Tuesday, April 08, 2008



Doing the Triple

Sandwiched between two monuments, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, the mid-week Belgian classic Gent-Wevelgem would seem ripe for getting the short end of the stick when it comes to participation by the peloton’s big guns. Riders targeting Paris-Roubaix could justifiably head straight from the Ronde finish in Meerbeke down to Compeigne, begin scoping out cobbled sectors, and count on those recon rides and their Ronde kilometers to put them on the boil for Sunday in Hell. In the past, it’s an option that more than one cobble specialist has exercised.

And who could blame them? Last year, the larger of Gent-Wevelgem’s two hills, the Kemmelberg, caused havoc in the peloton, not so much on the climb as on the cobbled descent. Crashes split the peloton on both trips down the hill in 2007, causing injuries serious enough to interrupt the seasons of several riders, including Tyler Farrar (then Cofidis, now Slipstream) and Matt Hayman (Rabobank). Though last year was particularly notable for its carnage, it’s never exactly been a relaxing coast through the woods. This year, however, organizers have chosen to route the course around the most dangerous portion, substituting an apparently sketchy right turn at the bottom of a paved descent for the eyeball-rattling cobbled downhill. Tomorrow will tell whether the cure proves worse than the disease.

But despite the danger just days ahead of Roubaix, and despite the fact that Gent-Wevelgem has never carried the same World Cup/ProTour/UCI points or prestige as the weekend heavies, a few teams still come out on Wednesday morning loaded for bear. Witness High Road, for example, which will hit the start line in Dienze with not only 2001 winner and perennial classics favorite George Hincapie and 2003 winner Andreas Klier, but also 2007 runner up Roger Hammond, 2001 Paris-Roubaix winner Servais Knaven, Tour Down Under winner Andre Griepel, on-form sprinters Mark Cavendish and Bernhard Eisel, and Vincent Reynes. Hold on, Vincent Reynes? Can you tell who got the call-up to replace the team’s injured 2007 Gent-Wevelgem winner Marcus Burghardt? Even without Burghardt, though, that’s a team that should have every expectation of coming home with a trophy Wednesday evening.

Quick.Step isn’t pulling any punches either, with Tom Boonen attending despite his focus on bringing home a second Roubaix title. It’s worth remembering that Boonen had his breakout classics win at Gent-Wevelgem in apocalyptic conditions in 2004. Along with Boonen, the team is also bringing Ronde hero Stijn Devolder out for a curtain call, as well as Gert Steegmans, who could certainly take Gent himself on a good day. To that trio, they add their usual battle-hardened classics support staff of Steven De Jongh, Wilfried Cretskens, Kevin Hulsmans, Matteo Tosatto, and Wouter Weylandt. So, even at a 2-1 disadvantage to High Road in the previous winners department, they'll will be shouldering plenty of hopes for the home crowd.

According to the organizer’s provisional start list, a few Roubaix hopefuls are taking a pass, including Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto, who gives up leadership for this sprinters’ classic to Robbie McEwen), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), and Fabian Cancellara and Stuey O’Grady (CSC), and Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) (*update - Cancellara, O'Grady, and Gilbert all ended up taking the start this morning). But many of the heavy hitters for the spring are manning up and making it a full week, including the aforementioned Quick.Step and High Road riders, Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), and defending Gent-Wevelgem champion Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole). I’m glad they are. If only in a very small way, it harkens back to a time when the sport wasn't quite so specialized, when riders didn’t target a single race as the focus of the year, and when you got to see the same group of riders face off more than once or twice a year.

Southern Discomfort

Naturally, the media focuses on the favorites around this time of year – the Quick.Steps, the Silence-Lottos, the High Roads. And to a lesser extent, on those upstart teams that could make a splash, like Slipstream. Nobody tends to focus on the people that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Or a Spaniard’s chance in the Hell of the North, as the case may be. And no, Juan Antonio Flecha and Oscar Freire don’t count, because they’ve been excommunicated from their own country and adopted by the Dutch.

As a result, we have stories out there about every Belgian on every team riding themselves into the ground all spring to make the team selection for the Ronde or Paris-Roubaix. We have stories of agony when they don’t, and of elation (and sometimes more agony) when they do. But what’s going on inside a Euskaltel-Euskadi or a Caisse d’ Epargne in those last weeks of March, when the decisions have to be made about who packs their bags for the flight to Brussels?

Somehow, I always picture them sitting around a table, maybe in the service course, under a bare lightbulb, shivering a bit from the chill as they draw straws. I know that’s not how it happens, but the image works for me.

That said, the Spanish did have three riders in the top 10 of Gent-Wevelgem last year, if we're kind and include Freire's 3rd place. Francisco Ventoso was 4th, and Joaquin Rojas was 9th. That's more riders in the top 10 than any other country.

The Media Note

It may be the “smallest” classic of this week, but Gent-Wevelgem has probably the nicest press facilities of the three. And by nicest, I mean the four things the media values most – free coffee, beer, and food, and indoor plumbing. Granted, the smell of the bathroom will probably be with me for the remainder of my years -- you couldn’t really tell if it came from urine or a cleaning product designed to eradicate urine, but the place seemed spotless, which probably indicates that it was, in fact, an exceptionally poorly thought out cleaning product. Anyway, it was pretty good living there in Wevelgem, a few steps from the finish line, the frites wagon, and the cheesy Euro-pop live show. Even better, there were surprisingly unguarded international phone lines in a back room. What more could you ask?

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