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Road Racing

Gent-Wevelgem: The contenders, climbs, crosswinds, and game of sprinters vs specialists

Preview: Will Lorena Wiebes and Lotte Kopecky "worx" more magic? And who can stop Wout van Aert and the Jumbo-Visma express?

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Date: Sunday, March 26, 2023
Men’s race: Ypres-Wevelgem, 261km, finish approx. 16:50 CET
Women’s race: Ypres-Wevelgem, 163km, finish approx 18:00 CET
Men’s race: Roll of honor: Biniam Girmay (2022), Wout van Aert (2021), Mads Pedersen (2020), Alexander Kristoff (2019), Peter Sagan (2018)
Women’s race: Roll of honor: Elisa Balsamo (2022), Marianne Vos (2021), Jolien D’Hoore (2020), Kirsten Wild (2019), Marta Bastianelli (2018)

Gent-Wevelgem, it’s the race that has a bit of everything.

It’s got climbs, cobbles, dirt roads, crosswinds, a rich historical resonance, and a can’t-miss sprinter vs climber dynamic.

Fully named “Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields,” Sunday’s almost-monument heralds the opening of the heaviest northern classics ahead of big hitter weekends at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

But Gent-Wevelgem is no mere tune-up race for cobble-bashers looking to open the engine for De Ronde.

It’s a prestigious addition to even the most illustrious palmarès and one of the harshest rides of the gritty Belgian spring.

A course that packs it all

That’s right. Echelons could be on the menu Sunday.

Gent-Wevelgem has a habit of bringing the bunch some of Belgium’s finest – aka foulest – conditions.

Both the men’s and women’s races venture north out of the start in Ypres and toward the Belgian coast, leaving the peloton exposed to gusting winds and grotty weather blowing in from the North Sea.

The exposed plains of West Flanders and some very stiff sea breezes have seen two of the four past editions of the men’s Gent-Wevelgem explode into race-deciding echelons from as early as the first hour.


Gent-Wevelgem women’s, 2023.

And if the winds don’t get an unwary racer, the climbs that follow sure will.

A full battery of bergs centering on loops of the infamous Kemmelberg fall within a 50km onslaught of Flanders’ finest leg-burners. The men take on a total of nine marked climbs, the women seven.

Starting around 60km out from the final of the women’s race and 100km out from the men’s, the so-called “hill zone” either drops the unprepared right there or leaves them swinging in the flat final.


Gent-Wevelgem men’s, 2023.

The addition in 2017 to the men’s race of three gravelly “plugstreets” brings the potential for even more chaos.

The farmer’s tracks aren’t the grind of dirt that derails racers at Strade Bianche and rarely prove decisive. However, packed into the middle of the “hill zone” and in the gateway to the final, the mucky lanes keep nerves jangling and pay homage to nearby World War I battlegrounds.

The streets are one of the race’s many marks of respect to a region once ravaged by battle in a route that passes dozens of war cemeteries and memorials.

And once all the climbs and gravel are out of the way, it’s a flat and frantic 35km pursuit race to the finish line as any groups that got away over the climbs work to fend off the chasing mob behind.

Contenders: A showcase for the modern sprinter?

Big bunch sprint or small group? It’s the dynamic that shapes the race.

Any rider wanting to win in Wevelgem needs to bring a bit of everything. Racing savvy for the crosswinds. Strong legs for the bergs. And perhaps most importantly, a big finishing kick to win out of a final group that could be anywhere between four and twenty-four riders.

Just look at the recent winners – riders like Wout van Aert, Marianne Vos, and Peter Sagan are the template for the strong sprinter that rules even the hardest finish.

But Gent-Wevelgem isn’t all about the individual.

To arrive fresh into Wevelgem with the speed for a sprint, any top contender needs to bring a workhorse with them over the final climb to take the wind and counter the threats through the flat 35km gallop for the line.

VeloNews’ top riders to watch:
Women’s race: Lorena Wiebes, Lotte Kopecky, Elisa Balsamo, Charlotte Kool, Marta Bastianelli, Coryn Labecki
Men’s race: Wout van Aert, Biniam Girmay, Mads Pedersen, Christophe Laporte, Jasper Philipsen, Alexander Kristoff

One week after missing out at Milan-San Remo, top favorite Wout van Aert will roar into Gent-Wevelgem with Christophe Laporte and Nathan van Hooydonck at his side and the Tour of Flanders in his eyes.

The Belgian baller topped the Wevelgem podium in 2021 and is hungrier than ever to get the first “W” on his 2023 stats sheet.

Trek-Segafredo’s best-buddy cobble bashers Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven are hunting the team’s first big one-day win in two years and pack the two-horse punch needed to dominate the final. The two both hit the top 10 in San Remo and have a history of success in Wevelgem.

And Soudal Quick-Step?

Tim Merlier, Yves Lampaert, and Davide Ballerini give “The Wolfpack” an option for all scenarios as it looks to avenge being made to look like cuddly cubs at “Opening Weekend” and again this week in Brugge-De Panne.

Elsewhere, there’s a whole bunch of outside contenders that could come over the Kemmelberg in contention for the win. De Panne-winner Jasper Philipsen, 2019 winner Alexander Kristoff, and history-making defending champion Biniam Girmay are all worth watching.

And no, sorry – neither Tadej Pogačar or Mathieu van der Poel are racing [sad face emoji].

And in the women’s race, guess what? SD Worx comes to the front of mind. If Lorena Wiebes survives the climbs, the Dutchwoman is a sure bet to crush a bunch sprint, and if she doesn’t, Lotte Kopecky will be there to do the honors in a small group of hard women.

But SD Worx won’t have it easy.

Trek-Segafredo will bring defending champ Elisa Balsamo and the recent Trofeo Alfredo Binda winner Shirin van Anrooij. The team has the wind at its sails after scooping a big win in Italy at Binda and will want to pack that confidence into their travel bags for Belgium.

Team DSM packs an outside chance with leadout rider turned star sprinter Charlotte Kool and on-form classics captain Pfeiffer Georgi. The team scored a handful of one-day top-10s already this season and Kool brings the perfect attributes to come good on her youthful team’s potential this weekend.

Other riders to watch include returning winner Marta Bastianelli and former Flanders winner Coryn Labecki, who leads Jumbo-Visma while Marianne Vos sits out.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.