8 riders to watch at Gent-Wevelgem

From Classics superstars to flying sprinters and hopeful outsiders, here are the names to look out for on the cobbles on Sunday

Clock17:30, Saturday 23rd March 2024
Four of the contenders for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday

© Getty Images

Four of the contenders for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday

The busy and exciting Spring Classics period continues on Sunday with Gent-Wevelgem, one of the hardest and least predictable races on the calendar, offering climbs, cobbles and crosswinds for the men's and women's pelotons to tackle.

Coming a week before the Tour of Flanders, by Gent-Wevelgem we have a good idea of who is going well in the Classics, and who still needs to prove themselves ahead of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Some riders will be looking to continue a winning streak, whilst some are still hunting for that first big result.

Often billed as a sprinter's race, Gent-Wevelgem is anything but a formulaic Classic, and whilst it can come down to a bunch kick, more aggressive and selective scenarios are equally likely, especially if the weather is windy or wet, as it looks set to be on Sunday.

With the start of the men's and women's races just a sleep away, we've broken down who could be a threat on Sunday, from the reigning world champions to plucky outsiders. Here are our picks for who to keep an eye on in Gent-Wevelgem.

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Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck)

The parcours at Gent-Wevelgem might leave the window open for a reduced bunch sprint but make no mistake: Van der Poel is on another level at this point in the season, and if he has the motivation to win on Sunday there’s little that can be done to stop him. The 29-year-old, and recent beneficiary of a whopping ten-year contract at Canyon, is operating on a different level than his rivals. At the E3 Saxo Classic, the world champion swatted away attacks from elite riders such as Mads Pedersen and an entire entourage from Visma-Lease a Bike at will. It kickstarted his cobbled campaign with an emphatic victory.

Jasper Philipsen would have his own place on this list but we’re trying to limit it to one rider per team. The recent winner of Milan-San Remo has been in blistering form so far this year, and he creates the perfect one-two punch with Van der Poel.

Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx-Protime)

From one dominant world champion to another. Kopecky has raced more than Van der Poel this season but her tally of four wins from eight days of racing leaves her on equal footing with the Dutch rider, with an astonishing 50% win rate. In fact, Kopecky’s record is arguably more impressive given that she’s also won a GC race courtesy of the UAE Tour Women. The Belgian, who recently signed a new contract at SD Worx, hasn’t finished lower than second in a race in over a month but heads into Gent-Wevelgem having never made the top step of the podium. That streak is likely to end at some point, and if she can distance, or at least weaken, several other sprinters on the Kemmelberg, then she stands an excellent chance of improving on her two second places.

Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers)

Slightly left field, but Narváez definitely doesn’t get the credit his career deserves, especially in the English-speaking media. The 27-year-old has enjoyed a strong start to the season and he’s accounted for two-thirds of Ineos’ wins this season (if you just want to focus on the men’s road division, and not Pauline Ferrand-Prévot's victories). On Friday he was the closest rider to Van der Poel over the Paterberg before finishing a creditable sixth in Harelbeke and once again demonstrating a knack for surviving tough finishes through a combination of smart tactics and skill.

He might not have the punch that some of the more established Classics riders have but Narváez has the quality to infiltrate key moves in Gent-Wevelgem and then duke it out for a podium place if the right circumstances play out. When Tom Pidcock is missing from the start list the tag of next man up often rotates between several riders at Ineos but so far it’s Narváez who has delivered the most.

Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek)

The former world champion won just three times in 2023 but she has already surpassed that tally with four notches on her belt before the end of March. Her turns of speed to win Classic Brugge-De Panne, and before that Trofeo Alfredo Binda were simply devastating and she’s arguably in the best form she’s had since 2022, when she won Gent-Wevelgem. Lidl-Trek have certainly started the season with a bang, and Balsamo has been front and centre of the progress made by the American team. The team look well-drilled, determined, and deep with both talent and confidence. Lorena Wiebes got the better of the Italian earlier this month at the Miron Ronde van Drenthe but Gent-Wevelgem is set up perfectly to be round two between the two best sprinters in the women’s field, and on paper, it could be the best head-to-head yet.

Tim Merlier (Soudal Quick-Step)

Three years ago, you’d have received long odds on Patrick’s Lefevere's best chance of winning a cobbled (semi) Classic resting on a then-second-division sprinter, but that’s what happens when a Classics dynasty invests heavily in their Grand Tour ambitions and is forced to let their one-day ambitions drift. Merlier is still world-class, and he’s already taken half a dozen victories in 2024, but he is now the team’s best hope of winning before Remco Evenepoel returns to win a customary Ardennes Classic.

Given where Julian Alaphilippe and Kasper Asgreen currently find themselves in terms of form, Merlier will lead the line in Gent-Wevelgem, and while his record in the race is far from stellar – with just one top-10 – he remains a trusted outlet for the Belgian operation. Going up against Philipsen will be tough but Classic Brugge-De Panne demonstrated that the Soudal rider was good enough to win, he just needed a better run at the line. If it does come down to a reduced sprint or a small group, Merlier’s main issue could be the fact that he has to deal with Van der Poel’s lead-out even before he wrestles with Philipsen for the win. That’s a tough ask for any rider.

Fem van Empel (Visma-Lease a Bike)

Fem van Empel, 21, certainly isn’t the favourite for Gent-Wevelgem but she’s most definitely a rider to watch as she makes her road debut. The two-time elite cyclo-cross world champion was in glittering form over the winter, winning at will and setting herself up perfectly for a tilt at the Classics. She enters Gent-Wevelgem with a completely blank canvas, having never raced these races but her style of racing, aggressive nature and pure skill on the bike should give her a better advantage than most ‘newcomers’. There is, of course, a nuance to riding these races and experience cannot be dismissed when it comes to racing in the main field and learning the intricacies of the approaches to several cobbled climbs but this should be a fascinating watch nevertheless.

Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek)

Lidl-Trek were the strongest team in E3 on Friday, and unlike Visma-Lease a Bike, kept their cards in check and avoided several crashes. Their aggressive nature paid off with second place for Jasper Stuyven, and they continue to tread that fine line between being an excellent all-round operation but not quite having a rider who can win that cobbled Monument.

Pedersen and Stuyven are huge talents but they’re not quite on the same level of van der Poel, and when Wout van Aert is on song, he’s probably just ahead of them too. That means the American team have to be creative, and aggressive, and that approach paid off on Friday. Pedersen’s opportunism paid off in Gent-Wevelgem four years ago when he caught riders napping, before winning via a late attack, and it’s that fine line that will once again be needed if Lidl-Trek are going to stand on the top step. They’re not quite fast enough to beat Philipsen or Merlier, and in a dogfight against Van der Poel, they’re likely to come up short. They need to keep playing the numbers game and wait for either a mistake or a perfect window to attack.

Chiara Consonni (UAE Team ADQ)

Consonni has picked up six top-fives in 2024 but has yet to land a win. However, jer last successful Classics campaign in 2022 started in a similar fashion, with a bunch of placings and top-10s before taking a big victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Two years on, she’s still searching for that next Spring Classics win but the signs are promising. She’s in the mix at almost every race she enters, and her form is solidly building towards a shot at the Tour of Flanders in just over a week. She might not be at the current level of some of her rivals but if the race breaks kindly for her, and she capitalises on her improving form, then she could land a first win in Gent-Wevelgem and head into Flanders with her confidence sky-high.

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