Preview: Ghent - Wevelgem

Changes to make Kemmelberg descent safer

The Kemmelberg will keep on kicking in 2008 with its inclusion in the 70th Gent-Wevelgem despite multiple incidents last year. But the race organiser has modified the climb's approach and descent to avoid the trouble seen when riders, including Frenchman Jimmy Casper, were injured on the high-speed descent.

The classic – won last year by German Marcus Burghardt and including famous past winners such as Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Looy – will start in Deinze, 15km west of Gent, on Wednesday at 11:30 and travel to Wevelgem, covering 209 kilometres. But it's in the finale that the Kemmelberg (south of Ieper) strikes two times – kilometre 148 and 172 – making the race a credible Classic and preventing what would otherwise be an all-out bunch sprint on the Vanackerestraat.

The first change comes with the introduction of the Steenstraat at kilometre 49. It is a 2500-metre run that organisers hope will spread out the peloton for the latter portions of the race.

The parcours won't take in much of Belgium's coast, unlike in previous editions. Instead, it will head straight for De Panne, avoiding the southward run from Oostende. Once near De Panne, the route turns left for Belgium's southwest corner, past the feed-zone in Poperinge and onto the village of Kemmel (km 146 & 170) for the start of the Kemmelberg.

The approach to the Kemmelberg is different thanks to the small climb of the Bergstraat. Its inclusion will slow down the speeds off the Monteberg, heading towards the foot of the Kemmelberg. Instead of turning left to start the climb, riders will turn right.

The climb is the same as in 2007, approaching from the east, cobbled and steep as can be. It is usually approached at such high speeds that the weak are shredded out the back while the smart sprinters keep in contact by starting the climb towards the front and fading back towards the summit.

Pros have always been wary of descending the Kemmelberg, but the scenes shown on TV last year of bodies tumbling down the cobbles will have added to the fear factor. So the organisers will reroute the riders at the top with a left turn onto the Klokhof to start an asphalt decent. The tricky part will come from the sharp and dangerous right turn on to the Kemmelstraat. A short run and a turn left will have the riders back on the Kemmelberg descent, but at least they will have missed some of the cobbles. Whether this will work as a safety tactic remains to be seen.

22 kilometres later the riders will be in Kemmel to start the climb again. Once over the top and down the tricky run, they will have 27 kilometres to play their final cards. Any escape that makes it clear over the two climbs will fight to stay clear, whereas the sprinters' teams will fight to bring it back together.

Favourites

In 2007, Marcus Burghardt formed part of an elite group off the second round of the Kemmelberg that was whittled down to five. Cycling's fresh-faced German won't be returning this year because of a knee injury, nonetheless, there will be plenty of stars in the 70th edition.

The biggest threat will come from Rabobank, the team that fired perfectly in the Tour of Flanders, but were shy of victory. Oscar Freire launched attacks for his teammates on Sunday, but expect the three-time World Champion of Spain to be better protected on Wednesday, with Graeme Brown and Sebastian Langeveld having a support role.

High Road's Mark Cavendish will be one to watch as his form is hot, based upon his two stage wins in the KBC Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. He will be protected by a cast that will include ProTour leader André Greipel, Roger Hammond and George Hincapie.

2006 winner Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) will be a contender as he showed great form on Sunday. Australian Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) has never won this race but it suits him and he has been specifically building for it. Liquigas' Francesco Chicchi threw down the hammer that netted him the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in last week's De Panne, expect to see him Wednesday, possibly with the support of team-star Filippo Pozzato.

Barloworld will head to Deinze with Robert Hunter and Baden Cooke as candidates, both men having good chances in the race, with the Australian, Cooke, being the better bet of the two. Quick Step, fresh off of success with Stijn Devolder in the Tour of Flanders, will likely target the race with Belgians Gert Steegmans and Tom Boonen, although its riders have yet to be confirmed.

Team CSC's options will come from Australian Stuart O'Grady and Norwegian Kurt-Asle Arvesen. Both have good chances, with the latter just having won the E3 Prijs. It is not known if Fabian Cancellara or Matthew Goss will line up, but they would be good bets, too, should they decide to start.

Milram will back Niki Terpstra, should the Dutchman decide to race. He made an impressive mark in the Tour of Flanders, but it is not 100 percent clear yet if he will head to the start in Deinze. But Milram has Erik Zabel to bank on for a small group sprint. Acqua e Sapone will be behind Luca Paolini, second in De Panne stage one. Finally, Italian Team Lampre can point towards its sprinter Danilo Napolitano, who also showed strongly in Flanders.

For full race coverage, including live report, photos and results, visit Cyclingnews.com.

Gregor Brown
Author: Gregor Brown
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