The sprinters Classic, Gent-Wevelgem is the next one-day event on the women’s WorldTour calendar. Although a recent addition to the women’s calendar, G-W has already been won by the likes of Marianne Vos, Elisa Balsamo, Kirsten Wild, and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. Five of the nine editions have ended in bunch sprints, and even if the weather does something wild (fingers crossed?) it’s looking like the tenth, held Sunday, March 26, will as well.
Still, you never know. With just a week to go before the Tour of Flanders, riders’ form is peaking, and a peek at the Gent start list shows a stacked field; the best of the best will be racing on Sunday.
The course is pretty much the same as the 2022 edition. Organizers have tacked on a few extra kilometers, bringing the total up to 162.5 km.
The women start in Ieper and race up to De Panne, where the previous WorldTour race, Brugge-De Panne, finished on Thursday, then back down to Poperinge. This is where the fun really starts. Before turning back toward the start and then to Wevelgem, the women must first race up seven climbs in succession.
The first of the seven is the Scherpenberg and it hits after 98 km of racing. The next 14 km include the Baneberg, Monteberg and Kemmelberg.
After once again ascending the Scherpenberg and Baneberg the final climb of the day is the Kemmelberg Ossuaire with gradients of 20%. To make matters worse (if you’re a rider, better if you’re a fan), the climb is cobbled.
After the Kemmelberg Ossuaire, the sprinter’s teams have 34.4 km to bring the race back together since it will surely explode on the climbs. That depends partly on weather conditions; the run-in to the line is flat, so any crosswinds may play a role. Notably, Trek-Segafredo tried to take advantage of them in 2021 but weren’t able to make their efforts stick and Vos ended up winning in a reduced bunch sprint. Right now, the forecast for Sunday shows moderate breezes from the north; if it gets gusty, especially combined with rain, weather could be an important factor.
As stated above Gent-Wevelgem is the sprinter’s classic so we’re looking at three people in particular for the win on Sunday. The top favourite is definitely Lorena Wiebes. She’s had quite the season already and if it wasn’t for her teammate Lotte Kopecky she may have added a few other races to her tally this year. Coincidentally, Gent is one that’s always eluded them, although both have been second. The two are a formidable pair and make SD Worx a hard team to beat.
Half a step below Wiebes is last year’s winner, Elisa Balsamo. She has bested Wiebes in sprints before, but often because her Trek-Segafredo team threw everything they had, which included world ITT champion Ellen van Dijk, behind the Italian national champ. This year, van Dijk is sitting out the season on maternity leave, and Balsamo has a different roster of helpers; they are still strong but it’s hard to replicate the kind of power Van Dijk can put out (obviously). Lucinda Brand returned to the road for Classic Brugge-De Panne on Thursday and will be an asset for Balsamo, as will Trofeo Alfredo Binda winner Shirin van Anrooij.
The other top sprinter in the peloton, and the person who has bested Wiebes this year in straight-up sprints, is Charlotte Kool. Kool has fully taken on Wiebes’s old role at Team DSM and done so with style. She outsprinted Wiebes twice at the UAE Tour, but Gent is a different kind of course entirely; the big question is: can she keep up with her old teammate on the climbs?
If, by some chance, the race does not come down to a sprint we’re looking at a few opportunistic teams to try something. Team Jumbo-Visma has a few of those with Anna Henderson and Karlijn Swinkels. Then there’s FDJ-SUEZ with Grace Brown. I feel pretty confident saying that there will be a move that goes on the climbs and it will likely contain an FDJ-SUEZ rider, a Jumbo-Visma rider, and Kasia Niewiadoma. She’s not the only Canyon-SRAM rider to watch; Niewiadoma’s teammate Shari Bossuyt was looking really strong on Thursday.
Finally, some not-so-wild wild cards would include Marta Bastianelli, Alexandra Manly, and any other rider wearing an SD Worx jersey because that’s what they do.
Conversations with the Wheel Talk Podcast
Loren: Just checking the weather … looks like there will be a lot of wind, some rain…could favour a small break.
Abby: That could be fun! But do you think with Wiebes on their roster SD Worx would allow a break?
Loren: This goes back to the whole thing of them being unable to guess with the weather, Elisa [Balsamo] hates the cold to organise a chase like Trek-Segafredo.
Tilda: And if they could get Kopecky in a small move, then leadership is surely hers …
Loren: Trek-Segafredo won’t want it to end in a bunch sprint. Right?
Abby: They might want to see how Balsamo stacks up against Kool and Wiebes in a straight-up sprint.
Loren: Mmm. What’s her sprint record been like this year?
Abby: Two stages of Valencia back to back. But that wasn’t against Kool and Wiebes. I reckon with the way Kool rode at the UAE Tour DSM will be the keenest of all the teams for a sprint.
Loren: Yep. So maybe we will see a group go.
Abby: My question is if the weather plays a role who will want to take the most advantage? And who is caught out?
Tilda: I guess with the weather, Elisa hates the cold. So SD Worx is more likely to take that up, and with Kopecky, they have the option to make it super hard – too hard even for Wiebes possibly.
Abby: Another solo Kopecky move is highly likely. She’s flying.
Tilda: I think Trek-Segafredo will try to make it hard if Elisa is comfortable though because if they could reduce the group to drop Kool and Wiebes – which they’ll have some confidence in doing now – then suddenly Balsamo is the best sprinter.
Abby: You know the more we talk about it, looking at the strength of SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo the more I don’t think a move will go. I don’t know who would be able to drive a break to successfully stay away from those two teams.
Tilda: They look at each other and do all the work, DSM get a free ride and Charlotte wins.
Wheel Talk Podcast picks
In the order in which we picked with the rule you couldn’t pick someone who someone else said already.
Tilda Price: Grace Brown (with a solo move)
Gracie Elvin: Elisa Balsamo
Loren Rowney: Lorena Wiebes
Abby Mickey Skujina: Karlijn Swinkels
When you should tune in
Live coverage on GCN+ kicks off at 16:15 CET, and we suggest you tune in then if you want to see all the climbs. Additionally, if you are a member of the Escape Collective, the Wheel Talk Podcast will be recording live on Escape Collective’s members-only Discord during the finale with a special guest who really knows what she’s talking about.
What you didn’t know you need to know
Dane Cash here, jumping in to drop some knowledge on you that you maybe didn’t know you needed now that Abby has provided the details about the actual bike race. First, a quick note on Gent: It is absolutely chock-full of history and more of a hidden gem than nearby Bruges. It’s definitely worth talking about, but the race doesn’t actually start in Gent now, so let’s leave that for another time.
Among major bike races on the calendar, Gent-Wevelgem is uniquely focused on a greater historical perspective, memorializing those who fought in the First World War, which had an immense impact on the area. The full name of the event – Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields – is a nod to the famous war poem by John McCrae, and the logo is a poppy flower, another recognizable symbol for the Great War in Flanders. Racing gets underway at the Menin Gate, built in memory of more than 50,000 Allied soldiers who were killed in the area but whose bodies remained missing.
This area, known as the Ypres Salient, was a strategic foothold where the Allied lines projected eastward like a rounded peninsula (to include Ypres) in a sea of German trenches. After the first major battle at Ypres, where the Allies stopped the German push through Belgium in 1914 and then dug in with huge casualties on both sides, there were a further four significant engagements in the area. That includes the lengthy Battle of Passchendaele, where casualties over a three-month period reached into the hundreds of thousands.
By the end of the war in 1918, much of the area had been reduced to rubble. Even today, artillery craters and pillboxes can be found in the farmland all over this part of Belgium. In Ypres itself, a rebuilt cloth hall reminds those who see it from the outside of the city’s legacy as a wealthy medieval trading center, while the inside of the building houses an excellent museum dedicated to the First World War.
After that foray into military history, it does feel a bit strange to talk about beer, but this is still Belgium and we do want to give you at least a bit of insight there. It’s impossible to do this beer-mad place justice in this tiny writeup, so let’s just focus on a few things. The women’s peloton will ride right past Poperinge, which hosts a beloved beer festival, and they will pass near the famous Westvleteren Brewery, where Cistercian monks at the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus make highly prized beer in very small quantities.
The stuff is hard to come by, but nearby Watou is home to the St. Bernardus Brewery, which makes brews that are much easier to find but still rate highly with beer nerds. You could also keep things semi-area-appropriate while watching the race by going for a Flemish red ale. The Kortrijk area just to the east of Wevelgem is home to a few major producers of the beer, known for being sour with red fruit notes without being hoppy. Enjoy!