Thanks to its newer spot on the calendarâ€”and a longer, hillier parcoursâ€”Ghent-Wevelgem is now the more popular dress rehearsal for next Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flanders. With many of the Rondeâ€™s top favorites using Ghent-Wevelgem as their final warm-up, I expect weâ€™ll seen one of the most star-studded and competitive events in years. Letâ€™s take a look at this yearâ€™s favorites:
Matthew Goss â€“ After his fantastic win in last Saturdayâ€™s Milan-San Remo, Matthew Goss is easily the top contender for Sundayâ€™s Ghent-Wevelgem. Goss is quickly proving himself to be more than just a sprinterâ€”he rode well in the hills during Paris-Nice and had no trouble getting over the Cipressa and the Poggio in MSR. In other words, the Kemmelbergâ€™s no problem for the Australianâ€”to which his third-place finish in 2009 can attest. If all goes as planned, Goss will give HTC-High Road its third consecutive win in this legendary classic.
Tom Boonen â€“ Tom Boonen won Ghent-Wevelgem 2004, before beginning his string of Ronde and Roubaix victories. This year, Boonen is using the race (as opposed to E3) as his final preparation for next Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flandersâ€”as a result, heâ€™ll be racing to win. Boonenâ€™s spent much of the cobbled semi-classics teasing us with attacksâ€”tomorrow we should get our first chance to see him try and make one stick.
Juan Antonio Flecha – In 2005, Juan Antonio Flecha was â€œrobbedâ€ of a Ghent-Wevelgem victory when Nico Mattan was allegedly aided in his pursuit of the lone Spanish leader by a Belgian motorbike. Opting out of Saturdayâ€™s E3 Prijs this year, Flecha and his Sky teammates come to Ghent-Wevelgem prepared to finally get the victory. With a win and two second-place finishes in the cobbled semi-classics so far this season, Sky rivals Leopard Trek in its depth, talent, and ability to dominate races.
Philippe Gilbert â€“ Philippe Gilbert is arguably the strongest rider in the world right now, but he warrants only 4 Stones as I sense a bit of a taper this weekend after several weeks of hard racing. Gilbertâ€™s already started to trim his program, as he appears to have hit his top fitness a bit earlier than planned. That said, this is Philippe Gilbert and heâ€™s never been one to race passively.
Tyler Farrar â€“ Unless Thor Hushovd completely bombs Saturdayâ€™s E3 Prijs, Tyler Farrar will be Garmin-CervÃ©loâ€™s #1 option for Sundayâ€™s Ghent-Wevelgem. Farrar rode well here last year, missing the winning break but still finishing ninth. While he might struggle to stay with the favorites should a move pull away on the Kemmelberg, heâ€™s a terrific option should the race come back together for a sprint. To that end, his team might find an ally in HTC-High Road.
BMC â€“ With Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, George Hincapie, and Markus Burghardt, BMC takes the line Sunday with four captainsâ€”two of which are former Ghent-Wevelgem winners. Ballan and Van Avermaet have been the most active of late, but this is George Hincapieâ€™s only warm-up for the Rondeâ€”look for him to test his legs as he did on his way to a fifth-place finish last year.
Andre Greipel â€“ Greipel was a model teammate for Gilbert during Milan-San Remo, driving the front of the group between the Cipressa and Poggio. Sunday, we might see Gilbert return the favor in a race Greipel would love to add to his resume. Omega Pharma-Lotto would certainly appreciate a victory as well, easing some pre-Ronde pressure.
Thor Hushovd â€“ Thorâ€™s likely racing to win Saturday, a fact that drops him a few spots here as several of the protagonists from E3 started in Ghent last year, only to abandon the race at the first feed zone. Thorâ€™s performance Saturday will likely determine his role Sundayâ€”donâ€™t be surprised to see the World Champ working for Farrar as he did in Tirreno-Adriatico.
Filippo Pozzato â€“ Were it not for his recent cold, Pozzato would be a 4-Stone favorite for Sunday. That said, he appears to be showing more signs of frailty heading into his first major targets of the season. Should his legs prove as congested as his sinuses, Katusha will likely look to Luca Paolini (10th last year) and Denis Galimzyanov to lead the way.
Peter Sagan/Daniel Oss â€“ Peter Sagan started the season on a high note, but the Liquigas rider seems to have lost a bit following a series of crashes in Paris-Nice. Sunday he gets his first taste of the Flemish classics (he rode Roubaix last year) with a race suited to his talents. Teammate Daniel Oss finished fifth last year and is looking to become Italyâ€™s next classics starâ€”winning Ghent-Wevelgem would be a good way to start.
Bernard Eisel â€“ With Goss and Cavendish riding, Eisel might find himself a few rungs down the ladder at HTC-High Road this year. But donâ€™t count-out last yearâ€™s winner.
Michael Matthews â€“ Heâ€™s young and relatively new to races of this length, but Rabobankâ€™s Matthews is a talent not to be ignoredâ€”with a team more than capable of delivering him to the finish ready for the sprint.
Mark Cavendish â€“ HTCâ€™s Cavendish deserves mention, but I donâ€™t see him playing much of a role Sunday. The race is simply too hardâ€”especially with such difficult competition.
My Prediction: BMCâ€™s Alessandro Ballan is well-suited to a race such as Ghent-Wevelgemâ€”he can survive the hills and he knows how to handle himself in a small group sprint. Look for him to take the win Sunday over Quick-Stepâ€™s Sylvain Chavanel and FDJâ€™s Dom Rollin. Goss will win the field sprint for fourth.
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