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Gent-Wevelgem 2024 – Analysing the contenders

The spring Classics wave is quickly building with Gent-Wevelgem set to add to the Belgian swell on Sunday as rivals continue to jostle for peak takeoff positions as the cobbles, climbs, and at times fierce winds, add to the chaos and excitement of the race from Ypres to Wevelgem.

The races on the run into the 253km men’s event and 171.2km women’s event have already shone a spotlight on some key riders who are expected to be chasing the win on Sunday. The world champions Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) are of course two names that are impossible to ignore, though with the strength of their team options, including Jasper Philipsen and Lorena Wiebes, you can’t even be assured that the rainbow clad riders will be their top team card on race day.

Then, of course, there are plenty of rivals lined up who will be looking to not only take a win but also build momentum to the next Monument on the calendar, the Tour of Flanders. In the men’s race in Gent, anticipation will of course focus on Visma-Lease a Bike. The squad may not have Wout van Aert this year, but no doubt the team will want to try to defend the title won by Christophe Laporte, whether won by him or another Visma rider. While in the women’s event, Lidl-Trek and Elisa Balsamo are on a roll after the Italian claimed victory at both Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Brugge-De Panne. Could it perhaps turn into three in a row in Wevelgem?

As the anticipation builds toward Sunday, Cycling News delves further into the top contenders.

Lotte Kopecky and Lorena Wiebes (SD Worx-Protime)

World Champion Lotte Kopecky has had a strong start to her a season with an overall victory at UAE Tour followed by second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a pair of wins at Strade Bianche and Nokere Koerse. She also filled in for her injured teammate Chantal van den Broek-Blaak at Trofeo Alfredo Binda where she finished second behind Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek).

Although Wiebes might be the faster sprinter of the two, she crashed at Nokere Koerse, rendering her unable to race her targeted Classic Brugge-De Panne. In fact, the SD Worx team had to pull out of De Panne altogether due to multiple rider injuries. 

While Wiebes would normally be a favourite at a race like Gent-Wevelgem, she is somewhat of a dark horse, given her recent recovery, meaning, the team could put their focus entirely on Kopecky for the win.

Olav Kooij and Christophe Laporte (Visma-Lease a Bike)

Christophe Laporte has not experienced a smooth spring to date, but his Visma-Lease a Bike team hopes that extra rest days this week will provide the spark he needs at Gent-Wevelgem. After all he’s the defending champion. But with question marks surrounding sound health and last year’s runner-up Wout van Aert not in attendance, then Visma-Lease a Bike looks to keep the crown with the team and will turn to quickly-developing Olav Kooij as their leader.

Laporte was forced to abandon Milan -San Remo on the Capo Berta with just under 40km to go, his team reporting that he felt ill. He was taken off the roster for E3 Saxo Classic in order to rest up for Sunday’s defence at Gent-Wevelgem. Kooij, however, had a strong debut at Milan-San Remo with 14th overall.

“Olav has developed well over the last few years and shows great things. He was already outstanding at Gent-Wevelgem last year. He has a good chance in the upcoming edition, especially if the race turns into a sprint with a big group. But we will not be the overwhelming favourites on Sunday,” sports director Grischa Niermann said.

That’s despite the overwhelming force of last year’s effort, when Laporte broke away with teammate Van Aert on the Kemmelberg and they rode the final 50km together for a 1-2 finish, Van Aert giving way to Laporte so the Frenchman could win. Should Laporte feel strong on Sunday, he may just look to support to the 22-year-old Dutchman, who has a win from Clasica de Almeria to start the year and two stage wins from Paris-Nice. After all, Kooij did ride at Gent-Wevelgem last year and was an impressive eighth.

Emma Norsgaard (Movistar)

Emma Norsgaard leads Movistar into the cobbled Spring Classics, one of her favourite blocks of the racing season. The team has a winning sprinter in Arlenis Sierra, but Norsgaard will likely be the focus for this part of the season, given her motivation and skillset over the cobbled terrain, in breakaways and in bunch sprints.

The Danish all-rounder has had a good start to the year, ramping her form up at the UAE Tour and then securing a couple of top tens at the lower-level races Omloop van het Hageland and Nokere Koerse.

There is a strong indication that Norsgaard is preparing for the bigger cobbled races of Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix so watch for her to make a jump up in her performances over the next two weeks.

Mathieu van der Poel and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck)

Fresh off the first Monument victory of his career, Jasper Philipsen is the hottest commodity this month when it comes to spring Classics. His victory on Via Roma at Milan-San Remo was a high-speed battle against Michael Matthews (Jayco-AlUla), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) and eight others. Philipsen then proved a point in another sprint three days later where he also claimed the win at Classic Brugge-De Panne. 

The Belgian sprinter looks to go three-for-three as he makes his sixth appearance at Gent-Wevelgem. His best finish at his home cobbled Classic was 11th when he rode in the U23 race as a 20-year-old for Hagens Berman Axeon.

Of course, last Saturday’s explosive finish on Via Roma for Philipsen was also in part due to his teammate and four-time Monument winner Mathieu van der Poel chasing down late breakaways. Van der Poel would work for his teammate and finish 10th.

Van der Poel has never won Gent-Wevelgem, and this year the route seems to favour his flourish for varied terrain, as the course has added three sections of unpaved roads in a five-kilometre stretch, cobblestones and climbs across both sides of the Kemmelberg, the final ascent topping off at 23% gradient.

Philipsen is in new personal territory, the 26-year-old riding a tidal wave of success. Will his legs be fresh enough to withstand the nine climbs in the final 100 kilometres? Or will Van der Poel be back to punish the climbs in order to add Gent-Wevelgem to his collection? The Van der Poel-Philipsen tandem worked well before at Paris-Roubaix, the Alpecin-Deceuninck pair going 1-2 in 2023. Perhaps they’ll replicate the 1-2 Christophe Laporte and Wout van Aert pulled off for Jumbo-Visma last year.

Letizia Paternoster (Liv AlUla Jayco)

This is the time of year that Letizia Paternoster turns her attention away from the track on onto the cobbled classics. She has selected a handful of races that suit her best, telling Cycling News that while her focus is on the Paris Olympics, races like Gent-Wevelgem are also a target.

She has had success during this block in previous seasons, finishing third at Gent-Wevelgem in 2019 and last year she was sixth at Omloop van het Hageland, ninth at Ronde van Drenthe, tenth at Nokere Koerse and Scheldeprijs.

Recently finishing fourth at Ronde van Drenthe, Paternoster will line up at Gent-Wevelgem with another strong sprinter, Ruby Roseman-Gannon, and together they could put Liv AlUla Jayco on the podium.

Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty)

Biniam Girmay struck gold at Gent-Wevelgem in 2022 when he made history as the first African champion of the cobbled Classic. The young Eritrean was just 21 when he delivered a flash of brilliance to take the one-day victory and followed that with a Giro d’Italia stage win and eight more top 10s to close out a stunning campaign, including third at another WorldTour race, Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec.

He crashed at the 2023 edition which took him out of contention for a Wevelgem repeat, so will be back for redemption. His form is solid for this year with four top 10s at Tour Down Under, giving him second place in the points classification, then a win at 158.6km Surf Coast Classic, where rolling hills found him at the front of a reduced group sprint.

Girmay is a versatile sprinter who has learned to be persistent across hills in order to compete at the finish. He’ll have a young supporting cast to help him get there, though maybe not household names they have had solid springs, including Le Samyn winner Laurenz Rex and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race runner-up Hugo Page.

Maike van der Duin (Canyon-SRAM Racing)

Maike van der Duin’s breakout performances last year saw her secure a pair of third places at Ronde van Drenthe and Gent-Wevelgem in her first season on the WorldTour with Canyon-SRAM.

The Dutch sprinter is the team’s best shot at victory in Wevelgem, but she lines up with the powerful Chloe Dygert, who gives the team a wildcard at the 171km race. 

Dygert, the reigning time trial world champion, hasn’t raced on the road yet this season, having been sidelined from competition during the Australian summer racing season due to illness. However, her dedication to training on the road and track and her overall strength as a time triallist makes her one to watch.

The team will likely focus on Van der Duin, however, as there are several teams with powerful sprinters that will also want to keep any breakaways at bay. If the race comes down to a sprint, watch for Van der Duin to be the team’s protected rider in a lead-out.

Tim Merlier (Soudal-QuickStep)

While Gent-Wevelgem is known for its flat approach across the west Flemish region of Belgium, Tim Merlier is one of the fast men who can navigate its punchy climbs, cobbled lanes and cross-winds to contend at the finish. The Belgian thrives on home terrain like this.

Merlier is the top performer so far this season for Soudal-QuickStep with half of his 20 starts resulting in top 10s. Six times he has topped the field as the winner, including a week ago at Danilith Nokere Koerse where he won for a third consecutive year. He finished just off Jasper Philipsen’s wheel for second place at Classic Brugge-De Panne and after the race said, “I feel that I could have won. The hunger for victories remains big”.

Now in his 15th season as a professional cyclist, Merlier has only finished in the top 10 at Wevelgem once in four tries. But he’s had one of the fastest starts in his career and the former Belgian road champion, who also excels in cyclocross, won’t find the off-road sections and cobbles a distraction to disrupt his focus to satisfy his hunger for a win.

Charlotte Kool (Team dsm-firmenich-PostNL)

Charlotte Kool will undoubtedly be her team’s main focus at Gent-Wevelgem, supported by a powerful revamped lead-out train that includes Franziska Koch, Pfeiffer Georgi, and Rachele Barbieri, who are all on the roster for the one-day race.

Georgi is a versatile rider who could very well instigate a winning breakaway, as she did at last year’s Classic Brugge-De Panne. If that option doesn’t work out, however, the team can count on her to be a major factor within the lead-out.

Kool wasn’t able to start her season when planned due to illness, but she has shown promising form in the earlier spring one-day races at Omloop van het Hageland, Le Samyn and Ronde van Drenthe. On top of that, her second place at Brugge-De Panne on Thursday clearly stung so the motivation is bound to be high to shift it up a step.

Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek)

Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek), the 2020 Gent-Wevelgem winner, returns to try and reclaim another prestigious spring Classic victory in Belgium. While he admits the proverbial carrot-and-stick for his career is a Monument win, another title at Gent-Wevelgem would serve him well. 

In the four years since Pedersen won the fall edition of Gent-Wevelgem, he has finished in the top 10 twice. In 2021 he won Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and then finished second at Bredene Koksijde Classic, but his spring stalled before a defence of the Gent-Wevelgem title after a positive coronavirus test put him in quarantine for seven days.

After three stage podiums and the overall title at Etoile de Bessèges to start 2024, the Dane then dominated the Tour de Provence by winning three days of racing and taking the GC. He earned two more podiums at Paris-Nice, and showed his versatility at Milan-San Remo when he made the 12-rider lead group and narrowly missed the podium by one spot, Tadej Pogačar overtaking him at the line and Pedersen settling for fourth.

Proof of Pedersen’s big finish in long, arduous one-day races are the rainbow stripes that remain on his jersey collar and sleeves to signify his 2019 Road World Championships title. Expect Pedersen to be part of the mix in any front group on the Vanackerestraat.

Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek)

Elisa Balsamo is arguably the outright favourite for a win at Gent-Wevelgem, given her early-season victories at Setmana Valenciana, Trofeo Alfredo Binda and then Brugge-De Panne, while she also finished second at Ronde van Drenthe.

Balsamo is also lining up with one of the strongest teams with support from the likes of Lizzie Deignan, Elisa Longo Borghini, Lucinda Brand, Shirin van Anrooij and Ellen van Dijk. 

Any one of these riders could win Gent-Wevelgem, but if it comes down to a bunch sprint, the team will clearly work for Balsamo.

Michael Matthews (Jayco AlUla)

An incredibly strong, one-day rider, Michael Matthews brings top form into the heart of spring Classics season, having narrowly missed the win at Milan-San Remo in a head-to-head sprint against Jasper Philipsen last week. It was a third podium at the Italian Monument for the Australian and the sixth top-10 finish.

He was fifth in his last appearance at Gent-Wevelgem in 2021, a year with a similar buildup with Milan-San Remo and E3 Saxo Classic. Though Classics wins have been evasive, Matthews scored a victory at GP Castellón in January. This Belgian course suits his strength on punchy climbs and the resilience to reserve resources for a fast finish.

The Australian is set to have a breakout ride at a major spring Classic at some point and his Milan-San Remo performance was an indication he is on track.

Honourable mentions

  • Ruby Roseman-Gannon (Liv AlUla Jayco)
  • Tamara Dronova-Balabolina (Roland)
  • Thalita de Jong (Lotto Dstny Ladies)
  • Chiara Consonni (UAE Team ADQ)
  • Chloe Dygert (Canyon-SRAM)
  • Arnaud De Lie (Lotto Dstny)
  • Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious)
  • Arnaud Démare (Arkéa-B&B Hotels)
  • Matteo Trentin (Tudor Pro Cycling Team)
  • Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan)
SOURCE: CyclingNews   (go to source)
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