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71st Gent-Wevelgem - Chasing the Peloton
By Staff
Date: 4/10/2009
71st Gent-Wevelgem - Chasing the Peloton

71st Gent-Wevelgem - Chasing the Peloton
Rain, wind and cobbles always make for an interesting race for the riders. But what about spectators? Tim Lee shares his experience of chasing Gent Wevelgem in less than desirable weather however coming away quite content after seeing the favourite's team win but with a different rider...

By Tim Lee
Date: 08/04/2009
Location: Oost Vlaanderen -West Vlaanderen

By definition according to the UCI, Gent Wevelgem is a mid week semi classic. It 'only' celebrated its 71st edition this year, compared with the 93 times de Ronde has been run and won. Its distance is generally 50-60km shorter than the likes of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. It is also partaken on a Wednesday, which means it does not attract the crowd, media interest or general prestige that a Sunday race attracts. In many people's ill informed and uneducated eyes it is considered to be something of a nice filling for the week that is the meat in the Flanders/Roubaix sandwich.

Yet someone forgot to tell that to the thousands of fans that turned out in force on Wednesday to support this great race that in any other slot on the calendar would attract the billing as a top level race, equal in quality to any other classic out there. Gent-Wevelgem is a unique race. It is flat enough to offer an opportunity to the sprinters but has strategically placed climbs that can act as a launch pad for the rouleurs. There are cobbles thrown in to the mix and there is always the unpredictable Belgium weather to contend with.

Today my girlfriend and I went to get a taste of this great race. Unlike our experience with de Ronde three days prior, we did not have a car thus had to rely trains as our mode of transport. As such we chose to see the race start and finish as our two points of contact with Gent-Wevelgem.

First off we got caught the train from our base in Brussels to Deinze, which took approximately 40 minutes. Deinze is where the race starts, contradicting its very own name. Unfortunately Deinze did not greet us with favorable weather, but rather the type of drizzling, bleak day often associated with Belgium racing in the Spring. Never mind this though, as the mood was quite festive with music playing, stalls setting up and a generally high level of anticipation which lessened the effect of having to wear a poncho somewhat! A tip though, this is not a Tour de France stage, so getting to the village depart three hours before the start as we did is not necessitated...

That's me with Erik Zabel      Photo 2009 - Tim Lee

I decided to hang out at the bus compound to get a feel for what the riders vibes were for the day. The first place I chose to go was the Columbia bus, for the obvious reason that Mark Cavendish was the raging favourite for the day should it come down to a bunch gallop but also because two former Gent-Wevelgem winners were in its ranks: George Hincapie and Marcus Burghadt. Cavendish was his usual brash and self confident self. If he was feeling the pressure of being the outright favourite today, he sure was not showing it. Hincapie was the first rider out of the bus but remained largely aloof. Contrastingly Burghardt was the last Columbia rider to show himself but was quite chirpy and seemingly optimistic. Cavendish's sprinting mentor Erik Zabel was incredibly relaxed and very generous with all whom he met. It was just down to his pupil to do the work now...

Despite the Katyusha bus being the first to arrive, Pozzato was one of the very last to leave it and make his way to the start line. When he did however, he posed for photos with fans and was generally quite laid back. Also laid back was Matthew Goss, the young Aussie on Saxo Bank who had a quick chat with us before riding to the race depart. When we wished him well and told him to fly the Aussie flag today, he initially scoffed as a sign of modesty but following this was a knowing grin- we would see why a few hours and 203 km later.

Pozzato makes his way through the fans and photographers to the start.
Photo 2009 - Tim Lee

The Cervelo Test Team riders exited their bus at staggered intervals. Heinrich Haussler was focused and coming off his 2nd place in de Ronde on Sunday was quietly confident of a good team performance. Roger Hammond was running a little later and became quite frustrated with some of the crowd that impeded his ability to get to the start on time. Speaking of running late, almost the entire Caisse D'Pargne team basically stumbled off their bus and rode to the start literally after most of the other team buses had left and the start was imminent, some still clothing themselves. Obviously these Spaniards were not so keen on the weather Belgium had served them today!

Johan Museeuw  visits the Columbia/Highroad bus. Photo 2009 - Tim Lee

Also spotted were two former greats of Belgium classics, Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem. I only saw Museeuw from a distance but got the opportunity to have a quick chat with Van Petegem, the last rider to do the Flanders/Roubaix double (in 2003). He was having a casual beer in one of the bars in Deinze and was very genuine in his demeanor. He still looks pretty lean too.

So all of the riders made it to the start and the race got underway without the defending champion, Oscar Freire (Rabobank) who is still coming off an  injury from a fall earlier in the season and racing back to form in the Tour of the Basque Country. Whilst the crowd generally chatted about whether or not a sprint finish was the order of the day, we headed for the nearest cafe to dry out and warm up with a nice hot chocolate. From here we caught two further trains. The first got us to Kortrijk where we changed onto the second which took us to Wevelgem.

After having a brief look around Wevelgem (there really is not much, we didn't take long) we found ourselves a possie about 60 meters from the finish line and in direct view of the big screen which was televising the race. We could see that the front group was getting more and more frisky, with moves forming and reforming constantly. It was blatantly apparent they did not want to arrive at the finish with known fast guys like McEwen (Katusha) and Hincapie. Back in the peloton it was interesting to see Cavendish and Boonen riding very close to one another on the front up the climbs.

The finish in Wevelgem... watching the race live on the screen in the upper left of the picture. Photo 2009 - Tim Lee

Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) tried animating the race several times before succeeding in going solo with about 36km remaining. A few kilometers later a Columbia figure slowly but successfully bridged the gap to form a dynamic duo at the front of the race. The large figure with blonde hair had to be the Norwegian sensation Edvald Boasson Hagen. As the kilometers dwindled towards the finish and the leading duo were looking progressively more solid, the chasing group splintered under the impetus of constant attacking as everyone wanted to fight for third place. A group of three formed, consisting of Matthew Goss, Matthew Hayman (Rabobank) and Andries Klier (Cervelo).

Approaching the finish Boasson Hagen and Kuschynski continued to work well together until the final kilometer when the young Columbia rider glued himself to Kuschynski's wheel. He then opened his throttle and flew down the left side of the road while Kuschynski had no answer but fought valiantly to the line. A minute later Goss led home Hayman and a very tired looking Klier. A short while later Burghardt was the best of the chasers.

The Podium presentation, Edvald Boasson Hagen bows down to get his flowers and kisses from the podium lass. Photo 2009 - Tim Lee

The more animated the front group looked, the more lethargic the main bunch began to look as the realization that they would not be in contention slowly set in. They ended up rolling in several minutes after the remnants of the front group had finished at a decidedly casual pace looking like they just wanted to find their team bus, have a warm shower and dry out. Interestingly it was the Columbia manager Bob Stapleton himself that chaperoned Cavendish into a nearby tent at the finish. All other riders got the usual soigneur.

The presentation was made and in the space of a few minutes the transient population of Wevelgem had halved. Banners were already starting to be taken down, stalls were being dismantled and people were filing out of town at an alarming rate. Despite the day being wet, cold and windy no one really seemed to mind as the day had produced a great race with a deserving winner. In Boasson Hagen and Goss, the podium had two of the brightest young riders for the future who are sure to be atop many more podiums in the years to come. And when they are, I will think back to my day in Belgium when I saw the first glimpses of their evolving talent.

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