Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by CorVos/Gomez/SWpix.com
My day started with my mum in tears, initially because she was pleased that I’d remembered to call her on Mother’s Day and then because I told her that I was going to spend my afternoon watching Gent-Wevegem In Flanders Fields.
The race has particular significance for our family, as my mum’s grandfather Lionel spent the last few months of the Great War stationed near the Kemmelberg with his artillery battery. His unit may well have taken part in the bombardment of the iconic hill during September 1918 that led to the Allied forces recapturing this strategic point from the Germans, who had taken it from the French five months earlier.
The West Flanders hill is both a natural monument to the fallen and a site of striking memorials including “The Angel of the Kemmel”, which honours the thousands of French troops who died on its slopes in the spring of 1918, and the Ossuary, which contains the bodies of 5,294 Frenchman, only 57 of whom have been identified.
I’ve reflected before on how road cycling’s intrinsic connection with the landscape provides this fascinating link with history. It’s one of the pillars of the sport’s success and popularity. It makes races like Gent-Wevelgem extremely poignant, especially given the current war in Ukraine, which saw such devastation during the Second World War when it was part of the Soviet Union and is reliving that horror now.
The race itself provided the latest reminder of one of the other pillars of road racing, its capacity to enthral and surprise. Beefed up in recent years to its traditional 250 kilometres, Gent-Wevelgem began with one team head and shoulders above their rivals. Thanks to Jumbo-Visma’s domination of Friday’s GP E3 Saxo Bank Classic that ended with teammates Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte coasting across the line with the rest of the pack nowhere to be seen, the Dutch squad were, many said, “unbeatable”.
For most of Wevelgem, they raced with that assurance in mind. Almost every time an attack went, it was either triggered by a Jumbo rider or had one in tow. Their Italian rouleur Edoardo Affini produced another powerhouse impression of the recently retired Tony Martin, Timo Roosen’s Dutch national champion’s colours kept appearing at the front, while Nathan Van Hooydonck and Mike Teunissen covered a string of dangerous moves for their three leaders.
Once the race reached the first of three ascents of the Kemmelberg, that trio – van Aert, Laporte and Tiesj Benoot – looked like they might produce a replay of the E3, not least when all three of them figured in a very strong group of eight that broke clear following the final ascent of the Kemmel. Although a large group reeled them in a few kilometres later, Jumbo were again represented when what proved to be the winning four-man break went clear with 25km remaining.
Laporte initiated the move and the Frenchman was joined by two Belgians, Jasper Stuyven of Trek-Segafredo and Dries Van Gestel of Total Energies, plus budding Eritrean star Biniam Girmay of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert. Riding into a strong breeze, which was right into their faces in the closing kilometres on the wide roads approaching the finish in Wevelgem, the quartet’s advantage never reached much more than 30 seconds, but it proved to be enough as the large group behind failed to coalesce in its pursuit.
Coming into the finish, Girmay, who had changed his planned programme to make what was his debut appearance in the race after finishing fifth in E3, looked like he was spent. At one point, Stuyven urged the Eritrean back into line as the collaboration between the quartet almost broke down. Yet, the 21-year-old still had the wits to get himself into the ideal position at the back of the line as the leading four came up the finishing straight. He then showed he had the sprinting speed to make that tactical nous count as he swept by his rivals and held off Laporte’s challenge to win by a bike length.
Girmay’s was a hugely significant victory for two reasons. Firstly, because it was the first victory in a Belgian Classic by an African rider. His success also came six years to the day since Wanty-Gobert’s Antoine Demoitié died following Gent-Wevelgem, during which he’d been struck by a race motorbike after crashing with a number of other riders.
Silver medallist in last year’s World Under-23 Road Race Championship in Leuven, Belgium, when he gave the wider cycling world a first sighting of his blistering sprint, Girmay is the latest successful graduate from the UCI’s World Cycling Academy that’s based at the organisation’s HQ in the Swiss town of Aigle. His Wevelgem success was the biggest ever taken by a black African rider, and will surely be the first of many that Girmay will savour.
As a racer, he has the raw talent and enthusiasm that reminds me of the young Peter Sagan when the Slovak broke out on the WorldTour stage as a 20-year-old in 2010. Girmay admitted following E3 that he didn’t know any of the roads and that it was only the second time he’d raced on cobbles, the first occasion being the 2021 Worlds. He hadn’t, he added, even trained on cobbles and had relied on experienced teammates Andrea Pasqualon and Adrien Petit to keep him in the right position on climbs like the Oude Kwaremont, which he’d also never seen before. The lessons learned in E3 were quickly put to winning use in Wevelgem.
Unlike most of the leading riders he’s competed against in those two events, Girmay won’t continue on to the Tour of Flanders. Instead, he will stick to his plan of returning home to Eritrea to spend some time with his wife and young child. He’ll then go to an altitude training camp to prepare for his next objective, his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia. Having shown that Jumbo-Visma are beatable, it will be fascinating to see what the new African star can produce in the corsa rosa.