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Sunday brings Gent-Wevelgem, another semi-classic, into view with a stellar lineup of sprinters and one-day specialists set to compete for one of cycling’s most prestigious races.
While Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) starts as the defending champion and the rider to beat following his demolition at E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday, the race is finely balanced with a number of rivals and contenders looking to compete for top honors.
VeloNews picks out six riders to keep an eye on for Sunday’s men’s race.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Gent-Wevelgem record: Winner in 2021
The Belgian heads into Gent-Wevelgem as the rider to beat following his utterly dominant display in E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday when he and his teammate Christophe Laporte put over a minute and a half into their rivals. The Jumbo-Visma juganaut looks unstoppable at present and it’s not just one card they have to play but several, with Laporte and Benoot options should their classics grandmaster falter. Such a scenario seems unlikely at this point with van Aert a cut-above. If the race comes down to a small bunch sprint then van Aert’s win percentage might suffer but at this rate who would be surprised if he took off on another long-range attack? This is Jumbo-Visma’s race to lose and their collective form is bordering on incredible.
Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl)
Gent-Wevelgem record: DNF in 2019
Who can sow Patrick Lefevere’s sorrow into silk? At this point, the Belgian team looked off the pace and struggled for answers. Make no mistake, Quick-Step AlphaVinyl is floundering. In E3 Saxo Bank Classic the team had just one rider in the top-10 and only Kasper Asgreen in the top 50. These are unprecedented times for the boys in blue, and unless someone can step up sharpish and arrest the current decline we could be looking at the team’s worst0ever classics campaign. The savior could be Fabio Jakobsen. He offered the team some respite from the horde of disgruntled Belgian journalists with a win in Kuurne earlier in the year, and the Dutch rider has been a rare glimmer of hope in a classics campaign that has so far fallen flat. Asgreen still has time ahead of Flanders but it’s Jakobsen who will lead the line in Gent-Wevelgem. He’s won consistently since the start of the year and but for a minor blip at Milan-San Remo, he’s been the team’s dedicated sprinter. Win on Sunday and he’ll not only save Lefevere’s bacon but he’ll also solidify his Tour de France ambitions. Those two storylines are intricately linked at this point.
Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux)
Gent-Wevelgem record: Debutant
Alexander Kristoff is a former Gent-Wevelgem winner, undoubtedly has the experience, and possibly the form, but we’ve selected the up-and-coming Biniam Girmay as our Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux rider to watch. The Eritrean was in our form guide for Milan-San Remo, and he picked up a creditable 12th place on the Via Roma. He was among the best riders at E3 Saxo Bank Classic and although some will point to the fact that he let the gap open up to the Jumbo-Visma express on the Paterberg it wasn’t as though there was a queue of riders able or willing to come around him and chase. At 21, Intermarché has a star on its hands, and Girmay’s trajectory is one of the most interesting and engaging plotlines of the season so far.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Gent-Wevelgem record: Five starts, no top-10s.
The return to Bora-Hansgrohe hasn’t quite set the world alight with the Irishman still waiting for his first win of the season. Other than a couple of top-10s in the UAE Tour the 31-year-old has been struggling for pace and precision, and although his Gent-Wevelgem record is nothing special, the race could come as the perfect tonic after a slow start to the year. Bennett is clearly still feeling his way back to top shape following his knee injury but at some point things will click – he’s too good, and too well supported for failure to become an option. Win on Sunday and not only would new life be breathed into his season but salt would almost certainly be rubbed into the wounds at Quick-Step. During the week Bennett played down the friction that saw him eventually leave at the end of 2021 but winning a semi-classic would be a major statement from the Irishman.
Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo)
Gent-Wevelgem record: 2020 race-winner
The Dane started the season brightly with a win apiece in Besseges and Paris-Nice. He was also drafted in at the last minute for Milan-San Remo and took an impressive sixth place on the Via Roma despite little time to prepare. His main objectives, however, lay on the cobbles of Belgium, and Gent-Wevelgem has proved a happy hunting ground with a superb victory back in 2020. That win demonstrated that although Pedersen may lack the punch and power of a van Aert or van der Poel he makes up for that with one of the finest racing brains in the peloton. He is one of the most complete classics riders of his generation and his ever-growing palmarès is testament to the fact that Trek-Segafredo continues to build much of their hopes on his ability to pull off major one-day wins. The 26-year-old once again heads into Gent-Wevelgem as a major favorite and will be backed by a team that includes Jasper Stuyven.
Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix)
Gent-Wevelgem record: Two starts, nothing to write home about.
With van der Poel not on the startlist, the emphasis for victory passes to Merlier and his teammate Jasper Philipsen. Both riders have legitimate cases for sole leadership but it’s Merlier who arrives with the better form after winning two out of his last three one-day races and taking third in the other. He’s a firm favorite for the weekend and it’s not just because of his fast finish. His Alpecin-Fenix lead out has been on point this year and in De Panne the team delivered the Belgian to another seamless victory. Merlier’s record in the race is poor, and he’s never cracked the top 20, but his form, stature and speed have never been at this level and everything points to at least contending the finish. If he makes it to a reduced bunch sprint he should be Jakobsen’s primary competition.