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Your new favorite race: Gent-Wevelgem

Gent-Wevelgem has potential to favor the sprinters, but could a breakaway succeed, as it did in 2016 when Peter Sagan won?

Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. Great news: There are tons of cycling races all season! Less-great news: Like trying to pick an ice cream flavor at Ben & Jerry’s, tons of choices can be overwhelming. So, we’ll try to help out by giving you quick, fun overviews of major races. Stay tuned for more previews.

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Your new favorite race: Gent-Wevelgem, March 26

Why should you care about this race? With Gent-Wevelgem scheduled merely one week before Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), the Super Bowl of Belgian cycling, this race is a showcase of top classics talent, a first course in a fortnight of cobblestone feasts. [Please do not attempt to eat cobblestones -Ed.] But apart from its position in the leading edge of the northern classics wave, Gent-Wevelgem affords intriguing race dynamics. Traditionally, it is a sprinter’s classic, with past champions including Mario Cipollini, Thor Hushovd, Tom Steels, and Tom Boonen, back when “Tommeke” had a proclivity for field sprints. The 2017 route, with 34 kilometers between the final hill — the 500-meter long Kemmelberg — and the finish could favor a sprint. But the past two editions have been won out of small groups. So will the break stick again?

Most dramatic edition in recent memory? Sprint aficionados may gripe, but the most dramatic days are when the break wins at Gent-Wevelgem, and fans were treated to an epic edition in 2015 when Luca Paolini won solo. Yes the “E” word is overused in bike racing. But fans who watched that race will never forget the insanely windy, rainy weather. How windy? Like blow-your-bike-into-a-canal windy.

Gent-Wevelgem 2015 was a very windy (sometimes wet) affair. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

It was so windy that Sky’s Geraint Thomas made the break, got blown off the road, crashed, and still managed to catch back on with the winning group of six.

With rain and howling winds at the 2015 Gent-Wevelgem, we probably could have created an entire gallery of crash photos from that race alone. Geraint Thomas crashed out of the lead group, but was able to chase back and finish third. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

What a day. Fans even staged a reenactment of 2015 Gent Wevelgem at this year’s Cape Town Cycle Tour in South Africa.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a reenactment … Anyway, back to the race:

The final group boiled down to Quick-Step teammates Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh, Thomas, Katusha’s Luca Paolini, LottoNL-Jumbo’s Sep Vanmarcke, and Lotto-Soudal sprinter Jens Debuscherre. As they played cat-and-mouse with 6km to go, Paolini snuck away — not a violent attack, but enough to get a gap. The chase hesitated, perhaps unwilling to tow Debuscherre to the line, and that was all the Italian needed to become the oldest Gent-Wevelgem winner at 38 years old. Bonus: Fans enjoyed the schadenfreude of superteam Quick-Step botching another classics finale when it had a numbers advantage.

Your race’s defining feature: At the risk of sounding too philosophical, Gent-Wevelgem’s feature is the lack of a feature, at least in that 30km run to the finish after the final hill, the Kemmelberg, or in some prior editions, the Monteberg. This give fans an exiting “Will they? Won’t they?” dynamic in the finale, especially like in 2013, when Peter Sagan soloed to his first classics win. Organizers are also trying to spice up the route with three 5km sectors of dirt road or plugstreets — farm roads. This isn’t exactly going to turn the 249km route into Dirty Kanza, but hey, we might get some good photos from the new feature.

But the thing is … You know that feeling on Christmas morning, when you were sure the huge box under the tree contained an awesome toy, but then, turns out it was just 32 volumes of “Encyclopedia Brittanica?” We cycling fans come into Gent-Wevelgem with a head of steam, hoping for a real classics battle, and sometimes the controlled sprint finale doesn’t scratch our itch. Here’s hoping it’ll be another thriller on Sunday.

Ladies first? There is a Women’s WorldTour race earlier on Sunday, and unlike the men’s race, this one has favored the breakaway since it first ran in 2014, when American Lauren Hall won. The final challenge in the 150km race, the 1,000-meter long Monteberg, comes about 46km from the finish, so there is potential for the race to regroup for a bunch sprint. Still, Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) won last year by a whopping 1:24 over the field.

Who are you betting your beer money on this year? With warm weather and moderate winds predicted, it feels like Gent-Wevelgem 2017 could go to the sprinters, in which case Quick-Step’s Fernando Gaviria is a good pick after he missed out on Milano-Sanremo, his major spring appointment. If the women’s race ends with a big bunch, Blaak could repeat, as she’s a capable sprinter after a long, difficult day.