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Should Gent-Wevelgem keep dirt roads in its route?

Reactions from riders and sport directors were mixed regarding the inclusion of dirt sections in Sunday's race.

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WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — Here in Flanders, the national sporting discussion this week revolved around the Ploegsteert, or “Plugstreets,” the sandy dirt segments that were added to Gent-Wevelgem this year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the opinions were negative.

On Wednesday, rider Jan Bakelands (Ag2r La Mondiale) told Sporza that, “One Strade Bianche is enough.” Quick-Step Floors team manager Patrick Lefevere then told Het Nieuwsblad that the founders of the race must be “turning over in their graves.” After the finish, BMC Racing’s Daniel Oss said, “Maybe it’s spectacular on the TV, but in the bunch, it’s pretty dangerous.”

Trek-Segafredo director Dirk Demol, who won the 1988 Paris-Roubaix, called the dirt “unnecessary.”

“If it was up to me they would never include them again,” Demol said after the race. “Gent-Wevelgem is 250 kilometers, and we already have the Muur and the Kemmel[berg] and many other climbs — why do we need this?”

Why do people support the Plugstreets? Why do they hate them? As a North American cycling fan, it’s easy to feel so detached from an important Belgian argument like this one. Before coming to a final take on this topic, let us weigh the pros and cons.

Pro: Dirt is great

Flanders Classics announced the addition of the dirt to Gent-Wevelgem in November. As it turns out, we North Americans aren’t the only ones with a newfound love of dirt and gravel. In Europe, the elevation of Strade Bianche to the WorldTour in 2017, and the recent popularity of French races Tro-Bro Leon and Belgium’s Schaal Sels is a testament to the popularity of dirty racing.

I recommend everyone read Ryan Newill’s race feature on Schaal-Sels from our November/December print issue of VeloNews. Dirt racing is exciting, and it helped bring these races worldwide attention.

Con: There’s already plenty of dirt

The newfound appreciation for these races does raise the question: Have we reached peak dirt? And another question: Is Gent-Wevelgem just jumping on a fashionable trend? Gent-Wevelgem already features a challenging course, due to the two trips up the Kemmelberg and the brutal crosswinds that blow in from the North Sea. It also has 79 years of history. Does it need to jump on a bandwagon?

Retired Tour de France and Giro d’Italia stage winner (and Roompot Orange team director) Johan van der Velde said that it now feels like the classics races are all cramming in some dirt. “Dirt road is for Paris-Roubaix and Strade Bianche, but not in every race,” van der Velde said. “Why must every classics look to have dirt?” Good question, Johan.

Pro: Different tactics means a less formulaic race

At first glance, the Plugstreets did not impact the race’s outcome. The attacks on the dirt went nowhere. The Kemmelberg once again created the final major split. Greg Van Avermaet won just days after winning E3 Harelbeke.

The dirt roads, however, did have an impact on the riders. In the old format, that section of the race used to include 10km of wide roads. Riders used these roads to recover from the bergs. American Tyler Farrar told me that this year there was no recovering.

“You used to be able to eat and drink a bit and get back to the front if you were behind,” Farrar said. “Now it’s single-file through the whole section.”

For the record, Farrar supports the inclusion of dirt. “I think you’re going to see less of a chance of a big field sprint in Gent-Wevelgem anymore,” he said. “They’ve changed all of these races so much. These races all barely resemble the classics from back when I turned pro.”

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Con: The danger element

Every dissenter I spoke with brought up the element of danger inherent in dirt roads. Luckily, Belgium was unseasonably sunny and dry on Sunday. Would the roads become a hazard on a rainy day?

Demol had a team employee videotape a reconnaissance ride of the sectors, and he showed the video to his team Saturday night to help them avoid danger. “They said everything went well today, but that is easy — what if there is rain next time?” Demol said. “The risks for crashes are always bigger.”

Van der Velde said the dangerous conditions could put him in a challenging situation when directing Roompot’s young, inexperienced riders. “When it rains it’s too dangerous,” he said. “It’s very difficult to tell them, ‘Take it easy’ because you also want them to go with the group. It is tricky.”

Pro: New identity for Gent-Wevelgem

Several years ago, Flanders Classics officially changed the name of Gent-Wevelgem to “Gent-Wevelgem-In Flanders Fields” to incorporate the name of the 1915 war poem that now graces World War I museums, cemeteries, and battlefield monuments dotting the Flemish countryside.

Gent-Wevelgem’s course crosses perhaps more World War I sites than any other Flemish race. The first and second battles of Ypres, as well as Passchendaele, all occurred along the route, and today, the entire area is dotted by memorials, mostly for Commonwealth soldiers (British, Canadian, etc.)

Traditionally, Gent-Wevelgem has skirted these sites. The Plugstreets, by contrast, take riders directly through a handful of sites, including the supposed spot of the famed 1914 Christmas Truce, the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, and others.

A cynic might see the Plugstreets and In Flanders Fields branding as a way to lure cycling tourists from Great Britain, Australia, and other Commonwealth countries (which just happen to support successful cycling teams these days). A more credulous take is that Flanders Classics hopes to attach some emotion and history to its second most-popular race.

Dimension Data’s Jay Thomson sees it as the latter. “I think it’s cool what they’ve done. They’re going past memorials that are there for a reason. Many people died there. If I get to race through there it’s an honor. It brings more prestige to the race.”

Final Take: Keep the dirt

I understand why team directors like Demol, van der Velde, and Lefevere hate the Plugstreets. Dirt roads present yet another opportunity for their star riders to crash and burn.

I still think Gent-Wevelgem should keep the dirt.

Bunch sprints are for grand tour stages. Classics should be decided by tactics and mano y mano grit. If the Plugstreets help weed some of the heavy sprinters out of the finale, then I’m all for their inclusion. Plus, as an American cycling fan, I support any effort to elevate Gent-Wevelgem’s profile. The race already has its own Sunday, so why not give it more of an clear global identity? And if Gent-Wevelgem helps a new generation of cycling fans to better appreciate European history, then hey, bonus.