Words by Joe Parkin
I love Gent-Wevelgem. I do. And I understand that no one is really supposed to. But I do.
I mean, I suppose riders like Peter Sagan would love it, or at least really appreciate it, given his string of podiums there. And riders from the near and distant past like Boonen and Cipollini and Merckx and Van Looy would also have a pretty near-and-dear appreciation for it. Each of those guys had bigger races to top their palmares, but having each won multiple editions, it seems they would at least love Gent-Wevelgem in a sort of favorite cousin sort of way.
From a calendar-of-global-cycling perspective, it would be easy to look at Gent-Wevelgem as an also-ran event. “Oh, by the way, Gent-Wevelgem is coming up. You know, the one that used to be held in between Flanders and Roubaix.”
For the record, most English speakers don’t pronounce it right. Not even close. If you live anywhere close to Gent or Wevelgem, the G in Gent is essentially an H. Hent. Say it with me. And Wevelgem is WAY-vəl-hem. It’s not Wə-VELL-gem. Nope, he accent is on the first syllable. It’s a common mistake, kind of like when people say du-VAHL for a brand of Belgian beer spelled Duval and properly pronounced DOO-vəl.
But however you choose to pronounce it, I still love this race. And I’ve spent, oh, about three decades trying to decide why that is.
Gent-Wevelgem is one of the Flanders Classics, literally and figuratively. It has been a classic in the hearts and minds of Belgian race fans since it was first held in 1934. And the globalization of cycling that kicked off pretty seriously back in the early 1990s brought it to the attention of race fans around the world. Still, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix have mostly overshadowed it.
I’m not sure most people understand that most of the Flanders Classics consists of a sort of Legos set of course building blocks — roads and little climbs and stuff that have been used in different sequences for decades.
People always ask, “What’s the difference between the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad or the E3 Prijs or E3 Harelbeke and the Ronde van Vlaanderen?” Essentially it’s the difference between regular season NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL play and the Super Bowl, Playoffs, World Series or Stanley Cup Finals. Other than gravity, worth, hype, whatever, it’s basically all the same field of play and the same players.
Gent-Wevelgem, however, is a wee bit different. At least the editions I rode were. Gent-Wevelgem is a wind race. Sure, most of the Flanders Classics have a wind component, but Gent-Wevelgem is where the wind will straight torture you for hours at a time.
I was scared shitless of this race before I rode it. To be fair, a young rider should be scared before they line up for any of the Classics. I was scared, though, because I had ridden the amateur close-cousin of Gent-Wevelgem, Gent-Ieper, and had not gotten along with it at all. I mean, I didn’t actually suck in that race, but amateurs race differently in the wind than the pros do, and I had been caught out by amateur racing.
When I lined up at the start of my very first Gent-Wevelgem [1988, if you need to know], I envisioned a similar outcome — not making it into the first echelon and chasing it all day long. Reality was pleasantly different.
If long ago memory serves, it was a really windy day. And luckily, that wind was a ball-up-the-nose headwind for like a hundred kilometers before we turned inland. I am not exactly a night owl, but I am also not the quickest-moving human first thing out of the gate. A couple three hours of headwind gave me a chance to wake up.
But then we turned left, and headed into the 53×12 zone for the next 40-or-so kilometers. Imagine being in a car wreck, plane wreck and train wreck for the better part of an hour. That’s what it felt like. Pure chaos. I was going as hard as I could go, watching the rider in front of me, and every once in a while I would hear some kind of muffled barking of orders, or other such noise, followed sometimes by the sound of a rider hitting a parked car or riding off the road and into a ditch.
But what seared that first Gent-Wevelgem into my memory so vividly was the fact that I had accidentally made it into the first groups. And the riders who shared that road space with me were all superstars of the sport. So, perhaps for that ever-so-short period of time, I was a superstar too.
Sean Kelly won the 1988 event. To be honest, I had to look that up, because I was nowhere near him at the finish. I might’ve been a superstar for a 40-km section of side wind, but I was 21-year-old neo-pro for the rest of the race. Still, it was the first real name-brand race I finished.
I came back to Gent-Wevelgem a couple more times. And while my recorded results would be regarded as pure disappointment by the likes of riders like Sagan and Boonen and Merckx, I know I was present for them — even contributed to those races’ flavor — which is kind of cool.