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Gent-Wevelgem quick-guide: Cobblestones, crosswinds, dirt roads promise pre-monument mayhem

All you need to know about the men's and women's Gent-Wevelgem, including routes, riders, and must-know narratives.

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Crosswinds, cobblestones, dirt roads, and climbs, Gent-Wevelgem has it all.

On Sunday, the men’s and women’s Gent-Wevelgem will throw an all-star startlist into a marathon-distance route that ticks boxes for every classics fan.

Coming hot on the heels of Friday’s E3 Classic, Gent-Wevelgem not only makes for perfect prep for the northern monuments to come but is a must-watch race in its own right.

As always in recent editions, the race’s growing status and perfect position in the calendar means the start line will be stacked with talent.

Wout van Aert and Marianne Vos will be there defending their titles against a whos-who of hitters including Elisa Balsamo, Lotte Kopecky, Kasper Asgreen, Mads Pedersen and Milan-San Remo champ Matej Mohorič in a race almost as prestigious as the five hallowed “monuments.”

Here’s your quick guide to Sunday’s races:

A three-course parcours

Gent-Wevelgem women’s route.

Just like all the best meals come in three courses, so does the route for Gent-Wevelgem.

The 249km men’s race and 159km women’s race both come in three parts.

A long opening stretch out of the recently relocated start in Ypres gives the race its sub-name of “in Flanders Fields” as it traces through a series of World War battlefields en route to the North Sea.

The wind typically blows hard as the race heads toward the coast and there’s not even a hedge to hide behind.

What does that mean? You got it,  crosswind and echelon chaos in on the cards. Last year, the men’s race was blown to bits after just 80km, and the front split was never seen again.

Gent-Wevelgem men’s route.

“In this course, the wind always plays a role,” Vos said.  “It makes the race unpredictable and tough.”

For the men, the midsection stacks nine climbs and three unpaved sectors into some 70km. The so-called “Plugge Street” dirt roads rarely make much of a difference, but the triple ascent of the Kemmelberg and its super-steep grades sure can.

The women climb the Kemmel twice, and Vos knows the climb can break ambitions as well as legs.

“The Kemmelberg is the executioner which could break up the peloton,” she said. “But actually, all the obstacles we encounter along the way are challenging.”

Once the climbs are out of the way, it’s a full gas 35km toward the final. Whoever survived the crosswinds and climbs have to hunker down in hope of having something left for what typically comes down to a reduced bunch-sprint.

What to watch for:

Can the specialists rumble the sprinters?

Dylan Groenewegen
BikeExchange-Jayco will be doing all it can to get Groenewegen through the bergs in the front bunch. (Photo: PhotoGomezSport2021)

Gent-Wevelgem can often come down to a San Remo-esque battle between the sprinters and the strongmen specialists.

If the race isn’t split before the climb-heavy middle, fast finishers like Fabio Jakobsen and Dylan Groenewegen have to hang on while fast-finishing classics stars like van Aert, Matteo Trentin and Mads Pedersen throw haymakers through the hills.

The result? Recent editions have seen groups of anywhere between thirty and thirteen come roaring into Wevelgem.

Some teams stack their chips entirely on a pure sprinter, but many bring something for every eventuality.

The Trek-Segafredo women’s team pairs up rouleur Elisa Longo Borghini with speedster Elisa Balsamo in an all-Italian duet. Likewise, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl brings a pick n’mix of possibilities with Kasper Asgreen, Davide Ballerini, Yves Lampaert and Florian Senechal lining out alongside Jakobsen.

“We have a very good team for Sunday, a team capable of being there in the mix regardless of the scenario,” team director Tom Steels said. “We can ride an offensive race on and around the Kemmelberg, but we can also be present in the bunch sprint with Fabio if the race comes back together on the flat roads after the last climb. We are confident and very motivated.”

The specialists vs sprinter dynamic adds a different dynamic to most of the cobblestone classics. Who will you be backing Sunday?

Can Jumbo-Visma do a double defense?

Vos beat a stack of star sprinters in 2021. (: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Jumbo-Visma’s all-conquering pair of Marianne Vos and Wout van Aert are both back to defend their titles Sunday, and both team captains have an all-star crew at their sides.

Vos pairs up with American speedster Coryn Labecki in the women’s team for a powerful double-punch.

Van Aert will be back on the bike less than 48 hours after his huge E3 victory, flanked by the A-list bunch of cobblestone brawlers that dominated on the roads around Harelebeke. Tiesj Benoot, Mike Teunissen and E3 star Christophe Laporte will be back in the furnace of the Jumb0-Visma steam-train Sunday.

Vos and van Aert both pack the all-round attributes needed for success at Gent-Wevelgem, and both know all-too-well how the race works.

The Dutch team’s dynamic duo will line up among the top-favorites, and if things don’t go their way, the likes of  Labecki and Laporte bring Jumbo-Visma a brilliant “Plan B.”

Jumbo-Visma could do a double defense Sunday, even if it’s not Vos and van Aert taking the flowers.

Will Quick-Step stop the slide?

Asgreen finished 10th at E3 to salvage some Quick-Step pride. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

This spring isn’t going Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s way.

The former kings of the classics lost their titles at both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Friday’s E3 Classic as Jumbo-Visma whipped “The Wolfpack” into a corner and left defending champions Davide Ballerini and Kasper Asgreen way out of the frame.

Team boss Patrick Lefevere is no doubt steaming, and the team has pride to restore before the must-win monuments Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

“It wasn’t easy, but we don’t have to panic or be afraid, just head with confidence into the next races because we are getting there,” Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels said after seeing his team come undone Friday.

Quick-Step needs a win, fast. It’s taking a stacked selection into the Ypres startline and only a “W” in Wevelgem will suffice.

Is Balsamo beatable?

Balsamo is looking for a third win in a row.

World champ Elisa Balsamo rides into the weekend in crushing form and high on confidence.

The Italian won both Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Brugge-De Panne in the past week with her searingly fast sprint, blowing speedsters like Lotte Kopecky and Lorena Wiebes out the water.

Almost every rider in the peloton will be wanting to shake Balsamo when the race hits the hills, but Balsamo will have a typically strong Trek team to keep her in contention – or to offer opportunity to co-captain Elisa Longo Borghini.

“In this team, we can choose how we want the race to go. It’s not easy, but we can try to do our race, and not just follow the lead of other teams,” Balsamo said after winning De Panne this week.

“The good point is that we also have a lot of solutions, not only a sprint but also a breakaway or solo attack, and I think this is our power.”

Balsamo showed in her ride to the rainbow jersey in Flanders last fall that she can survive the toughest of races. She’s got the momentum, her team has the talent – don’t be surprised to see Balsamo in the finish-line photo Sunday.