Cavendish, Boonen, Freire and Greipel among Ghent-Wevelgem favorites

Everything you need to know about Sunday's semi-classic, including the course profile and startlist

Though he’s never won the race, world champion Mark Cavendish will start as one of the big favorites Sunday morning at the 74th edition of Ghent-Wevelgem, the second Belgian WorldTour race of the weekend after Friday’s E3 Harelbeke.

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Cavendish won a Belgian semi-classic last month when he took the sprint at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but with coastal winds and 11 short, punchy climbs, including two ascents of the cobbled Kemmelberg, Ghent-Wevelgem is another type of race altogether.

“In this kind of racing, the selection just happens,” Cavendish said last week. “You either have the legs, or you don’t.”

Cavendish has not competed since the March 17 Milan-San Remo, where he was unceremoniously dropped on the climb over La Manie with 100km to go. He did not race at E3 Harelbeke, where his Sky teammate Bernie Eisel finished third.

Eisel won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, and their Sky teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen won the race in 2009.

The route for Ghent-Wevelgem starts in Deinze, rather than the actual city of Ghent, and pushes west to the coastal towns of Oostende and Middelkerke before heading south and then east through the Flemish Ardennes. The coastal winds have traditionally played havoc with the bunch, as will the 11 climbs; the final climb of the Monteberg comes with 35km to go, forcing a final selection.

On Friday, the world champ tweeted that he’d done a reconnaissance ride of the final 100km, stating, “It’s mightily more difficult than the past! Should be a great race!”

Last year Boonen won in front of Daniele Bennati (RadioShack) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda); Cavendish finished 60th, 3:18 down, after a tough day at the office — the Manxman punctured prior to the start of the Kemmelberg, forcing him to chase back on; then, with 20km to go, a Movistar rider slipped into a ditch and crashed in front of him, taking Cavendish and Sky teammates Jeremy Hunt and Mat Hayman off the bike and out of the battle.

Other top sprinters that did not compete at Harelbeke but will race Ghent-Wevelgem include Farrar, Francesco Chicchi (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank), Matt Goss (GreenEdge), Andre Greipel and Greg Henderson (Lotto-Belisol), Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) and Jonathan Cantwell (Saxo Bank).

Young American Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) is on the start list. Phinney’s BMC teammate George Hincapie is the only American to have won the race, in 2001.

Other former champions taking the start Sunday include Eisel, Boonen (2004 and 2011), Andeas Klier of Garmin-Barracuda (2003), Thor Hushovd of BMC Racing (2006), Marcus Burghardt of BMC Racing (2007) and Oscar Freire of Katusha (2008).

BMC Racing director John Lelangue said the team’s plan is to protect Alessandro Ballan, who was BMC’s best finisher at Harelbeke, in eighth. Hushovd did not finish Harelbeke, his first race back after missing Milan-San Remo due to sickness. “Thor is improving each day,” Lelangue said. “Even though this race could suit him well, we won’t put all the pressure on him.”

BMC’s Philippe Gilbert, who also abandoned Harelbeke, is on the start list. The team sent out a press release explaining that Gilbert has been plagued by a tooth infection. “I suddenly felt empty and had no more energy,” Gilbert said of his poor performance at Harelbeke.

Two young riders racing at Ghent-Wevelgem in search of a first victory in the spring classics are Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and John Degenkolb (Project 1t4i). Sagan finished fourth at San Remo and 14th at Harelbeke, while Degenkolb finished fifth at San Remo and sixth at Harelbeke.

The weather forecast for Sunday’s race is mild, with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s.