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Gent-Wevelgem: Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel to clash in opening cobbled classic

Here's all you need to know about one of the toughest one-day races of the year, from the crosswinds, dirt roads and cobbled climbs of the course to the ways to watch it live.

The winds, dirt roads, and stoney ascents of Gent-Wevelgem mark the arrival of the cobblestone classics Sunday.

Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Alexander Kristoff, and Mads Pedersen headline this weekend’s race through the windswept north of Belgium, which is closely followed by the Tour of Flanders in the following weekend.

While Gent-Wevelgem is overshadowed by its monument-status cousins Flanders and Roubaix, it sits proudly as one of the toughest, hardest-fought and most prestigious of the one-day races.

Here’s all you need to know about this year’s Gent-Wevelgem:

Coastal crosswinds, dirty roads and stoney climbs headline the route

The “Plugstreets” add intrigue but are rarely pivotal.

Like so many other races, COVID-19 has had its influence on this year’s Gent-Wevelgem, which has been reduced from 250km to 238 km as part of an effort by race organizers to allow riders more potential for recovery in the densely packed re-scheduled season. And is now becoming a trend, fans will be prohibited from key vantage points, with the race’s iconic cobbled bergs closed to the public.

Nonetheless, this year’s Gent-Wevelgem is still set to sum up to six hours of raucous racing, and all the elements that make it such a must-watch remain.

The race is defined by three key features that fall near-consecutively through the race. With the opening half out of Gent skirting close to the wind-swept north sea, there is always the potential for echelons and splits in the first 100km, and with forecasts calling for a stiff wind Sunday, the race could come to life early on.

The parcours then moves south toward the iconic bergs of Flanders and the recently-added gravel “Plugstreets” that crisscross battlefields from The First World War.

The race hits the first of the cobbled climbs with around 100km remaining and takes on five of Belgium’s finest walls in quick succession, including the race-defining Kemmelberg. From there, three strips of dirt roads follow. These off-road sectors were introduced in 2017 in an act of commemoration of WWI veterans and add spice to the race, but the short, tightly-packed, stoney tracks often aren’t tough enough to force a selection.

The decisive action begins as the race returns to the cobbled climbs, with six ascents pummeling the packed into around 20km. After hitting the 11 percent slopes of the Kemmelberg at around 35km to go, it’s largely flat all the way into the line in Wevelgem.

The long stretch from the final climb into the finish tends to allow for splits to form and wiley attacks to be reeled in, making the race more friendly for the heavy sprinters such as last year’s winner, Alexander Kristoff – who won from a reduced bunch sprint.

Van der Poel and van Aert set to go head-to-head

van der Poel
Wout van Aert sees Mathieu van der Poel as the man to beat. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

This year’s race is missing two former champions, but that’s far from diminishing the field of brawlers set to line up in Gent on Sunday.

With 2016 and 2018 champion Peter Sagan battling for the points jersey in Italy and 2017 winner Greg van Avermaet out injured after crashing at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Belgian all-star Van Aert and Dutch phenom van der Poel sit firmly at the top of the list of contenders.

Van der Poel is back in form and has scores to settle. After taking stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Binck Bank Tour, including storming to the overall victory in the Belgian race with a long-range breakaway, the Dutchman was denied at the last moment by world champion Julian Alaphilippe at De Brabantse Pijl this week.

“I can’t forgive myself for messing this up,” van der Poel said after mistiming his sprint at Wednesday’s race. “This is going to make me sleep very badly.”

Mathieu is angry, and many fear him as the man to beat.

The Dutchman’s main opponent will be his long-time cyclocross foe van Aert. The 26-year-old has won or come close to winning anything he turned his eye toward since racing resumed in summer. Wout has stacked out his trophy cabinet with victories at Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo, stage wins at the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France, and two silver medals at the world championships since August. Following a fortnight of downtime after the Imola worlds, van Aert expects nothing but the best from his cobblestone campaign.

“I will ride three more races and start three times with the ambition to win,” van Aert said of Gent Wevelgem, Flanders, and Roubaix. “Sunday is not a preparation for De Ronde. It will be a tough race, with a lot of wind… Mathieu van der Poel will be the man to beat.”

Among those most likely to be shouldering with van der Poel and van Aert in the final kilometers into Wevelgem are Kristoff, John Degenkolb, and Oliver Naesen, who took the three steps of the podium last year.

Others to keep an eye on will be former world champion Pedersen, carrying form from three weeks in France and the Binck Bank Tour, Alberto Bettiol, Jasper Stuyen, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step dangermen Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert, and Sam Bennett.

How to watch

The race will be available to watch on Flo Bikes in the USA and Canada, and Eurosport and GCN Race TV in Europe. The race is likely to finish at around 16:00 CET / 10:00 ET.