @nealrogers and @velonewslive
Confirmed rosters for 2011 Ghent-Wevelgem:
Quick Step (B): Tom Boonen (B), Sylvain Chavanel (FRA), Gerald Ciolek (GER), Dries Devenyns (B), Davide Malacarne (ITA), Andreas Stauff (GER), Gert Steegmans (B), Kevin Van Impe (B)
BMC Racing (USA): Alessandro Ballan (I), Marcus Burghardt (G), George Hincapie (USA), Alexander Kristoff (NOR), Michael Schär (SUI), Greg Van Avermaet (B), Danilo Wyss (SUI), Simon Zahner (SUI)
RadioShack (USA): Fumiyuki Beppu (JAP), Robbie Hunter (RSA), Michal Kwiatkowski (POL), Geoffroy Lequatre (F), Robbie McEwen (AUS), Dmitriy Muravyev (KAZ), Gregory Rast (SWI), Sébastien Rosseler (B)
HTC-Highroad (USA): Lars Bak (DEN), Matthew Brammeier (IRL), Mark Cavendish (GB), Bernard Eisel (AUT), Matthew Goss (AUS), Danny Pate (USA), Alex Rasmussen (DEN), Mark Renshaw (AUS)
Team Sky (GB): Kurt-Asle Arvesen (NOR), Juan Antonio Flecha (SP), Mathew Hayman (AUS), Greg Henderson (NZ), Jeremy Hunt (GB), Ian Stannard (GB), Chris Sutton (AUS), Geraint Thomas (GB)
Leopard-Trek (LUX): Daniele Bennati (I), Dominic Klemme (G), Joost Posthuma (F), Martin Mortensen (DEN), Robert Wagner (G), Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Tom Stamsnijder (NED), Wouter Weylandt (B)