- Published on Thursday, 27 March 2014 21:55
Sunday 30th March, 212kms
He is just the latest rider to be struck down with illness this season, there's been quite a long list of casualties in recent weeks. Richie Porte is also reportedly in doubt for the Giro because of the Gastroenteritis he has been suffering from in the last week or so.
Gent Wevelgem is another step though for the rest of the healthy peloton towards the monuments to come in the weeks ahead. It may have its cobbled sections, including the famous Kemmelberg it is generally a sprinters race, hence all the big guns are here. With the withdrawal of Cavendish, Reigning champion Peter Sagan has become favourite following his powerful showing and victory in the E3 Harelbeke on Friday over the cobbles. But he will be joined by some seriously good competition, some who are better out and out sprinters than he is. Men like André Greipel, MSR champ Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Arnaud Démare, Sacha Modolo and a resurgent Tyler Farrar.
Sagan won this pulling wheelies last year after soloing away in the last 4kms from a group of 10 in a race that had been shortened by some 90kms because of extremely cold weather conditions. But with the wind often having a major impact on the race it's not always a big bunch that gets to fight out the finish. Edvald Boasson Hagen (09), Bernie Eisel (10), Boonen (12) and Sagan (13) have won from reduced bunches and small breaks.
Tom Boonen has a great record in this race, like in most Belgian Classics, winning it in 2012 and 2011 and again as far back as 2004 when he beat Magnus Backsted as a prodigious 23-year old. It was a fantastic E3 Harelbeke on Friday with Cancellara looking like a machine at times when trying to chase back on after a crash, Sagan won it with power and style, Geraint Thomas showed similar form to last year when hitting a top three and OPQS did everything but win. It sets it up nicely then for a cracking race on Sunday.
The race starts in Deinze and heads in a west-north-west direction towards the coast until they reach Adinkerkeand then start heading south back inland. Things start to get interesting (unless the winds near the coast have already caused splits) when they reach the south-western corner of the course and head in to the Hellingen, or cobbled climbs.
There are nine key Hellingen which could cause breaks to go and splits to happen, they are listed in the graphic below. The first one (Casselberg) comes after 115kms and the last one (Monteberg) comes after 197kms with just 26kms to go. The Casselberg or Mont Cassel as it is known, may be cobbled but there are large sections of it that have been tarmacked over so it isn't all that difficult on the face of it, but it hits 19% in parts!
The Kemmelberg is similar in that it is partly paved, partly cobbled but can be very rough in parts and is one of the steepest slopes in the whole country. The ascent is steep and rough, but the descent is even worse - a very narrow, dangerous track that barely passses as a road. It has been used as a launch pad for attacks before, such as in 2007 when Marcus Burghardt blew it apart on the descent with four others before he went on to win. Same the year before when Hushovd won it after escaping with a bunch of 32 riders on the roads after the top of the Kemmelberg.
That and the Monteberg are the last opportunities for breaks to go so the sprinters and their teams will need to be on their guard as the run in to the finish is pretty flat and straight and perfect for setting up their speedsters.
Contenders and Favourites
Peter Sagan comes here as hot favourite after his comfortable victory in the E3 Harelbeke on Friday. He has a lot going for him - the reigning champ, who soloed away from the rest last year, he was also second the year before in the sprint behind Boonen. He looked a little at odds a week or so ago but definitely seemed in much better shape on Friday, even if he was dropped on the Kwaremont when G and Terpstra put the hammer down. He showed the power he has though by easily getting back on and then instigating the winning move when it did come to split the final break.
There are a few ways that he could win this - another solo victory isn't out of the question, possibly from a reduced peloton like last year. Or if it is fast and hard he could be one of few sprinters that make it to the line in a small break and would be very hard to beat in the sprint. But the thing that concerns me is that if it does come down to a bigger bunch sprint then he is beatable by some of the speedier types in a flat-out sprint.
One of those speedier types who I really like for tomorrow is André Greipel. He is also in good form, was very unlucky at the MSR as he almost hung on all the way up the Poggio, but when he crested the top he was maybe 10" off the leaders. This meant he had to chase really hard for the last 6kms or so and when he finally made it back on he suffered from cramps and was unable to contest the sprint.
That was unusual for him but that was after 294kms in horrible conditions but I think he will be fired up for this and the Lotto train will look after him very well. They have a super strong squad here with Jurgen Roelandts, Debuschere, Bak, Gallopin and Sieberg to tow him to the line and I fully expect them to deliver him to the last 300m. He was 9/2 early in the week with 888 Sport and I thought that looked ok, but BetVictor have come out with 6/1 and I think that is a good bet. I'm backing him to win at 6/1 (back him each-way if you want more chance of a return if he gets pipped) but instead I am also backing him for a top 3 finish with 888 Sport at 11/10, works out better for the place element than backing him at 6/1 (pays equivalent of only 1/4 if he only finishes 2nd or 3rd)
Arnaud Démare is here and he likes a long tough day in the saddle with a a hard sprint at the end. If he gets to the finish with the winning move then he has a great chance - it's going to be up to Lotto-Belisol, Cannondale and Katusha to push it hard in the Hellingen to try to shake the likes of Démare off. I'm not tempted at 14/1 for that reason, he doesn't have a great team with him and he may find himself exposed.
Alexander Kristoff was a brilliant winner for me of MSR and will be full of confidence, but I'm not sure what frame of mind he might turn up in. It's different when you are say Luca Mezgec at the Volta where you have no distractions and you are focused on the next stage and your form is red hot. With Kristoff he has had a week of interviews, celebrations, distractions and so on and he may be just off the boil a little after such a high last week. For that reason I am leaving him too.
Tom Boonen of course has a great chance, being a multiple winner with a great team with him but he didn't seem in great form for the E3 and his mind might understandably be elsewhere for a little while. He has also injured his thumb in a crash in the E3 so he won't be going too hard with Flanders only a week away. Maybe it's a case of getting another race out of the way before the big one next weekend.
John Degenkolb is an interesting contender - he was going really well in the E3, at one point being one of the few to hold on to Geraint Thomas and Terpstra when they did put the hammer down. He did fade towards the end but he was impressive I thought. This is far easier in terms of terrain and he could be one of those that might make the final selection if there is a split at the front. He would be my second choice behind Greipel I think. 10/1 looks interesting as does the 9/4 with 888 Sport to finish in the top 3.
Fabian Cancellara was super impressive in his chase back on Friday in the E3, it was insane at times how quickly he was going past some of the back markers. He couldn't do it all himself though and I think once he realised they were not getting back on he wound things down and saved himself. I think tomorrow could be a training ride ahead of Flanders so I am not interested in backing him at 16/1 with 888 Sport and definitely not the 6/1 with BetVictor.
You then have the likes of Sacha Modolo who could go well and the in-form Tyler Farrar who could be a good shout for the top 3 at 7/1. Farrar 'won' the sprint in the Dwar Doors Vlaanderen during the week, but unfortunately for him Terspstra was already doing winner's interviews. He has a love for the Flanders races and area as he lives in Ghent and I think at 7/1 for a top 3 he is worth a chance. Sam Bennett of NetApp Endura and Ciolek of MTN could also have a say in the sprint. At 66/1 I am tempted to have a few quid on Bennett but as he's new to the cobbles I fear he may not make it to the finish with the leaders.
Of course there are plenty of others who could have a say in this - the longer range, breakaway power men like Greg Van Avermaet, Geraint Thomas, Pozzato, Phinney and so on who could look to split things on the Kemmelberg and get rid of all the sprinters. But I'm sticking with my main sprinter picks above and hoping to get one or two of them to land at least.
André Greipel - 1.5pts win at 6/1 with Bet Victor
André Greipel - 2.5pts to finish in the top 3 at 11/10 with 888 Sport
Tyler Farrar - 1pt to finish in the top 3 at 7/1 with 888 Sport
John Degenkolb - 1pt to finish in the top 3 at 9/4 with 888 Sport
AG2R La Mondiale
Astana Pro Team
Belkin-Pro Cycling Team
BMC Racing Team
48.VAN AVERMAET Greg
54.FISCHER Murilo Antonio
63.NORMAN HANSEN Lasse
67.VAN BAARLE Dylan
Lampre - Merida
78.RICHEZE Ariel Maximiliano
81.BAK Lars Ytting
95.LOBATO Juan Jose
97.ROJAS José Joaquin
Omega Pharma - Quick-Step
133.DE KORT Koen
136.JANSE VAN RENSBURG Reinardt
151.BOASSON HAGEN Edvald
Trek Factory Racing
178.VAN POPPEL Boy
182.OCHOA Carlos José
187.VAN HUMMEL Kenny
Cofidis, Solutions Crédit en Ligne
MTN - Qhubeka
217.THOMSON Jay Robert
Team NetApp – Endura
Wanty - Groupe Gobert
231.DE TROYER Tim
232.DE VREESE Laurens
244.VAN ASBROECK Tom
245.VAN HOECKE Gijs