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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A Look at the Return of Cobble Season

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At times it has felt as if a map and a compass was the only way to navigate your way through the 2020 season. It has been almost stressful trying to keep up with the vast amounts of racing that seems to be on at any given time, though I know that I will feel lost once the season winds down in early November.

By Sadhbh O’Shea | Images by Chris Auld

The end is almost in sight and, amidst the flurry of big-ticket racing, the cobbled classics are about to begin. Gent-Wevelgem is the first test of form on the pavé for the tough men and women of the peloton.

It is not the first time that Gent-Wevelgem has featured in the autumn after its first edition in 1934 was held in September. It was moved around the seasons for a few years before settling in early spring in 1946. By the time it held the first elite women’s race in 2012 it was nestled into its current slot.

Having long featured as a post-Tour of Flanders hit-out, it got a promotion in 2010 when it was moved to the Sunday before it. Usually coupled with E3 Harelbeke (or the E3 BinckBank Classic as it is now known), it sits alone in the weekend after the organizers of the E3 pulled the plug for 2020.

With the sprinters’ race Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne the only other cobbled test for both men and women ahead of De Ronde, Gent-Wevelgem will be the primary opportunity for us to see how well the Flanders favorites are going ahead of the big day. There is added pressure for the classics contenders to produce the goods following the announcement that Paris-Roubaix would not go ahead.

As with the season in general, coronavirus has shaped the parcours of the one-day race. The exact route has largely been kept under wraps as organizers attempt to persuade fans to watch the race from the comfort of their own homes. We do know that the race start has been moved to the Menin Gate in Ieper to make it easier close it off to crowds while the finish line in Wevelgem is also off limits. A previously planned visit into France in the men’s race has also been removed from the route — a sage decision from the organizers given the cancelation of Paris-Roubaix.

We can still expect the race to visit three plugstreets as well as the Kemmelberg, Baneberg and Monteberg. The tightly packed string of hellingen in the second half of the race provides a whittling down process and a springboard for an attack. However, the long run from the top of the final berg to the finish line is a tough challenge for any escapee. While not the pure sprinter offering provided by De Panne, Gent-Wevelgem tends to favor those with a fast kick in their armory.

Alexander Kristoff lines up in the men’s race as the defending champion while Kirsten Wild has that honor in the women’s event. Kristoff, like many of the contenders, will be coming into the race off the back of the Tour de France. The Norwegian won the opening stage and wore the yellow jersey before a relatively quiet passage through to Paris. Kristoff thrives in these gritty sprint days and he should still have some form from la Grand Boucle.

Alexander Kristoff won Gent Wevelgem in 2019. Image: Chris Auld

Despite Kristoff holding the position of defending champion, the honor of pre-race favorite has to go to either Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel. The former cyclocross rivals have lit the men’s cycling world up this autumn and will undoubtedly be in it to win it on Sunday. Van der Poel will be burning from his mistake at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday and Gent-Wevelgem will be an opportunity to set the record straight. Van Aert has had time to come down from his disappointment at the World Championships, but he will be no less determined to return to the top step of the podium.

Mathieu van der Poel will be looknig for some big results in the classics. Image: Chris Auld

The two have not come up against each other since the season resumed and the possibility of them going head to head in Wevelgem is an exciting prospect. There are plenty of others in the mix, including Mads Pedersen, Matteo Trentin, Caleb Ewan, Pascal Ackermann and Sam Bennett, who last rode the race in 2015.

For Wild, the women’s race is the first real opportunity for her to test herself in a sprint in 2020. The two-time champion spent the early part of this year focused on the track and has only contested the Giro Rosa since racing resumed over the summer. Should she get to the line in the front group, there are few that can match her raw pace.

She will have to make it to the line in the front group, though, and there are plenty of riders with a fast kick that will be prepared to shake her off before the finish. As they often do, Boels-Dolmans will start the race flush with contenders, including Jolien D’hoore, Amy Pieters and Amalie Dideriksen. Meanwhile, Valcar-Travel&Service has Elisa Balsamo, Lotto Soudal comes with Lotte Kopecky, Lizzie Deignan starts for Trek-Segafredo and Coryn Rivera leads the line for Sunweb.

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