The peloton is led under the Menin Gate at the start of Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields.

It’s Balsamo’s race to lose at Gent-Wevelgem

We are finally in the real peak of the Classics season with Gent-Wevelgem kicking off the countdown to Holy Week.

Abby Mickey
by Abby Mickey 22.03.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images and Cor Vos
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There are Classics before Gent-Wevelgem but the one-day race that takes place a week before the Tour of Flanders is the sign that we are drawing ever closer to “Holy Week,” the week of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift.

Gent-Wevelgem is a bit different from the other races in its little corner of the world. Unlike Flanders, there is a greater chance the race could end in a bunch sprint; however, because of the difficulty of the parcours and the potential inclement weather, it can always go to the person brave enough to throw their odds out the window. Last year Marlen Reusser did just that when she rode to victory in the cold and wet.

The race first graced the women’s calendar in 2012, when it was won by a solo Lizzie Deignan. Since the formation of the WorldTour, it’s been won by a series of sprinters like Lotta Henttala, Marta Bastianelli, Jolien D’Hoore, Marianne Vos and Elisa Balsamo. Just one of those five – Balsamo – will start Sunday’s race, but with rain on the menu, the potential for a hectic race is high.

Riders navigate a tight turn on the wet roads of Belgium.

The Basics

When: Sunday 24 March

Distance: 171.2 km

Live coverage: 🇬🇧Discovery+, 🇺🇸🇨🇦FloBikes, starting at 16:00 CET/11:00 EST (remember the women finish after the men!)

Weather: High of 10°C, but it will feel like 5°. It is predicted to have 28 km/h wind with 54 km/h gusts. There is currently a 61% chance of precipitation in the morning, but it’s supposed to clear up before the start of the race (with the temperatures the roads will probably still be a bit wet in places). Very little sun, with a 55% cloud cover predicted.

The Course

While the first half of the race is slightly altered from the last few editions, the second half includes all the fun climbs we know and love. The women roll out from the Menin Gate, a memorial to the soldiers killed during World War I in the Flanders Fields. They then ride north-ish before circling back to Ieper and then down to Wevelgem for the finish.

A map of the 2024 Gent-Wevelgem women's race.

Climbing starts almost 107 km into the race but once they crest that first ascent there is not much letup. They will race over the Scherpenberg (380m, 5.2% average, 11% max), and Baneberg (250m, 9% average, 20% max) twice with the Monteberg (1.4 km, 4.5% average, 9% max) in between the two circuits but the hardest climb of the lot will be the Kemmelberg (550m, 9.2% average) which they will also do twice from two different sides. The final ascent Kemmelberg (Ossuaire) (730 metres, 9.6% with 20% maximum) tops out with 34.3 km to go to the finish, so plenty of time to chase. In years past Kasia Niewidadoma has been known to attack over the series of climbs, but has usually been reeled back in pretty quickly.

Profile of the 2024 women's Gent-Wevelgem, showing a mostly flat opening half and a second half marked by numerous cobbled sectors and short climbs or bergs.

Top Contenders: Elisa Balsamo, Lotte Kopecky, and Lorena Wiebes

The way she’s going at the moment – and keeping in mind that in 2022 Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek)had a hot streak and won Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Classic Brugge-De Panne, and Gent-Wevelgem back-to-back-to-back – it’s hard to look past the former World Champion. When asked about SD Worx-Protime’s presence in Gent-Wevelgem, after they were absent from Classic Brugge-De Panne, Balsamo simply stated that she didn’t care. Lidl-Trek is fully behind their Italian sprinter, and she’s already proven the climbs near the end of the race aren’t going to slow her down.

If, by some chance, the race goes sideways and the American team needs a backup they have Elisa Longo Borghini returning to racing after an altitude camp. But the team will be putting their firepower behind Balsamo, and why wouldn’t they?

Elisa Balsamo celebrates as she wins 2022 Gent-Wevelgem. She has her arms in the air as riders including Lotte Kopecky sit up behind her in frustration.
Then-World Champion Elisa Balsamo wins Gent-Wevelgem in 2022.

SD Worx-Protime will be back in the peloton after sitting out Classic Brugge-De Panne due to illness and injuries within the team. But honestly, even with Kopecky’s wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche, it doesn’t seem like the Dutch team has quite the stranglehold on the peloton they did for so much of the 2023 season. With teams like Lidl-Trek and even FDJ-Suez gaining confidence, Sunday will be a pivotal moment for the peloton.

Even so, Lotte Kopecky and her teammate Lorena Wiebes will line up as favourites, depending on how the race shakes out. Wiebes dislocated her shoulder at Nokere Koerse – one of the reasons the team didn’t attend Classic Brugge-De Panne – so it’s a bit up in the air if she will be one of their leaders or riding in support of Kopecky. Kopecky will likely be trying to split the race or get up the road because as she learned at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, her chances of besting Balsamo in a sprint aren’t as high this year.

Other riders to watch

SD Worx-Protime already has two good options, but if they were to look past Wiebes and Kopecky, Mischa Bredewold is right there, decked out as the European Champion. It’s not a bad race for her; the WorldTour one-day Classic Lorient Agglomération (aka GP de Plouay) that she won last year also has some climbs, and she won from a reduced bunch sprint. It’s unlikely she will get the freedom to go for herself, but with SD Worx-Protime you never really know what they might have up their sleeves, especially if Wiebes isn’t 100%.

Charlotte Kool was visibly unimpressed with her result at Classic Brugge-De Panne, but she will get another chance to take a WorldTour one-day on Sunday. She is a phenomenal sprinter, and getting second to Balsamo on Thursday will only fuel her need to win. If she can get over those climbs, DSM Firmenich-PostNL will back her, but if it’s not her day they can put their eggs in the Pfeiffer Georgi basket. Georgi was fifth at Binda, the form is coming, and the course is a great one for her.

Left to right, Lorena Wiebes, Pfeiffer, Georgi, and Puck Pieterse race at the Ronde van Drenthe. Wiebes and Pieterse are both looking at each other, with Georgi in the middle, as they size each other up.
Lorena Wiebes, Pfeiffer Georgi, and Puck Pieterse eye each other in the finale of Ronde van Drenthe, 2024.

Starting her first-ever cobbled Classic, Fem van Empel of Visma-Lease a Bike comes in as a favourite for at least a podium. The Dutchwoman is coming off an absolute cracker of a cyclocross season. She won the World Championships on top of dominating the majority of the World Cups beforehand (and Lille after). So even if she doesn’t have the breadth of experience as her competitors, she’s already got the skills she needs. She also comes in as Visma’s clear leader, as Marianne Vos is not on the start list (bad news for my fantasy team).

A few riders would be able to take advantage of a chaotic race in the event it clearly won’t end in a sprint. Canyon-SRAM’s Chloe Dygert continued to impress by finishing sixth at Classic Brugge-De Panne. She won a stage of RideLondon Classique last year, but one-days in Belgium are a different animal, so to see her at the front of a race like Thursday’s bodes well for her run at the next block of races. Canyon-SRAM will also start with Zoe Bäckstedt and Maike van der Duin, but after Thursday, Dygert is probably their A-option.

A group of women race bikes. Chloe Dygert is on the front in her red white and blue national champion jersey.
Chloe Dygert during Classic Brugge-De Panne, 2024.

Marta Lach (Ceratizit-WNT) and Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) are two other riders who would be able to take advantage of a fractured race. Lach is aggressive; we’ve seen her off the front in quite a few races. Norsgaard is great at the Classics and is adapting her racing style to be able to tackle the climbs of Flanders and still deliver in the end.

Last but definitely not least, Puck Pieterse of Fenix-Deceuninck will continue her run at road racing on Sunday and judging by her tactics at Ronde van Drenthe and Trofeo Alfredo Binda she will be trying to get away from the peloton. Those tactics will work way better at a race like Gent-Wevelgem, especially near the pointy end of the race, and if there’s weather that’s an even better day for Pieterse.

Star Ratings

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Lorena Wiebes, Lotte Kopecky, Elisa Balsamo
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Charlotte Kool, Puck Pieterse
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Pfeiffer Georgi, Fem van Empel
⭐️⭐️: Mischa Bredewold, Elisa Longo Borghini
⭐️: Marta Lach, Grace Brown, Emma Norsgaard, Chloe Dygert

Bear watching, but no idea how they’ll do: Lily Williams (Human Powered Health), Ilse Pluimers (AG Insurance-Soudal), Georgia Baker (Liv AlUla Jayco)

Wheel Talk Podcast picks:

Gracie Elvin: Hard to go past Balsamo but let’s go with Kool
Loren Rowney: Elisa Balsamo!
Abby Mickey: Fem van Empel (didn’t see that coming did you!)
Matt de Neef: Lorena Wiebes (I just don’t want to say Kopecky again).

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