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Gent-Wevelgem: Five conclusions from the men’s race

From the significance of Girmay's glory to Quick-Step's hard questions and Sagan's form, we take a look at the major talking points from the men's race.

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Eritrean Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) made history on Sunday in the men’s edition of Gent-Wevelgem. It was a moment of historical significance with Intermarché sprinter becoming the first African rider to win the race.

VeloNews takes a look at the importance of Girmay’s win, and the major talking points from the men’s edition of the race.

Girmay’s glory

We can all pinpoint the moment in our lives when a switch inside us flicked and suddenly the world changed because of cycling. Maybe it was an inspirational moment in a race, or person close to us that introduced you to riding. If you’re reading this, the chances are that something or someone inspired you to enter the sport.

Now imagine the ramifications of Girmay’s landmark win in Gent-Wevelgem. In the minutes after the Eritrean’s victory VeloNews spoke to Xylon van Eyck. The South African has worked with African riders and teams for a generation, and has seen firsthand the struggles and hurdles that Black African riders face when it comes to making it on the European stage.

Some of those hardships have been logistical, some have been cultural, while others have sadly been far more sinister. Yet on Sunday Girmay’s win, along with the grace and humbleness with which he spoke, had cycling fans all over the world transfixed.

In a couple of days the sport will move on, that’s just the nature of the beast, and the next major race will come into view, but somewhere out there a young fan will have watched the spectacle of Girmay’s sprint — its flawlessness and its courage — and will be inspired to take their bike and start to ride.

What Girmay achieved on Sunday was huge from a personal perspective but it also sent positive shockwaves through the sport he has dedicated his life to and as van Eyck told VeloNews it was a moment that means everything.

“This win is significant because there are so many riders watching who will see a rider like them at the top of the sport, and from today they’ll believe that they can do it. It’s so significant,” he said.

And can we also talk about Girmay’s performance for a moment because this win had been coming. On Sunday he did just enough to hang tough on the Kemmelberg as Jumbo-Visma wore out the pure sprinters. From there he made the race through an attack with 24km to go.

Being in the winning move with more experienced riders didn’t rattle him and when it came to the final 500m he neatly made sure that he was positioned at the back of the four-man group. That was skill rather than fortune and when he unleashed that awesome kick to the line he was measured, precise and ultimately unstoppable. This was arguably one of the most complete classics performances of the season and it came from a 21-year-old making his Gent-Wevelgem debut, a race he wasn’t due to start last week.

There are so many elements to our sport that need fixing, so many factors that have to be addressed — especially representation — but on Sunday afternoon Girmay helped take everyone back to why and how cycling can be the most beautiful sport in the world.

Thanks to that win, even more people will hopefully see that.

Quick-Step can rescue its spring but does it have a savior?

Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl has won 17 races this year and there’s every chance that they can still better their tally of 65 victories from 2021. The harsh reality is that Fabio Jakobsen’s Kuurne win aside, this classics unit has faltered at almost every turn.

Zdeněk Štybar at 36 has been a shadow of his former self, Florian Sénéchal has had his moments but has largely underwhelmed, Yves Lampaert, 30, has been utterly anonymous, and Iljo Keisse can’t be expected to cover for Tim Declercq. The lackluster collective has meant that everything has fallen on the shoulders of Kasper Asgreen, a rider who has been forced to comeback from COVID in recent months once Jakobsen is out of the frame.

Ever since Tom Boonen’s powers began to fade, Patrick Lefevere’s team doubled down on a tactic based around strengths in numbers rather than relying on an individual talisman.

That plan only works if a team has multiple cards to play in finals but the fact is that even if a rider as talented as Asgreen makes a decisive split — as he did in Gent-Wevelgem — he’s forced to rely on limited to no support. He’s simply being out-gunned.

Blame illness, blame the fact that Jumbo-Visma and Alpecin-Fenix have both upped their game, but another home truth facing Lefevere is that he’s allowed his classics contingent to grow old together without finding new blood to replace them.

Who was the last rider they signed who improved their cobbled classics core and has too much emphasis been placed around building a stage racing unit at the cost of maintaining classics supremacy? This could all be a short-term issue; last year the team were phenomenal on the cobbles but these feel like legitimate concerns.

Of course, all these questions and criticisms could be mute in the coming weeks if the team can turn their fortunes around in either the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, but none of their riders made the top 30 in Gent-Wevelgem and only one — Asgreen — cracked the top-50 in E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

These are troubling times for Quick-Step, and while their identity will always be intrinsically linked to the cobbles of Belgium and France, the management will have to do something to invigorate this group before longterm decline sets in.

Søren Kragh Andersen flying solo at Team DSM

Results wise, this has been an abysmal campaign for the men’s wing of Team DSM.

They’ve yet to win a race, and to be frank it’s hard to see where the maiden win will come from. New signings haven’t yet worked out, and riders the team hoped would develop haven’t been competitive enough. This may have been a team that struggled last year with just eight victories but the start to 2022 has seen their decline continue.

They’re not the only squad to be in this position, and there are plenty of MPCC members at WorldTour level that have had underwhelming results, but at least DSM can cling to the fact that Kragh Andersen has at least taken the fight to the opposition. The Dane was arguably the strongest rider in Milan-San Remo, and on Sunday he was at it again, combining flair with flex to jump away from the chase group and secure fifth on the line.

The 27-year-old is out of contract at the end of the season and a manager such as Lefevere could do worse than scout out the Dane’s availability. For now DSM must hope that their winless run, which stretches back to stage 14 in last year’s Vuelta a España, finally comes to an end. On current form the rider most likely to end that duck is Kragh Andersen.

TotalEnergies are carrying Peter Sagan

Second in Milan-San Remo and third in Gent-Wevelgem are respectable results for the French team after they invested heavily in the off-season.

Their chase for a WorldTour place in 2023 hasn’t been bolstered by the signing of Peter Sagan and his entourage, but through Antony Turgis and their only Belgian on the their roster, Dries Van Gestel. Turgis has been knocking on the door in the classics for a while, and Van Gestel is no slouch, but the team and the management must be wondering if they’ve made the right decision in shelling out for Sagan.

The former Paris-Roubaix winner, once a constant contender and a three-time winner in Gent-Wevelgem, was off the pace on Sunday, and he cut a disconsolate figure when he was dropped well before the finish.

There are obviously mitigating circumstances to his DNF given his recent bout of COVID-19 but the return on investment after making the switch from Bora-Hansgrohe has been disappointing for a team that hoped to capitalize on signing the three-time world champion.

Yes, Specialized helped in the financials, but the roster space, the resources, and the leadership was all meant for Sagan. So far the return on an already declining force simply hasn’t been justified. The season is long, and there’s time to set things right but it’s now been almost a year since Sagan’s last WorldTour win.

Jumbo-Visma remain the dominant force

Wout van Aert was not at his all-conquering best on Sunday, claiming after the finish that he lacked the legs that helped him ride away from the entire field in Friday’s edition of E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

His “not quite good enough” was still good enough to break the race apart on the Kemmelberg twice with just a handful of riders able to make the juncture each time. In fact, at one point Jumbo-Visma placed three riders in the first eight, and had Laporte and Benoot helped drive the move with a bit more impetus, the race could have been tilted closer towards another Dutch sweep.

Had the course been tougher, had the conditions been more taxing than perhaps Jumbo might have pressed home their advantage but second place with Laporte still emphasized the squad’s overall status as the strongest classics unit of the spring.

The team looks formidable and Laporte’s conversion in the matter of a few months from respectable sprinter to all-out classics contender is nothing short of astonishing. At the finish on Sunday, he looked distraught after taking another second place, and in truth his positioning coming into the sprint made him an easy target, but he heads into the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix as the perfect foil for van Aert.