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Overall: Freire wins Ghent-Wevelgem

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Freire wins and Ghent-Wevelgem lives up to its nickname: the sprinters' classic.
Freire wins and Ghent-Wevelgem lives up to its nickname: the sprinters' classic.

Oscar Freire’s knack for winning chaotic sprints made him a favorite to win the 70th edition of Ghent-Wevelgem as a huge 77-rider pack thundered toward the finish line in this small Belgian town. And while the cagey 32-year-old did emerge victorious to become the event’s first Spanish champion, Freire and his Rabobank teammates earned the win the old-fashioned way.

The men in orange squashed a handful of breakaways inside the final kilometers, and then delivered their speedy captain to the line ahead of the burly Swiss sprinter Aurélien Clerc (Bouygues Telecom) and solid local man Wouter Weylandt (Quick Step-Innergetic).

“It was a perfect race for the team,” said Freire. “We went easy the last part of the race because nobody would help us pull. But then we did a good job into the finish.”

Freire’s Rabobank teammates Pedro Horillo, Tom Leezer, Bram Tankink and Juan Antonio Flecha grabbed the front of the peloton with 30km remaining to shut down a dangerous move by Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) and Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), who had joined early attacker Ermanno Capelli (Saunier Duval-Scott).

As Rabobank eased back with 20km to go, a strong counterattack was started by CSC’s Kurt-Asle Arvesen, who was joined by former Swiss national champion Martin Elmiger (AG2R-La Mondiale). The break became five strong when a 10-second gap was crossed by Frédéric Guesdon (Française des Jeux), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Stuart O’Grady (CSC). Rabobank again went to the front, closed in on the break, and finally stamped out a countermove by O’Grady and Quinziato with 3km left, to clear the way for Freire’s winning surge.

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“Everybody was thinking this would come down to the sprinters,” said Flecha, who just three days ago powered his way to a third-place finish at the Tour of Flanders. “We knew weather conditions would affect this race and there were still 70 riders here at the end of the Kemmelberg.”

A stroll in the sun

Indeed calm skies and sunshine greeted the 196-strong peloton for the 11:30 a.m. rollout from the start in Deinze, 20km southwest of Ghent. While temperatures were far from balmy — the thermometer stayed in the mid-40s for most of the day — riders who raced Sunday’s cold, wet and windy Tour of Flanders undoubtedly welcomed the dry conditions.

“I think today those of us who had a very hard Flanders were looking to not go so hard,” Flecha said. “We want to save it for [Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix].”

But the lack of Belgium’s traditionally harsh conditions had many questioning whether the 2008 edition of the semi-classic would be enough of a challenge. Changes to the course kept riders from spinning toward the North Sea coast’s gusty winds.

The calm conditions meant that the strongest squads could not dice up the peloton into echelons as usually happens in Ghent-Wevelgem along the flat straightaways. And while the 2008 course again sent riders clawing up the Kemmelberg’s punishing slopes on two laps of a loop through the green hills along the Belgium-France border, organizers replaced the climb’s sketchy cobbled descent with a downhill on a bike path-sized strip of tarmac.

“These climbs are hard but they’re not hard enough to split the professional peloton,” said Roger Hammond (Team High Road). “No wind means it’s hard to split things up. When it’s like this a lot of guys can get to the finish line.”

A lot of guys did get to the finish line, but only after a string of ill-fated breakaways tested the peloton’s patience. Capelli, a first-year professional from Ponte San-Pietro, Italy, attacked at kilometer 85, shortly before the troops rumbled through the town of Veurne. He gained as much as 10 minutes on the field before reaching the hills.

Ermanno Capelli was in a breakaway for nearly 100km
Ermanno Capelli was in a breakaway for nearly 100km

Pozzato and CSC’s Matti Breschel were the first to pursue Capelli, speeding away from the peloton on the group’s first ascent of the Kemmelberg. Belgium’s Gilbert leapt from the group 5km later and joined Pozzato and Breschel after a hard 5km chase. But the group’s fate was sealed when CSC’s young Dane flatted between the loop’s the course’s two climbs, the Monteberg and Kemmelberg.

Flecha’s attack up the Kemmelberg split the peloton into two groups and upped the pace. While the two groups eventually merged into one, Rabobank’s surge to the front swallowed Pozzato and Gilbert, who had caught the tiring Capelli, with 28km to go.

Rabobank had reason to worry as the front two chased groups merged at the same point. High Road’s star British sprinter Mark Cavendish came into the race as another of the favorites, having proved the strength of his kick with two sprint victories at the April 1-3 Three Days of De Panne. Protecting Cavendish in the main group were seasoned veterans Hammond, Andreas Klier, Servais Knaven and American George Hincapie.

But the race’s sizable bunch sprint caught Cavendish off guard. In just his first Ghent-Wevelgem, the young Brit finished a disappointing 17th, but learned an important lesson about the race known as the sprinters’ classic.

It was dangerous. I almost crashed five times in the few kilometers,” Cavendish said. “In a stage race a lot of these guys aren’t up there at the end, but in a one-day [race] you see a lot of guys who want to go for the win even if they’re not good sprinters.”

But the dangerous bumping and shoving didn’t deter Oscar Freire, who was delivered to the front by his lead-out train with about 300 meters to go and, despite a gusting head wind, he was already celebrating his clear victory as Clerc rushed through to take second place from Weylandt and German veteran Erik Zabel (Milram).

With this result Freire moved up to fourth place in the UCI ProTour standings, which are still led by Tour Down Under winner André Greipel (High Road), who did not race Wednesday.

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