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Do you hear that? The rattling of bottle cages on carbon, the distinct sound of tires flying over stone, a peloton frantically shifting through gears … It is time — the cobbled season is upon us.
The original schedule forecast a busy weekend for the teams, with the Amstel Gold Race and Gent-Wevelgem In Flanders Fields running back to back, but with Amstel canceled due to COVID restrictions in the Netherlands, the riders will now spend a lot less time driving between races.
In 1934, the first edition of the men’s Gent-Wevelgem took place in September. Now in these strange times, the race has returned to its birth-season. Usually, the more hardcore riders would be performing rain dances and hoping for the added madness of some wet cobblestones. With the shift of the calendar, these riders are in luck.
In spring the odds of having a wet race are high, and if the races had been held in the summer it’s possible we could have seen the warmest Classics season ever. A 50% chance of rain and 5-10 mph winds are predicted for Sunday, October 11, the day of the first of the cobbled classics. As we get closer to the race the predictions could change, but that’s part of the fun of these “transition” seasons.
Interestingly, the organizer of Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders Classics, has not published the route for its upcoming races. On the race’s website under “race information” it reads:
“On Sunday, October 11th Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields is on the program. Given the current health situation in Belgium, we as an organization call on you to follow the race at home. It was, therefore, decided not to release any information about the course”.
What we do know is that the peloton will line up under the Menin Gate in Ypres, the home of the In Flanders Fields Museum, which details the horrors of World War I in West Flanders. The gate itself is also a memorial to the war and the unknown British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell in the Ypres Salient, the battles around Ypres.
The crucial information on the course that we do know is that the final hour of racing is going to be nuts. Since the women’s race doesn’t cross into France, the course is supposedly similar to previous editions. The first two climbs are the Scherpenberg and the Vidaigneberg; the final climb will be the iconic Kemmelberg. After the Kemmelberg there is 35 km of relatively flat roads to the finish, where the race can either come back together or get completely blown apart.
The Kemmelberg is billed as the most crucial climb of the race, and even though it’s only 400 meters long, the fact that it’s cobbled and reaches gradients of 14% means it will have a role to play. However, the race has come down to a sprint in the last three editions. In 2019 the race was won by Kirsten Wild.
Riders to Watch
The pure sprinters have not been able to test their speed since early on in the pre-COVID season. Since the re-start of racing, it’s been strong riders going off the front and elite groups of the top names that have won the WorldTour races. Sure, there were a few sprint finishes at the Giro Rosa, but they were not sprint finishes like the ones we would see in the flat races, most of which have been canceled in 2020.
When looking through the race days of the sprinters on the start list for Gent-Wevelgem a lot of them have barely raced in 2020, making the act of picking riders to watch a little more interesting. Here are a few that are sure to impress on the Vanackerestraat in Wevelgem.
Lotte Kopecky (Lotto Soudal Ladies) – One of the few “pure sprinters” to be able to show off this season, Kopecky has been extremely impressive. Impressive enough to land herself a new contract on CCC-Liv for the 2021 season. Although, she may not be a pure sprinter anymore, after a few of her performances at the Giro Rosa.
The Belgian won the penultimate day of the Giro and walked away from the race with a third and second as well. After the Giro, she won the Belgian national road race title. She may have missed Worlds, but she won the bunch sprint in Brabantse Pijl on October 7, landing herself in fourth place after the three riders who were off the front. Kopecky has been building up to these races, and will likely be on the list of riders to watch for the next few as well, given how well she’s been going this season.
Team Sunweb – At Brabantse Pijl Sunweb took the second and third steps on the podium behind Grace Brown (Mitchelton-Scott), who was off the front solo. The team lining up for Gent-Wevelgem is a strong one. Coryn Rivera was the winner of Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2017 and has been one of the strongest sprinters in the peloton for years. Floortje Mackaij won Gent-Wevelgem in 2015 and has been getting stronger and stronger all season, timing her form perfectly for the next couple of races.
Liane Lippert won the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race earlier this year and was just recently second at Brabantse Pijl, fifth at the Worlds RR, and eighth at Flèche Wallonne. And finally, there’s Lorena Wiebes, who joined Sunweb partway into the season after a lot of talk about her jumping ship from Parkhotel Valkenburg mid-contract.
Wiebes is an incredible rider, with a long list of accomplishments so far in her career. Oddly, we have not seen a ton of Wiebes since changing her kit on June 1, probably partly due to the lack of racing in June and July. Wiebes was not able to defend her Dutch national road title, although she was up against the strongest rider of 2020 in Anna van der Breggen that day. She’s did win a race in Belgium this summer though, Grote Prijs Euromat on August 31.
Wiebes was second last year at Gent-Wevelgem and third in 2017, so she is no stranger to the course. Overall, Sunweb is lining up with one of the strongest squads on the start list, and most of the team would have been targeting these last races, so it’s likely we will see a lot of white and black on the front of the peloton in Wevelgem.
Emilia Fahlin (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) – Unfortunately Fahlin missed a good portion of the 2019 season due to a concussion. The Swedish rider was back for the World Championships in Yorkshire and the last couple of races of the season but did miss a lot of the key races. In 2020 she has had as many race days as the rest, only missing out on the second half of the Giro Rosa after going home before the start of stage 5 to recover from a stage 3 crash.
Her most recent result was fifth at Brabantse Pijl, second in the bunch sprint behind Kopecky. Going into these next races Fahlin is looking to be in good form. She can climb faster than the sprinters, so she will make it over the Kemmelberg no problem, and with fresher legs than some of the others, but she’s got a kick on her, so if anything goes in the final 35 km after the climb, Fahlin will be there.
Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) – After an incredible third-place performance at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and also some strong showings at the Giro Rosa, Van Dijk looks more than ready for the top step in the cobbled Classics. When Paris-Roubaix announced a women’s edition in 2020 one name came to mind immediately, and that was Ellen van Dijk. Sixteen days before the first-ever women’s Paris-Roubaix on October 25 the race announced that it would not take place in 2020, due to COVID. Be that as it may, Van Dijk is finding her form at the perfect moment to take a late season victory.
At the finish of LBL, she didn’t wait for the sprint but rather powered away from the rest of the riders in her group, so fast that when Marianne Vos did sprint she couldn’t catch up. With that result on her mind and Van Dijk’s ability in the Classics, she is hands down a favorite for Gent-Wevelgem.
Chloe Hosking (Rally) – Since Hosking is on a non-WorldTour team this year there were a bunch of races that the Australian rider missed out on; that the team was either not invited to or was unable to get to because of COVID. Even without those races under her belt this season Hosking still has a few wins in the last month, most recently at the Grand Prix International d’Isbergues in the Netherlands and the final stage of the Tour Cycliste Féminin International d’Ardèche in France.
Hosking has always been an incredible sprinter, with a win on the Champs-Élysées at La Course in 2016, two general classification wins at the Tour of Chongming Island — a sprinters race — and a stage win at each of the last four Santos Tours Down Under. If Hosking is ever in a race that looks likely to come down to a sprint finish, she is a favorite to win.
There are a few notable riders who should not be forgotten. Firstly, Grace Brown (Mitchelton-Scott), who won Brabantse Pijl solo after placing second at Liège-Bastogne-Liége, also solo. Brown is putting herself forward as one of the riders capable of filling the shoes that Annemiek van Vleuten will leave behind at Mitchelton-Scott when she joins Movistar next season.
Brown’s teammate Gracie Elvin also deserves a mention. Elvin just announced that she will be stepping away from cycling after an 11-year career. She has barely raced this year but these next couple of races are some of her favorites. She has been second at Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2017, second at Ronde van Drenthe in 2016, and second in Dwars Door Vlaanderen in 2017. It’s no secret that Elvin loves the Classics, and even if she isn’t going to be on the top step of Gent-Wevelgem, she has most definitely earned a shout-out, or 10.
Finally, an interesting omission from the race is Marianne Vos (CCC). The Dutchwoman did not start Brabantse Pijl due to a positive COVID test within the team. Vos finished fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and has been looking strong all season. The reasoning behind her not racing Gent-Wevelgem might have something to do with the positive COVID test, however, four of the CCC-Liv riders on the roster for GW were also supposed to start Brabantse Pijl.
Hopefully, there is more information to come on Vos, and we see her on the start line for the final races of the year.
Where to Watch
Gent-Wevelgem can be found on all the usual channels: Flo Sports in North America, SBS in Australia, and Eurosport (and its digital platforms) in Europe and elsewhere. Since the race organizers have asked for no fans to actually be at the race, it’s possible we will be watching a woman’s race from start to finish, just as we did at Brabantse Pijl a few days ago.