Gent-Wevelgem 2016 preview: five riders who could win

Course change could open up race after 2015's weather-hit epic

The cobbled Classics come thick and fast, with Gent-Wevelgem – a race traditionally favouring the sprinters – set for Easter Sunday (March 27).

Last year’s race proved to be an epic war of attrition, with strong winds in Flanders wreaking havoc on the bunch – Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) getting literally blown off the road at one point.

Luca Paolini soloed to victory in a wind-battered Gent-Wevelgem in 2015 (pic: Sirotti)

Luca Paolini (Katusha) soloed to victory, to prove the race is not always a predictable bunch sprint finale, but the Italian can not defend his title having been banned for testing positive for cocaine at the Tour de France.

The weather forecast is much more favourable this year too, which should mean the likes of Paolini’s former team-mate Alexander Kristoff will be among those in contention for victory.

– Gent-Wevelgem 2016: TV schedule –

However, a slight change to the route – including tackling the steeper side of the Kemmelberg for the first time in more than two decades.

So what should you be anticipating when the action kicks off on Sunday? We’ve taken a closer look at the route, and picked out five riders who could win.

The route

Featuring ten hellingen in all, Gent-Wevelgem is the flattest of the four cobbled Classics on the UCI WorldTour but the slight changes to the route have been done in the hope of creating a more open race.

The Belgian company charged with grading all of the country’s climbs rank the lesser-used side of the Kemmelberg as tougher than the Koppenberg and the Muur, which highlights what a difference it could make.

The steeper side of the Kemmelberg boasts gradients of up to 23 per cent (pic: Brassynn, via Flickr Creative Commons)

But with 34km from the top of the climb to the finish, there will still be plenty of time to set up a bunch sprint if the fast men can get over the top together.

The new cobbled ascent boasts some sections approaching a 1-in-4 gradient (23 per cent to be exact), and the original ascent, with a maximum 17 per cent gradient, also remains on the route.

The climbing starts with the Catsberg after more than 140km of races, but they come thick and fast with Mont Kokereel, Vert Mont, the Cote du Ravel Put and Cote de la Blanchisserie all within 15km of each other.

Riders must first tackle the Kemmelberg – the seventh climb of the race, after the Baneberg – from 172km, before the race heads to the Monteberg and loops back.

The final circuit includes the other sides of the Baneberg and Kemmelberg, before the 34km to the finish, including the flat final run-in.

The contenders – Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

Gent-Wevelgem’s route seems perfectly suited to Alexander Kristoff, and yet the Norwefian has never even finished on the podium – his ninth place last year being his best result.

But the Katusha man has improved both as a sprinter and a Classics rider in recent years, and will have no fears about getting over the Kemmelberg in the front group.

Alexander Kristoff should find the Gent-Wevelgem course well suited to him (pic: Sirotti)

And from there, with 2014 champion John Degenkolb out injured, you would have to back Kristoff, who already has one podium finish on the cobbles after finishing runner-up at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

If Kristoff is in the front group come the flat finale, then he will undoubtedly be favourite to add to his Tour of Flanders success from 2015.

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

Peter Sagan won Gent-Wevelgem in 2013, the only one of the four cobbled Classics not won by Fabian Cancellara that year.

Runner-up the previous year and third in 2014, Sagan has history in this race too and the World Champion will be desperate for a strong Classics campaign in the rainbow jersey.

Peter Sagan won at Gent-Wevelgem in 2013 (pic: Sirotti)

After being outsprinted by Greg van Avermaet at Tirreno-Adriatico, it highlighted the fact that – for all his ability as a rouleur – he lacks the out-and-out speed of his rivals.

But Sagan has shown before that he can win at Gent-Wevelgem, and has the ability to do so either with a long-range attack or from the bunch.

The same could be said of another former winner too, with Edvald Boasson Hagen leading Dimension Data’s charge after a strong showing went unrewarded at Milan-San Remo.

Arnaud Demare (FDJ)

Runner-up behind John Degenkolb in 2014, Arnaud Demare’s Milan-San Remo victory means he starts the Classics full of confidence.

A consistent fixture of the top-20 in this race, Demare now needs to kick on and turn decent finishes into results – and his victory on the Via Roma showed what he is capable of.

Arnaud Demare proved what he is capable of Milan-San Remo (pic: Sirotti)

That win was his third of the season, with his stage win at Paris-Nice, on a stage raced on gravel in inclement weather also showing he should be considered a Classics contender.

The key will be how he climbs on the Kemmelberg, as his sprinting speed is not doubted.

Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep)

Tom Boonen has three victories to his name at Gent-Wevelgem, the last of which was part of his incredible Classics clean sweep in 2012.

He has not won any of the cobbled Classics since then, but in what is set to be his final campaign he will be keen for a last hurrah.

Tom Boonen will look to add to his three Gent-Wevelgem victories, the last of which came in 2012 (pic: Sirotti)

As ever, Etixx-QuickStep boast plenty of options – with sprinter Fernando Gaviria impressing at Dwars Door Vlaanderen with a top-ten finish on his Classics debut too.

But Boonen knows the Flandrian cobbles like the back of his hand, and even at the age of 35 can’t be overlooked if he arrives in top form.

His rivalry with Fabian Cancellara is set to be a key story of this year’s Classics – but the Swiss ace, unlike Boonen, has never won Gent-Wevelgem.

Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal)

Andre Greipel has been back in Mallorca to train in preparation for the Classics, returning to the island on which he started his season with two victories at Challenge Mallorca.

The big German has not won since then, but he showed some decent form at the Classics last season – attacking regularly on the cobbles.

Andre Greipel has been lauded as a Classics contender (pic: Sirotti)

Directeur sportif Marc Sergeant has long lauded Greipel as a Classics contender, and Gent-Wevelgem seems the most likely for him to succeed at thanks to the fast finale.

He is no mug when it comes to getting over the climbs, either, even though you could not consider him in the same bracket as the likes of Sagan.

Should Greipel not feature, though, Lotto-Soudal have other options – not least Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Jens Debusschere.

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