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Preview: Sprint or attack? No guarantees at Gent-Wevelgem

Gent-Wevelgem offers up a unique tug-of-war between sprint stars and breakaway artists in one of Belgium's biggest WorldTour races.

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The northern classics continue Sunday at the 80th Gent-Wevelgem. With the fearsome Kemmelberg as its centerpiece, the race is always a tug-of-war between attackers and sprinters.

Fair weather is forecasted, and organizers have made the descent off the Kemmelberg much safer than it was a few years ago, but it’s the wind that is usually the main protagonist of Gent-Wevelgem.

Bunch sprint or attackers? That is the question for Gent-Wevelgem.

Despite its reputation as a sprinter’s course, the bunch has come in for a mass gallop only four times over the past decade. John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) won a sprint in 2014 and Tom Boonen (Quick-Step) won back-to-back sprints in 2011-2012. Oscar Freire won a sprint in 2007, but the other editions over the past 10 years have been won by attacking riders.

The bunch is usually thinned-down to about 60-70 riders, pummeled by crosswinds (remember Luca Paolini’s win in 2015?) in western Flanders and the cumulative effects of the mid-race climbs. The Kemmelberg, tackled two times in the 2017 edition, is usually the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Attacking riders pull clear, and it’s a drag race to the line.

New for 2017 are the so-called “plugstreets,” a kind of eco-friendly, grass farm road added to the route. The course also pays homage to World War I battlefields, and officially changed its name to Gent-Wevelgem — In Flanders Fields.

Read the Gent-Wevelgem women’s race preview >>

Who’s got the speed?

Gent-Wevelgem is drawing some top sprinters who parachute in, often straight from Milano-Sanremo to Belgium. Some will only race here and at Scheldeprijs, skipping the harsher, more challenging races at Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.

A few stand out: Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step), sixth in his debut last year, was second in the Sanremo bunch sprint to Arnaud Démare (FDJ), who led the bunch in behind Peter Sagan and three others. Both Démare and Gaviria will be working for a mass gallop, and shoot to the top of the favorites.

Other speedsters include Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), Dylan Groenwegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Degenkolb and Eduard Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), and Danny Van Poppel (Sky). Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), who’s never won Gent-Wevelgem, was not on preliminary start lists.

So far, it’s been hard to measure Degenkolb’s form, and the German typically prefers harder, more selective races.

And so far through the first few classics, Quick-Step has proven a powerhouse. Once again, some of the bigger wins have escaped them, but victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen and second with Philippe Gilbert at E3 Harelbeke mean that the Belgian outfit will be present in the breaks and with Gaviria and Boonen for the sprint.

Who can stay away?

All eyes will now be on Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), who’s been on a tear this spring, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke, with second at Strade Bianche. The Olympic champion is clearly on winning form, and has the legs to go the distance if the race tilts toward an escape.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be looking to make up for just missing victory at Milano-Sanremo. And after crashing in Harelbeke, the defending champion will be all-in for Gent-Wevelgem. Having Sam Bennett as a man for the sprint might help Sagan’s chances to save his legs if he’s part of a leading breakaway, meaning he won’t be the only one who will have to pull.

Sep Vanmarcke, second last year, will be leading a motivated Cannondale-Drapac crew, while defending Roubaix champion Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott) might want to stretch his legs before next week’s big races.

A few big names look to be skipping Gent-Wevelgem, including Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and Gilbert, perhaps looking to save their matches for next week’s Ronde. Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard (Sky), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) will try their luck in late-race moves.

And then there’s Boonen. Quietly eighth at Harelbeke, he’s shown glimpses of winning strength as he approaches his final shots at Flanders and Roubaix. He shares the record of three wins (with four others), and has indicated he’ll be riding for Gaviria if it comes down to a sprint.

But at 249km, that means Gent-Wevelgem is near “monument” distance, and it’s in that extra hour of racing that Boonen thrives in. Perhaps Tommeke has a surprise up his sleeve.