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Gent-Wevelgem 2015: reflections on a Classic

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Photographs: Jakob Kristian Sørensen

The 77th edition of Gent-Wevelgem unfolded in winds strong enough to blow riders from their bikes, and ended with victory for a consummate tactician, rather than for one of the peloton’s quick men. So much for the “sprinter’s classic”.
Was Luca Paolini, the perennial chaperone, simply disregarded by his breakaway companions when he made his decisive attack, or does his victory represent another tactical masterstroke from the peloton’s best reader of a race?

Does Jürgen Roelandts’ gallant effort mark a further upswing in the fortunes of Lotto-Soudal or an opportunity missed for the men in red, who had two riders in the break but finished with scant reward?
Was Geraint Thomas’ ride to third place a further show of strength, or a return to business as usual after his excellent win at E3 Harelbeke? What might be said of Etixx-Quick-Step’s squandering of numerical advantage for a second race this spring?
And with the Grand Tour set bathing in Catalan sunshine while the 1s battled Flandrian crosswinds, is it the case that the men of the Classics are just tougher than their stage racing counterparts?

The Maestro’s solo
This was a day on which tactical ingenuity had the better of raw power; a day on which brains comprehensively beat brawn. For the avoidance of doubt, Luca Paolini even placed a hand on his bonce as he crossed the line; the other pointed, with equal probity, to his heart. Paolini can play the diesel when required – hauling the peloton up the Poggio just seven days earlier, for example – but few would argue that Niki Terpstra has greater horsepower. The combined might of Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh and Geraint Thomas should have been enough to finish him, but Paolini outwitted them all.

The Italian began his pursuit of the leaders with 63km remaining, briefly towing the whole peloton behind him, before chipping off in a rare quest for individual honours. “I’m proof that sometimes you can still learn something from an old guy,” he told 1, a statement with which Thomas, Terpstra, Vandenbergh et al will surely agree. Paolini is likely to resume his normal role next weekend at the Tour of Flanders, a race that 1 understands is marked in red on Alexander Kristoff’s “to do” list this season. Gent-Wevelgem, however, belonged to Paolini alone.

Keep on Roelandts
Without Paolini and his tactical masterclass, Jürgen Roelandts’ performance would have been the ride of the day. The Belgian chipped off the front of an elite breakaway with 77km remaining and would not be seen for a further 60km. His capture owed more to the growing alarm of his pursuers rather than any failure on his part. Roelandts’ upper body remained locked in position, his legs pumping like pistons, even as the junction was made, and he was not immediately dropped by his captors, as is so often the case with the lone escapee.

We have commented already on the fine start to the season made by Lotto-Soudal, and while it might be argued that early-season glory is easier to come by, Roelandts’ performance at Gent-Wevelgem, a one-day race as prestigious as any beyond the five Monuments, and that of his team-mate, Jens Debusschere, offered further evidence that the men in red are likely to play a leading role throughout Spring.

Business as usual for Thomas?
Geraint Thomas was once again valiant, and accident prone; courageous, but outwitted; easily among the strongest of those who contested victory, but defeated. At 28, the Welshman is unlikely to change and, two days after the biggest win of his road career at E3-Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem was very much business as usual for the Sky man: in equal parts brave and guileless. Blown into a ditch, Thomas somersaulted rather gracefully through the accident, calmly remounted and set about catching his confederates – impressive. After making most of the running in the closing kilometres, however, he was again left to rue what might have been.

Thomas is clearly in the form of his life and has earned the right to lead Sky at the cobbled Monuments. There may be something of a Wiggins factor driving the Welshman’s performances: that having had, for so long, spearheaded Sky’s assault on the Classics, he is now unwilling to cede leadership to the team’s mercurial world time-trial champion, who is as likely to abandon Roubaix, should he wake on the morning of the race and find it no longer to his taste, as win the thing. The Welshman will hope his performances this spring will put the matter of leadership beyond doubt, but Sunday offered further evidence that while he can guarantee endeavour, a Thomas victory will always remain open to question. Third in such a brutal edition of such a brutal race, however, is no mean feat.

More is less for EQS
Another defeat on home soil will not please Etixx-Quick-Step boss, Patrick Lefevere, who has assembled a team of such quality and expense that victory should be all but guaranteed. With the team’s figurehead, Tom Boonen, out injured for the remainder of the cobbled campaign, the presence of two of Lefevere’s number in a breakaway reduced to six men for the finale should have spelled victory. While Etixx-Quick-Step’s defeat at Gent-Wevelgem is not quite as humiliating as their loss to Ian Stannard at Het Nieuwsblad, it represents another Flandrian Classic in which the ‘home’ team squandered a numerical advantage.

What went wrong? Stijn Vandenbergh produced a feisty display for most of the race, even riding without his earpiece when breaking away with Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal), and Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEDGE) as if unwilling to be recalled to the service of Terpstra and Strade Bianche winner Zdenek Stybar. Terpstra showed strength in bridging to the leaders’ group, but appeared intent on watching Thomas rather than Paolini at the finale, and had to be content with second.
Lefevere blamed bad luck for his team’s failure, especially the numerous mishaps that affected Mark Cavendish, but his most revealing comments concerned the effects of Tom Boonen’s injury-enforced absence on team morale. The team is rudderless for the moment, and it says much for Boonen that none of the stars in Quick Step’s galaxy of talent have been able to replace him.

Hardmen head for Belgium
Many of the riders complained that they had never previously encountered such ferociously windy conditions. Geraint Thomas was blown from his bike in spectacular style, but he was far from alone. Echelons are perhaps easier to form on desert roads where the tarmac is broad and perfect; on Flandrian farm tracks, they are difficult to organise and less effective. There was a sense of every man for himself in yesterday’s proceedings, typified by Jürgen Roelandts’ solo endeavor, made in part with his bike tilted almost at a 45-degree angle into the wind.

Most of Northern Europe is an inhospitable place to ride a bike in winter and even Spring, as the last three editions of Milan-Sanremo attest. Belgium is unlikely to experience tropical conditions in the next week, shifting the balance of probability to “grim” for next weekend’s Tour of Flanders. It is in the nature of the Classics rider to relish such conditions, however. While the Grand Tour set bathed in Catalan sunshine, the 1s simply toughed it out in Flanders. Hardmen? You bet.

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