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Preview: Gent-Wevelgem, a sprinter’s classic?

With classics season in full swing, the one-day racers are set to take on the cobblestones of Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. Now in its 78th year, Gent-Wevelgem is the final classic on the men’s WorldTour calendar before the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and the start list rarely disappoints.

Although the parcours includes plenty of cobbled hellingen (hills), among them the fearsome Kemmelberg, Gent-Wevelgem has a reputation as a sprinter’s race thanks to the many flat kilometers that stretch between the last berg on the route and the finish line. As such, the event tends to attract several big-name speedsters hoping to add a prestigious classics victory to their palmares.

This year is no exception — however, to get to the small town of Wevelgem in one piece, the riders often have to brave fierce low-country weather. Gusting winds were so strong in last year’s edition that some riders in the men’s race found themselves blown right off the road.

Combined with a heavy downpour that lasted for hours, that pretty much spelled the end of the bunch sprinters’ chances in 2015. Veteran classics specialist Luca Paolini triumphed after going solo 5km from the finish line.

It’s hard to imagine the conditions getting quite that bad this weekend, but rain and wind are on the forecast yet again. That could set up another intriguing battle between the opportunists and the sprinters.

The men’s race

After setting out from suburban Deinze, some 20 kilometers from Gent, the peloton will tackle 243km in total, facing 10 cobbled climbs along the way. That includes two visits to the Kemmelberg.

Following that second Kemmelberg ascent, however, they’ll still have 34 mostly flat kilometers left to race, which could give the sprinters time to make up lost ground — assuming the wind hasn’t blown them into the Netherlands by that point.

With that in mind, those who combine sprinting prowess with proven classics grit look to be the best candidates to take the victory in Wevelgem.

Few riders match that description better than Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff. Whether he relies on the top-end speed that won him Milano-Sanremo in 2014 or the raw power that saw him motor away from the bunch en route to a Tour of Flanders victory in 2015, Kristoff has all the tools to win this race.

2013 winner Peter Sagan can’t be counted out either. The Tinkoff rider knows this race well, counting three career podium finishes on his palmares, and he could be in for more success if the race is selective enough.

Lotto – Soudal’s André Greipel is a strong bet as well, especially given the way he impressed mostly as a domestique last classics season.

Etixx – Quick-Step has options: Tom Boonen has won Gent-Wevelgem three times, but youngster Fernando Gaviria may be a better bet now in bunch sprint. Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra are cards to play in a potential late move.

Milano-Sanremo champion Arnaud Démare of FDJ notched a runner-up result at Gent-Wevelgem in 2014 and could be in the mix again in 2016. Dimension Data will look to 2009 winner Edvald Boasson Hagen to land a big result. Trek – Segafredo’s Giacomo Nizzolo, Lampre – Merida’s Sacha Modolo, and Sky’s Elia Viviani are other speedsters who, like Cavendish, will likely be doing all they can to hold out for a sprint on terrain that may be a bit more challenging than they’d prefer.

Meanwhile, the in-form Greg Van Avermaet could be dangerous in a late escape, but the BMC Racing rider withdrew from Friday’s E3 Harelbeke at the last minute because of an illness. His team hopes he’ll race Sunday.

Trek’s Fabian Cancellara and LottoNL – Jumbo’s Sep Vanmarcke are two others to watch Sunday.

The women’s race

Running 114km from Leper to Wevelgem, the women’s event marks the fourth stop on the 2016 women’s WorldTour. The Kemmelberg is featured twice along the five-climb route, with the Monteberg serving as the final climb of the day 34km from the finish.

Despite the long run-in to the line, escape artists have prevailed in recent years, which should provide an indication of the difficulty in predicting the race.

Liv – Plantur’s Floortje Mackaij is the defending champion, but she will have her work cut out for her this weekend. 2014 winner Elizabeth Armitstead has won 100 percent of the road races she has finished since late August, and her combination of finishing speed and breakaway savvy makes her a dangerous rider at Gent-Wevelgem. Chantal Blaak and Megan Guarnier will be other strong options for Boels – Dolmans.

Wiggle – High5 also has quite a collection of cards to play with Elisa Longo Borghini, Emma Johansson, and Jolien D’Hoore.

Shelley Olds (Cylance), Lucinda Brand (Rabo – Liv), and Canyon – SRAM’s Barbara Guarischi and Lisa Brennauer could be in the mix as well.

Staring down those rivals and more, 37-year-old American Lauren Hall of Tibco – SVB) will hope to rediscover some of the form that won her the race back in 2014, while Janneke Ensing (Parkhotel Valkenburg) will look to turn two straight runner-up performances at Gent-Wevelgem into her first pro victory.