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Road Culture

Throwback Thursday: Gent-Wevelgem now ranks up there with the best

A rescheduling to Sunday, a longer distance and a homage to World War I have helped elevate the status of Gent-Wevelgem on the international calendar.

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Gent-Wevelgem, which takes place Sunday, is one of the most prestigious one-day races in the world.

And it has only grown in stature, as it is now held on a weekend and is one of the jewels of the Flanders Classics series. Peter Sagan lines up this weekend hoping for a fourth victory.

That wasn’t always the case. The race used to be sandwiched between Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and was sometimes considered an afterthought race for many of the elite cobblestone bashers. It was also a race long favored for the fast finishers in the bunch.

Like everything on the International calendar, things change. A major reshuffling of the classics calendar saw the race move to a higher profile slot on the Sunday ahead of Flanders. Tweaks to the course also made it more challenging and a longer distance created a different kind of puzzle for the teams and riders to figure out.

Today, while not quite at monument status, the race is on a much higher level than it was at the dawn of the decade.

Also read in Throwback Thursday:

VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt dip into their memory banks every week with Throwback Thursday to explore some of the biggest names, races and places in the sport. Here are some of their thoughts on a very special race:

Where does Gent-Wevelgem rank among the northern classics?

Alexander Kristoff kicked to victory in 2019. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

James Startt: Well for me, Ghent-Wevelgem is just behind the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in stature. It is clearly above E3 or any of the mid-week races as well as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, even if that race benefits from opening weekend allure in February. In many ways, Ghent-Wevelgem is the first of the royal tryptic of cobbled classics, the first of three great weekends of racing. And if anything, it is a race that has really grown in stature. It too was once a mid-week race, but by extending the distance and putting it on a weekend it is one of those “almost monuments” like Strade Bianche, and a race that any rider would be very proud to win.

Andrew Hood: I would agree with James for the most part. I think for the true cobble-bashers out there, Harelbeke rates ahead of Gent-Wevelgem because it’s viewed as a “mini Flanders,” with many of the same sectors and bergs featured in the Ronde. I remember hearing from the likes of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara that E3 was the race they wanted to win behind Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. That being said, the prestige of Gent-Wevelgem has certainly ratcheted up during the past decade or so.

What was your favorite edition or winner?

Riders pick their way up the Kemmelberg in a recent edition of Gent-Wevelgem. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Hood: I am not sure if I’d call it my favorite, but I do remember covering the carnage of the the 2007 edition of Gent-Wevelgem when there were so many horrific crashes on the cobblestone descent off the Kemmelberg. Jimmy Casper crashed horribly among dozens of riders, and among them was a young Tyler Farrar, who broke his kneecap in the crash.

That incident provoked a big debate about the safety of descending on that sector of cobbles. I later visited Farrar at his home in Gent, Belgium, where he lived in apartment during his entire racing career right on the main canal in the lively student town.

Now a firefighter in Washington state, Farrar had hoped for bigger things in his career in the cobblestone classics. In 25 starts in monuments, he hit the top-10 only once, when he was fifth in the 2010 Tour of Flanders. Three days later he won Scheldeprijs, one of the most important wins in his career.

Startt: That is really hard to say. For years Gent-Wevelgem was a sleepy sort of mid-week race, tucked between Flanders and Roubaix. Often the big riders would ride for their teammates who would support them in the real monuments. And big riders like Johan Museeuw never even won this race.

But things changed when the race organizers shifted it to the weekend before Flanders and added nearly 50 kilometers of racing to it.

In addition, the connection to Flanders Fields and WWI gave it a historical stature that few other races have. So in my mind it is a very different race today. It is hard to come up with a favorite winner, but it has been a cornerstone of Peter Sagan’s career as he has won it three times.

Unfortunately I don’t always manage to cover this race, but I did in 2018 and it was a fabulous edition with this incredible battle on the Kemmelberg and Sagan finally triumphing with the rainbow stripes in Wevelgem, a wonderful prelude to his Roubaix masterpiece two weeks later.

Should the Kemmelberg descent be back in the race?

The Quick-Step train heading up the Kemmelberg in 2018.

Startt: Has it ever really been out of the race. After all, what goes up must come down, and we still climb the Kemmelberg on two occasions in the race. It’s a hard climb from pretty much every side, and a technical descent as well. And it is the signature climb of the race.

Bike racing is dangerous by nature and requires tremendous skills. I am all for cobbles in a grand tour as I don’t think a three-week race should only be decided in the climbs and time trials, and I am very hesitant to take out a key passage in a race because it is suddenly too dangerous. If that is the case one might as well cancel Paris-Roubaix entirely because every sector of cobbles is terribly dangerous.

Hood: Organizers routed the descent off the Kemmelberg onto less treacherous roads for good reason. It’s one thing to rumble over rough-hewn pavé at 45kph on the flat, but it’s quite something else at 75kph on the descent. Riders said if you touched your brakes you’d crash. That was too much. Racing on cobbles is inherently dangerous as it is, but descending at high speed is a touch too much.

Peter Sagan opening up winning sprint in 2018, which he won for the third time. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

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