Ghent-Wevelgem makes play for bigtime

Will Ghent-Wevelgem gain prestige with its new position on the international calendar that puts the Belgian semi-classic in the spotlight this weekend? Race organizers sure are hoping so.

Will Ghent-Wevelgem gain prestige with its new position on the international calendar that puts the Belgian semi-classic in the spotlight this weekend? Race organizers sure are hoping so.

Boonen leads a chase at the 2009 edition of Ghent-Wevelgem. | Graham Watson photo

Long overshadowed by Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, organizers successfully lobbied to have the race shifted from the mid-week date to Sunday’s slot formerly held by Brabantse Pijl to give the race equal weight to the other major spring classics.

Now in its 72nd edition, the race will never measure up to its monumental neighbors of Flanders and Roubaix, but its Sunday slot will put the race squarely in the spotlight. It will be sharing that spotlight, however, with the Volta a Catalunya and Critérium International this weekend.

More climbs and more kilometers, at a longer distance at 219km, some 21km longer than the traditional course, and the usual mix of cobblestones, bad weather and the Kemmelberg, will add heft to the race’s bid for more respect.

The race will also dip into northern France, tackling the Mont des Cats and Mont Noir, two of the seventeen climbs featured on the route. The Kemmelberg, climbed twice, including the final ascent 35km from the finish, remains as the signature moment of the race. The notoriously dangerous descent is not back in the mix.

Ghent-Wevelgem has long been called the “sprinter’s classic,” which something of misnomer because a mass sprint is almost never part of the cards. However, sprinters have traditionally been a factor in the race, with Mario Cipollini winning three times, often winning out of smaller groups after surviving the Kemmelberg.

Despite the conflict with the other major events this weekend, Ghent-Wevelgem is attracting a star field with all the major classics riders expected to take part.

Last year’s winner, Edvald Boasson Hagen, is back with the crack Team Sky, with Michael Barry, Omloop Het Niuewsblat winner José Antonio Flecha and Greg Henderson for support.

Tom Boonen (QuickStep), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), former winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) assure a hard-fought race.

BMC brings an excellent line-up, with former winners George Hincapie (2001) and Marcus Burghardt (2007). Joining them will be, in part for preparation for Flanders the following weekend, is Alessandro Ballan along with Americans Jackson Stewart and John Murphy in support.

Theo Bos (Cervélo) will play an outsider role, with a strong squad that includes Roger Hammond, Andreas Klier and Canadian Dominique Rollin providing key backup.

Garmin-Transitions will be looking to make an impact with Tyler Farrar and Martyn Maaskant, with American Tim Duggan, Canadian Svein Tuft and South African Robbie Hunter.

Neither Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) nor Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) is taking part, but riders like Alan Davis (Astana) or Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil) could play spoilers to the heavy favorites.

Forecasters are calling for classics weather, with a 50-percent chance of rain, moderate SW winds and temperatures in the high 40s.

Past Winners
1934. Gustave Van Bell, (B)
1935. Albert Depreitre, (B)
1936. Robert Van Eenaeme, (B)
1937. Robert Van Eenaeme, (B)
1938. Hubert Godart, (B)
1939. André Declerck, (B)
1940 -`44 No race due to WWII
1945. Robert Van Eenaeme, (B)
1946. Ernest Sterckx, (B)
1947. Maurice Desimpelaere, (B)
1948. Valère Ollivier, (B)
1949. Marcel Kint, (B)
1950. Briek Schotte, (B)
1951. André Rosseel, (B)
1952. Raymond Impanis, (B)
1953. Raymond Impanis, (B)
1954. Rolf Graf, (Swi)
1955. Briek Schotte, (B)
1956. Rik Van Looy, (B)
1957. Rik Van Looy, (B)
1958. Noel Fore, (B)
1959. Léon Van Daele, (B)
1960. Frans Aerenhouts, (B)
1961. Frans Aerenhouts, (B)
1962. Rik Van Looy, (B)
1963. Benoni Beheyt, (B)
1964. Jacques Anquetil, (F)
1965. Noel De Pauw, (B)
1966. Herman Van Springel, (B)
1967. Eddy Merckx, (B)
1968. Walter Godefroot, (B)
1969. Willy Vekemans, (B)
1970. Eddy Merckx, (B)
1971. Georges Pintens, (B)
1972. Roger Swerts, (B)
1973. Eddy Merckx, (B)
1974. Barry Hoban, (GB)
1975. Freddy Maertens, (B)
1976. Freddy Maertens, (B)
1977. Bernard Hinault, (F)
1978. Ferdi Van Den Haute, (B)
1979. Francesco Moser, (I)
1980. Henk Lubberding, (Nl)
1981. Jan Raas, (Nl)
1982. Frank Hoste, (B)
1983. Leo van Vliet, (Nl)
1984. Guido Bontempi, (I)
1985. Eric Vanderaerden, (B)
1986. Guido Bontempi, (I)
1987. Teun van Vliet, (Nl)
1988. Sean Kelly, (Irl)
1989. Gerrit Solleveld, (Nl)
1990. Herman Frison, (B)
1991. Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, (Uzb)
1992. Mario Cipollini, (I)
1993. Mario Cipollini, (I)
1994. Wilfried Peeters, (B)
1995. Lars Michaelsen, (Dk)
1996. Tom Steels, (B)
1997. Philippe Gaumont, (F)
1998. Frank Vandenbroucke, (B)
1999. Tom Steels, (B)
2000. Geert Van Bondt, (B)
2001. George Hincapie, (USA)
2002. Mario Cipollini, (I)
2003. Andreas Klier, (G)
2004. Tom Boonen, (B)
2005. Nico Mattan, (B)
2006. Thor Hushovd, (N)
2007. Marcus Burghardt, (G)
2008. Óscar Freire, (Sp)
2009. Edvald Boasson Hagen, (N)