Ten Takeaways: A Cinderella Story at Gent–Wevelgem
The cobbled classic served up a stunning upset win & held plenty of clues regarding who to watch at next weekend's Tour of Flanders
This weekend served up a shocking win at Gent-Wevelgem when 21-year-old Eritrean Biniam Girmay upset the heavily-favored, red-hot, Jumbo-Visma team by forcing himself into an elite front group of Christophe Laporte, Dries Van Gestel and Jasper Stuyven and used a bold long sprint to take a win that was massive for himself, his team, and his home continent of Africa.
In a race that was beautifully controlled by Jumbo-Visma, Girmay won in his first-ever appearance at the event due to his confident and bold choices in the final 100-kilometers and threw down a performance that made it clear that a new star of the Classics had arrived.
While Girmay, unfortunately, won’t be present at next weekend’s gem of the Spring Tour of Flanders, the race held plenty of clues (like a confident TotalEnergies, cobbled-season Mohorič, and dominant Jumbo) regarding who to watch as we approach the main events of the classics season.
81km: Kasper Asgreen attacks up the Kemmelberg with Wout van Aert on his wheel
80km: After a Matej Mohoric attack, there is a slight lull. Jumbo domestique Nathan Van Hooydonck attacks by smartly going the other way through a roundabout to give himself separation.
78km: The race splits into multiple groups after a few more attacks. Jumbo has Teunissen & Van Hooydonck in the small group upfront, while Laporte and Van Aert are getting a free ride from teams who don’t have representation in the front in the chase group behind. This shows the advantage of having a strong team and superior numbers in the final 100kms of these classics.
70km: Van Aert and Laporte are letting the sprinters’ teams work only to come forward to surge on the climbs in an attempt to shed the sprinters themselves. This ‘double vice’ strategy is extremely shrewd and sets up a Laporte or Van Aert sprint win perfectly.
58km: The chase group finally catches breakaways as they approach the penultimate pass of the Kemmelberg.
52km: Kasper Asgreen leads Van Aert into the Kemmelberg, but outside of a hard pace that splits the leaders off the front, everyone appears to be keeping their powder dry for the final pass.
39km: Tiesj Benoot attacks a few kms from the final climb and Mads Pedersen marks him. This is odd since Pedersen would be one of my favorites to win the sprint finish but is burning valuable matches chasing a long-shot attack.
34km: Coming into the final pass of the Kemmelberg, Jumbo is leading the peloton, but oddly, Van Aert, in contrast to Friday at E3, is wildly out of position.
34km: This poor positioning means that he has to come from so far back that he uses the effort that could have been used to ride away from the others simply to get even, so when he does get to the front, his attack is severely blunted.
32km: While he gets clear on the climb, his gap is small enough that he is reeled in by an elite group shortly after.
32km: This elite group looked like it could potentially stay away, but the Intermarche team, led by Girmay, leads the charge behind. This also tells us that if an Intermarche rider were in the move, the chase group would be severely diminished.
24km: Girmay’s group is able to close the gap and shortly after the catch, Laporte attacks, and Girmay, correctly sensing this is the winning move, is right on his wheel.
23km: They are eventually joined by Jasper Stuyven from Trek and Dries Van Gestel from TotalEnergies, which means the strongest teams won’t be available to close them down. Oddly, Stuyven is eager to work in the group front group despite having the slowest sprint of the four and having Mads Pedersen, one of the fastest sprinters in the race, in the group behind.
13km: The peloton is being led by a rag-tag group including Movistar (for Iván García Cortina), Alpecin (for Tim Merlier), and FDJ (for Arnaud Démare) and the gap has gone out to 37-seconds. With the four leaders working seamlessly upfront, there is no chance the still slightly non-committal peloton will reel them in.
1km: The gap is still around 18-seconds to the peloton, but Søren Kragh Andersen has surged clear and is putting some light pressure on the leaders. Laporte, clearly feeling this, goes to the front far too early while Girmay grabs the prime spot in the back. Laporte immediately knows this is a very bad position and is weaving across the road attempting to get off the front, but it is too late and the others are willing to call his bluff, while he is under enough pressure to cave.
250m: Just as Laporte glances away, Girmay smartly opens his sprint before the others expect and is able to build up so much speed that he already has a gap by the time they can respond.
150m: This early move leaves him with an extremely long sprint effort, but the gap is big enough that the others have to close down a significant distance before pulling even with him. Also, we can see how close Kragh Andersen was lurking in the background and why Laporte was slightly panicked.
Finish: The overhead shot shows us that even while Laporte was going much faster than Girmay and closing him down in the final 50 meters, the initial gap was simply too large and Girmay is able to hold him off for a massively important victory.
Biniam Girmay +0
Christophe Laporte +0
Dries Van Gestel +0
Jasper Stuyven +0
Søren Kragh Andersen +8
Tim Merlier +8
Mads Pedersen +8
Iván García Cortina +8
Matej Mohorič +8
Arnaud Démare +8
1) Biniam Girmay is the real deal
The 21-year-old Eritrean rode the perfect Gent-Wevelgem and gets a massive victory. Outside of being the biggest win of his young career, this is the biggest race (I can recall) ever won by a black African rider.
And this is far from a fluke victory. Girmay was confident enough to get into multiple moves, close down the ones he missed and go with Laporte when it seemed like the race was heading for a sprint finish.
During the race, I thought he invested too much energy marking moves, but in retrospect, this was worth it to avoid being stuck behind in the disorganized, and ultimately, doomed chase group.
As a testament to his consistency throughout the season, after this win, he sits in 6th place overall in the 2022 PCS rider rankings.
He has also finished 12th at Milano-Sanremo and 5th at E3 in the week leading into this. Over the last few weeks, he has racked up superior palmares to nearly all of his European-based peers who get far more media attention (his Spring so far has been better than the much higher profile Tom Pidcock at the same point last year). Hopefully, this win acts as a wake-up call that Girmay is one of the elite young riders in the sport and should be treated as such.
Oddly, Girmay, now the hottest classics prospect in the sport, can’t ride next week’s Tour of Flanders due to visa complications requiring him to return to his home country in order to see his wife and young child. This shows just one of the many difficulties facing Eritrean riders in what is already an incredibly difficult and insular European sport.
2) Intermarché are the current Kings of Belgium
The team has risen from the 4th best Belgian team behind QuickStep, Lotto, and Alpecin, but are now winning the races those teams have prided themselves on winning in the past.
They’ve just won one of the biggest cobbled classics of the season and have consistently finished higher than the other Belgian teams in the races leading into Gent-Wevelgem.
They’ve also swiped one of the most talented cobbled Classics contenders while their rivals have dealt with much more expensive, yet less productive, riders.
Also, due to Girmay’s successful spring, they’ve likely avoided relegation and secured their spot in the WorldTour for the next three seasons.
3) Should we reconsider just how important experience is for success in the classics?
Girmay wins a major cobbled classic in his first full season in the WorldTour and becomes the second rider in just the last few months (Sonny Colbrelli at Paris-Roubaix being the first) to win a major cobbled race in his first attempt.
This is obviously a limited sample size, but his inexperience almost appeared to help him make decisions to close down moves in the last 50km versus riders like Démare and Merlier, who almost appeared to overthink things and err too far on the conservative side.
4) Rider recruitment & talent identification systems inside major teams are broken
If Girmay’s former Delko team hadn’t folded in 2021, he wouldn’t even have been at the start line of this race. This shows just how much talent is lurking beneath in the lower divisions (particularly in riders not from traditional cycling nations) and just how bad major teams, who have loads of unproductive riders on massive contracts, are at identifying much better (and less expensive) talent.
As superteams like Ineos and QuickStep seem to be struggling to field teams with top-tier race-winning talent, it would seem like a thorough investigation of these talents would be merited.
The fact that Girmay likely makes far less than every other rider in that final group despite being the most talented, shows exactly why and how there is still a place for small-budgeted teams to disrupt their much bigger-budgeted rivals.
5) Wout van Aert & Jumbo missed out, did they play the right card?
Jumbo appeared significantly less overpowering than they were at E3 and were noticeably less present heading into climbs than they were on Friday.
Part of this is by design since E3 is a harder race that suited itself to their full-court press style that launched Van Aert and Laporte off the front, while Gent-Wevelgem is an ‘easier’ course that
The fact that GW produced solo winners at a much lower rate than both E3 & Flanders meant a more measured strategy was in order.
In the end, with Van Aert both not on his best day, and not favored in a sprint, their options were somewhat limited and their tactics set the table perfectly for a Laporte win despite the lack of the win.
6) Christophe Laporte seemed to feel the pressure
His Jumbo team appeared to recognize that Laporte presented their best chance to win in a sprint finish due to the fact that Van Aert hasn’t won a single sprint so far in 2022, and they served up the perfect situation for the Frenchman to nab the biggest win of his career, but a slight positioning miscalculation in the final kilometer spoiled this.
While this strategy was solid, you could almost feel the pressure on Laporte as the lead group of four headed into the final few kilometers and seemed to make Laporte extremely risk-averse, which ended up costing him the win.
Oddly, his Jumbo team working to land him in that lead group and being the favorite to win made him an easy mark for a rider like Girmay to fly under the radar and snipe the win from the back of the group.
7) Trek-Segafredo picked the wrong leader
Despite having one of the fastest sprinters in the race in Mads Pedersen, Trek seemed happy to let Jasper Stuyven get up the road and work with three faster riders.
Also, they had Pedersen marking Tiesj Benoot after he attacked heading into the final pass of the Kemmelberg which cost him valuable energy and likely kept him from responding to Laporte’s attack after the climb.
The fact that their strategy seemed to almost confuse their two stars was extremely baffling, but perhaps could be part of a larger plan that has Stuyven committed to playing domestique for Pedersen at next week’s Flanders.
8) QuickStep is officially struggling
We’ve seen hints all Spring that the former kings of the cobbles, QuickStep, wasn’t at their usual level, but Sunday confirmed that the Wolfpack has been defanged.
The team is off to its worst cobbled start in years and most concerningly, appears unable to get numerous riders in the lead group with Kasper Asgreen to run their patented multi-option attack strategy.
The team wasn’t even particularly active in their sole cobbled success at Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, and Fabio Jakobsen, who won that race, won’t be unable to contribute as the reasons get less and less sprint friendly.
Making matters worse, they weren’t outdone by a superteam on Sunday, but by a low-budgeted rival Belgian team whose star rider was unemployed and available to sign just 12-months ago.
9) The one-day sprint game is changing
Sunday perfectly displayed the stark fissure that is forming between the old-school and new-school sprint teams.
While Alpecin-Fenix and Groupama-FDJ sat back and trusted that the race would come back together for a sprint, Jumbo and Intermarché gambled on getting their fastest riders into the move.
This used to be seen as risky or even foolhardy, but with the balance of power shifting towards breakaways in recent seasons, in reality, this strategy is correctly hedging risks.
And as we saw in the final few kilometers, the disorganized chase group couldn’t come to an agreement on how to share the work, which allowed Kragh Andersen to slip off the front and beat the faster riders. This means that even if they would have been able to bring the move to heel, there is a good chance the sprinters still would have missed out on the win.
10) Matej Mohorič is emerging as a legitimate classics contender
After winning his maiden Monument at Milano-Sanremo, Matej Mohorič dipped his toes in the cobbled classics water to strong success with 4th place on Friday at E3 and 9th at Gent-Wevelgem.
These impressive results from the incredibly versatile rider show that he has clearly improved his cobbled skills and should be a rider to watch as the racing gets harder and in closer alignment with his style at Flanders.
One thing that bodes well for Mohorič is that while Gent-Wevelgem can appear at a glance to be similar to the Tour of Flanders, success here isn’t particularly tethered to success at the biggest cobbled races later in the Spring.