Mercury rider places second
By Bryan JewVeloNews Senior Writer
At last! American George Hincapie can finally breathe a big sigh of relief, after taking home a major classics win for the first time in his career. The U.S. Postal Service rider made it look almost easy as he won the 63rd edition of Ghent-Wevelgem on Wednesday afternoon in Wevelgem, Belgium. And while it was close at the finish — the tall New York native just barely edged Mercury-Viatel’s Leon Van Bon at the line — Hincapie had all the right moves throughout the 215km ride through western Belgium.
It was a blustery Belgian day, starting out windy and rainy at the Parc Citadel in Ghent. The rain would let up, but the wind never did, and the peloton was split into tight echelons throughout the early part of the day, as it made its way west toward the port town of Oostende.
By the time the race reached the North Sea, the sun was beginning to poke through, but there had already been some early casualties, including defending champion Geert Van Bondt (Mercury-Viatel) who crashed in an echelon in the strong crosswinds, and is expected to be unable to race for three weeks with an injured leg.
Out front, a group of four — Jens Voight, Anthony Charteau, Tom Desmet and Danny Baeyens — had broken away from the start, but although they gained a maximum of eight minutes, they would be caught well before the real heart of Ghent Wevelgem, the 23km circuit beginning at the 139km mark, heading back inland, that the riders travel one-and-a-half times, and which includes four climbs: the Vidaigneberg, the Rodeberg, the Monteberg and the 10-percent grade, cobblestoned Kemmelberg.
It was on the first time up the Kemmelberg that the critical break occurred. Following an attack by Cofidis’s Chris Peers, a group of 14 separated itself just over the top: Romans Vainsteins (Domo-Farm Frites), Nico Eeckhout (Lotto-Adecco), Van Bon, Hincapie, Arvis Piziks (CSC-World Online), Biagio Conte (Saeco), Gabriele Balducci (Tacconi-Vini Caldirola), Daniele Nardello (Mapei-Quick Step), Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Telekom’s Erik Zabel and Steffen Wesemann, and Cofidis’s Nico Mattan and Peers.
On the following circuit, Hincapie was near the front on each climb, easily staying with Wesemann on the second time up the Kemmelberg, and feeling strong.
“I felt like I was definitely one of the strongest at Flanders [on Sunday] and was disappointed that we didn’t catch the breakaway. So today the main thing was to stay out of trouble,” he said. “The wind on the coast was so difficult that the easiest place to be was at the front, so I stayed at the front all day and when it got to the Kemmel, I tried to make the group a little smaller, but unfortunately the group was 20 guys and they were all 20 sprinters, and I needed to try and make it even smaller.”
But the group was still 14 after the second time up the Kemmelberg, and fell back into an echelon as it headed toward the finish, still fighting heavy cross winds.
Finally, with 19km remaining, Mattan made a move just before the town of Zandvoorde. Van Bon and Wesemann went with him right away, and a few moments later Hincapie closed gap, followed by Piziks, and the winning move of five was set.
And with the win in his sights, Hincapie didn’t leave anything to chance, chasing down breakaway attempts by Mattan and Piziks. “I knew there were going to be attacks from Nico Mattan and Piziks,” he said, “and I knew I’d have to close those gaps, even if it meant using a little more energy.”
With the group intact heading into the long straightaway finish in Wevelgem, all that was left was to figure out how to play the sprint. “I took a little bit of a risk and stayed at the back, and the last 100 meters I had to give it everything, and it worked out,” Hincapie said.
It worked out, but just barely. At first he thought that it was a photofinish, but when the news broke that he was the winner, the American broke out into a huge grin, and began to accept the congratulations for a long anticipated classics win.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” he said. “I’m always there, I’m always close, but to finally win a big race is very important for me.”
63rd GHENT-WEVELGEM, Belgium. April 11.
1. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, 215km in 5:00:00; 2. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Mercury-Viatel; 3. Steffen Wesemann (G), Telekom; 4. Arvis Piziks (Lat), CSC-World Online; 5. Nico Mattan (B), Cofidis, all s.t.; 6. Nico Eeckhout (B), Lotto-Adecco, at 0:42; 7. Chris Peers (B), Cofidis, s.t.; 8. Daniele Nardello (I), Mapei-Quick Step, at 0:42; 9. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom, at 1:15; 10. Gabrielle Balducci (I), Tacconi Sport-Vini Caldirola; 11. Thor Hushovd (N), Credit Agricole; 12. Biagio Conte (I), Saeco, all s.t.; 13. Romans Vainsteins (Lat), Domo-Farm Frites, at 1:26; 14. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 2:24; 15. Gianluca Bortolami (I), Tacconi-Vini Caldirola, at 6:03; 16. Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus), U.S. Postal Service; 17. Henrik Van Dyck (B), Lotto-Adecco; 18. Servais Knaven (Nl), Domo-Farm Frites; 19. Franck Renier (F), Bonjour; 20. Saulius Ruskys (Lit), Gerolsteiner; 21. Davide Bramati (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 22. Roger Hammond (GB), Collstrop-Palmans; 23. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Credit Agricole; 24. Fabio Sacchi (I), Saeco; 25. Lars Michaelsen (Dk), Coast; 26. Mauro Radaelli (I), Tacconi-Vini Caldirola; 27. Oscar Cavagnis (I), Saeco; 28. Bert Hiemstra (Nl), Bankgiroloterij-Batavus; 29. Koen Beeckman (B), CSC-World Online; 30. Antonio Cruz (USA), U.S. Postal Service, all s.t.
56. Johan Museeuw (B), Domo-Farm Frites, at 6:13; 57. Matt White (Aus), U.S. Postal Service; 59. Franco Ballerini (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 61. Jeroen Blijlevens (Nl), Lotto-Adecco