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Re-Cycle: When Gent-Wevelgem was blown apart, and Thomas took a tumble

Re-Cycle: When Gent-Wevelgem was blown apart, and Thomas took a tumble

25/03/2020 at 23:14Updated 26/03/2020 at 22:33

Rewinding only five years to the crazy, windswept 2015 edition of Gent-Wevelgem, Felix Lowe remembers bearded Italian veteran Luca Paolini’s victory on a day of blustery subplots, cobbled catastrophe and endless drama.

Perhaps best remembered as the day a future Tour de France winner was blown off his bike, the utter mayhem of this cobbled Classic has gone down in cycling folklore as a race that gave birth to a new type of weather: Gent-Wevelgem weather.

There are crosswinds with minor quibbles. Then there are crosswinds of waspish fury; bitter, resentful, indignant gusts, incandescent with rage; draughts of displeasure, typhoons of tetchiness, gales of aggravation. You get the picture. But the crosswinds that blew apart the peloton on 29 March 2015, were something else entirely.

One of the important Belgian races in the lead up to the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem often courts unexpected drama. In 2000, Erik Zabel was knocked off by a stray black horse; three years later, Italian stallion Mario Cipollini was disqualified for throwing his water bottle at an official on a motorcycle.

But no one could have expected the level of sustained excitement and farce as happened in 2015. A race often reduced to a routine finish for the sprinters was turned on its head and developed legendary status over the course of six hours and 20 minutes.

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In a now famous article, the former semi-pro cyclist Thijs Zonneveld wrote for NU.nl that it seemed as if the 2015 edition "lasted a week – at least".

" So much happened yesterday that you cannot fit it in one day or in one course. And certainly not in one column. To describe yesterday's Gent-Wevelgem you need at least a 60,000-page trilogy printed in very small print. You can write a chapter or 10 about the wind that blew away cyclists and their bikes like plastic bags from Aldi over an empty parking lot. You can type a speech of 100,000 words about the madness of a race hit by gale-force nine, and you can write a just as big a plea about its beauty."

For race organiser Griet Langedock it was something of a dilemma: never before had her race garnered so much attention, but never before had the volunteer firefighter been forced to work so hard in the space of a shift that seemed never-ending. As she succinctly summarises:

"It was perfect – afterwards. The day itself – panic, worries."

Gone with the wind?

Farmers protest at Gent-Wevelgem in 2015

Farmers protest at Gent-Wevelgem in 2015Getty Images

The first problem for Langedock that Sunday was not, funnily enough, related to the cold winds that came off the North Sea and pummelled the flat Flemish farmlands at speeds of up to 90kmph. It was the small matter of a farmers' protest being staged at the start town of Deinze and then again, later, at the top of the Kemmelberg cobbled climb. Within a few minutes of the start, Langedock had received numerous calls from the director's seat at the finish line.

The live broadcast had not yet started but the production team were watching the images as the peloton was brought to a standstill by the protest after just five kilometres.

"I knew that this was only a small protest," Langedock recalls. "And that at Kemmelberg there were 500 of them. 'Oh s***,' I thought. ‘I hope this is going to go well.’"

The race soon got going, but the problems had only just begun.

"Then I got another call just before the live broadcast and I was told I should come over. So, I went over to the director's room and I saw the images. I thought it was of another race. I didn't recognise it. I said, 'This is Gent-Wevelgem? It's happening live? You're kidding?'"

What Langedock saw was so crazy it bordered on the comedic. Riders were fanning out across the roads, leaning into the wind or being carried off by gusts like kites on a blustery beach. Some riders hit the deck or went down in mini pile-ups, others were blown onto the grass verge or, worse, into irrigation ditches running alongside the roads.

An early break had the wind blown out of their sails and had been buffeted back into the bunch. It was a bunch that would be cut in half with still more than 100km remaining – not that there was ever anything remotely resembling a peloton. By now, it had fragmented after numerous echelons formed on a long, straight and exposed tree-lined alley.

The peloton at Gent-Wevelgem 2015

The peloton at Gent-Wevelgem 2015Getty Images

"I had a lot of people calling and sending messages – friends who were watching at home," Langedock says.

" I wasn't able to watch because it was one problem after another. But I had people asking me what was happening, saying there were riders being blown off the road. And I was like: 'Guys, aren't you exaggerating with this? Is that possible? How can a rider be blown away from the road?'"

One of the many calls she received – but couldn't initially pick up – was from her cousin, who was driving the broom wagon for the first time. "I got calls from him and from his co-driver telling me they were absolutely full. Both wagons were full with 20 bikes and they had no more space."

She had to call the publicity vehicles and speak to a company that made puddings, who had a refrigerated truck to spare. It was transferred to the back of the race and this ‘pudding wagon’ was soon filled with excess bikes.

But the calls kept coming, as the corresponding women's event approached the business end of the race: "I got a call from the parcours in Menen, in the finale, saying there were some tiles dropping from the roof of the church," says Langedock.

Mark Cavendish in 2015

Mark Cavendish in 2015Getty Images

The fire brigade was sent in to clean up the tiles on the road, and assess the damage and potential danger – all while the race was closing in. Langedock also took calls from people in the VIP area who were worried that their marquee would blow away at the finish, followed by calls from the publicity wagon saying the roadside barriers were falling over.

Then, another call from the head of the farmers' union complaining about the lack of aerial images. If the grounded helicopters were not sent up to film their protest on the Kemmelberg, he threatened to block the road on the second passing – at a key point of the race.

"It was a nightmare,” says Langedock. “And not just one nightmare – it was a nightmare, after nightmare, after nightmare."

To neutralise or not to neutralise?

One of the riders who climbed off his bike early that day – before nature forced him off – was Bradley Wiggins, riding for Team Sky.

"I think I too would have been one of the Wiggins group who climbed off early on," Brian Cookson jokes. The then-president of the UCI was at the race on a VIP coach stopping at certain viewpoints along the course. He recalls the hideous weather:

"It was pretty grim from the start with the rain absolutely lashing down and the wind building up. It caused mayhem. Not helped by the fact that deep-section rims were catching the crosswind even more. It was horrendous."

Cookson says that it was down not to him, but to the commissaires and race organisers to decide whether the conditions were too dangerous to race that day. "I do know that they took it seriously and they were concerned,” he recalls. “They were pretty close to calling it off on a couple of occasions."

According to Langedock, neutralisation was discussed. But it was decided it would have probably put the riders in more danger by congregating them and exposing them, en masse, to the elements.

"We had to give them the possibility to ride left or right, to go with the wind a bit, we couldn't put them back in a bunch," she says. “It was impossible to neutralise the race.”

160 withdrawals

Wisniowski lies bruised on the floor

Wisniowski lies bruised on the floorGetty Images

Most of the devastation occurred around 70km into the 240km race, when the course turned south and criss-crossed the border between Belgium and France. The Belgian Gert Steegmans, who grew up racing on these same roads, lost control and sploshed into a muddy irrigation ditch. A photographer captured the Trek Factory Racing rider laughing as he clambered out of the water. Mat Hayman, Luke Durbridge, Lars Bak and Dmitriy Gruzdev also took a plunge, with the Kazakh's bike left floating symbolically in the canal.

Michael Schar also fell into a ditch, Lukas Wisniowski and Matti Breschel lay in a crumpled heap after a cobblestone pile-up, while Martin Velits broke his collarbone in a crash that also involved his Etixx – Quick-Step teammate Mark Cavendish. Other riders who fractured bones included the 2009 winner Edvald Boasson-Hagen, who, having crashed into the same ditch as Steegmans, later ploughed into the barriers on the market square of Cassel.

"There was also the rider who thought he'd lost his teeth," says Langedock. "He had a bit of green plant in his mouth from falling into the water and it got stuck in his teeth, and he thought he'd lost them."

The early break was caught and then, with around 125km remaining, the selection was made. The winning move took shape before any of the climbs had even begun.

Edval Boassen Hagen

Edval Boassen HagenGetty Images

With wind pummelling the peloton from the left, the pack split into at least four echelons. Eventual winner Paolini could be seen fighting tooth and nail to make it into the front group as everyone struggled to hold formation. At this point, Paolini was still working for his Katusha teammate Alexander Kristoff, although he soon got the Norwegian's blessing to go for glory himself.

The rain might have eased, but the drama didn't dry up. Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel struggled to take off his jacket in the gusts. Unable to take his hands off the bars, it took him a few kilometres to finally extricate himself from the garment.

No such luck for New Zealand's Jack Bauer. The Cannondale-Garmin rider came screeching to a stop in a feed zone when a rival's jacket – not Chavanel's – became tangled in his spokes with 64km remaining. Narrowly avoided by a following car, an exasperated Bauer picked up his bike and threw it into a ditch. He later spoke of what he admitted was "unsportsman-like conduct" to VeloNews:

"I really have to apologize to the team, to the mechanics, to the fans, and to everybody watching; that's not something anyone should do. It was just a moment of frustration."

In the commentary box for Eurosport, former pro Brian Smith couldn't believe what he was seeing. "This is absolute carnage. I've never seen a race like this where riders have been blown pretty much off their bikes and into the side verges."

One rider who managed to stay on his bike and get into the lead group was the Welshman Geraint Thomas, then of Team Sky. He tells Eurosport he was "definitely aware that people were being blown off left, right and centre".

Thomas says the crazy conditions that day were nothing like he's experienced before or since:

" It was pretty hard to stay upright. It was the hardest day I've raced. Obviously cold and wet is horrible and probably harder mentally, but those windy conditions were the hardest just to finish, purely to stay on your bike and get around. It was survival of the fittest. Fortunately, I had some good shape then and was able to stay on my bike."

Famous last words.

Thomas’s flying carpet

Geraint Thomas crashes

Geraint Thomas crashesGetty Images

A few kilometres after Bauer's bike throw and moments after Paolini, despite having crashed twice already, bridged over to the front group, the leaders swung around an exposed corner and were body-slammed by another sudden squall. Sep Vanmarcke, Daniel Oss and Thomas could all be seen leaning into the wind in a bid to stay upright.

But, blown to the right and with Oss watching incredulously over his shoulder, Thomas unclipped his right foot to balance himself then, in the words of Thijs Zonnerveld, "hovered over the roadside like a fakir on a flying carpet", before going over his handlebars and onto a grassy verge.

It was a crash that inspired countless internet memes and made it look "like it was the first time Thomas had ridden a bike", according to Langedock. What exactly went through the Welshman's mind as he flew through the air?

" The race had settled down by then. We were in the break and thought the wind had died down a bit. But we turned this 90-degree left and suddenly there was a gust and it blew me onto the grass. I was just thinking: 'Oh no! How have I managed to survive the craziness just to crash now?' But luckily it was a soft landing; [I was] straight back on my bike, and I managed to get back to the group pretty quickly, which was good."

What might have happened had Thomas managed to stay upright, we'll never know. But five years on, he remains adamant that his flirtation with the floor did not have too much of a bearing on the outcome of the race.

"I don't think it affected my performance" he says. "You get a little bit of adrenaline from it, obviously. But it was one of those races where stuff was happening all the time. Before you knew it, something else was happening and you've forgotten about it. Obviously, it would be good not to fall and chase back, because you use up a bit of energy, but I don't think it affected me in any way."

Piratical Paolini pulls it off

re-cycle luca paolini gent-wevelgem 2015

re-cycle luca paolini gent-wevelgem 2015Eurosport

With 45km remaining, lone leader Jurgen Roelandts of Belgium had two minutes over the main group of favourites and four over what was by then a sorry excuse for a peloton. Paolini, on his third bike of the day, suffered and was dropped on the Kemmelberg. But, while the climb was not blocked by tractors, Paolini dug deep and managed to fight back.

Roelandts' time on the front was over. Niki Terpstra punctured. His Quick-Step teammate Stijn Vandenbergh then put in an attack. Terpstra clawed himself back into contention and then himself attacked, with Paolini in pursuit. Thomas was then forced to lead the chase with Vandenbergh sandbagging his back wheel.

It was a frustrating finale for Thomas, who entered the race as one of the in-form riders after his victory in E3 Harelbeke (now the E3 BinckBank Classic) days earlier.

"Well, I was the favourite. I was f***ing flying," Thomas half-jokes. "So, yeah, I was surprised that Paolini won. I think the way the race went – there were two Quick-Steps there, both watching me like hawks, and whenever I moved, they would move – so I was trying to cover them.

" When Paolini went, I thought it was up to the two Quick-Step guys to go, because I'm not covering it to have them cover me all the time – then also try and follow all those other moves. So I left it to them and, in typical Quick-Step fashion, they ballsed it up."

In other words, specifically those penned by Zonnerveld: "You could fill a notebook as thick as the Shanghai telephone directory about the tactical choices made by Stijn Vandenbergh."

Seeing that his rivals were all finished (or "alla frutta" in his own words), Paolini made his speculative yet decisive move with 6km to go. The oldest man in the front group took advantage of the bickering behind to open up a gap that he would keep all the way to the finish.

The 38-year-old was the first of only 39 riders to cross the line, pointing to his head and chest as he freewheeled to one of the best wins of his career. He would later explain that his gesture meant you needed your head and heart as much as your legs to win a race in such conditions.

Terpstra and Thomas, described by Langedock as "like the living dead when they came in" completed the podium some 11 seconds in arrears. For Langedock, it was a relief to see the remaining riders come home in one piece, and an added bonus that the finale was so exciting. As she recalls:

" And then, finally, after a long day full of calls and full of problems and full of: 'Oh, my God, this race is going to stop… this race is going to be stopped… this race must stop…' at the end, you finally have Paolini having the biggest victory of his life. And it was like, Man with Beards – we have this song: 'Only real men and men with beards...' – and we look up and have Paolini, with his beard, and it was weather for the real man. We survived and made it and it was thousands of pounds suddenly off my shoulders."

What happened next

Thomas chases Paolini

Thomas chases PaoliniGetty Images

Two months later, on the eve of the Giro d'Italia, Paolini extended his contract at Katusha by one year. But another two months on and he was kicked out of the Tour de France after testing positive for cocaine. Paolini argued that this was technically an out-of-competition positive, for he'd taken the drug "at a low point in his life" at a training camp to help cope with an addiction to caffeine and sleeping medicine.

Although the UCI judged that he had not intended to breach the anti-doping rules, Paolini was banned for 18 months and sacked by Katusha. Following his ban, he was unable to find a new contract. Having trained hard to get back in shape, he reluctantly retired, aged 40.

He updated his Twitter profile to read, "I'll be right back… I'm making a new life!!" That new life involves running an historic coffee house on the shores of Lake Como – named ‘Caffè Monti’ – a stone's throw from the finish of Il Lombardia, a race in which he finished fourth in 2009.

As for Thomas, the versatile Welshman has not yet won Gent-Wevelgem. Indeed, he has not won another one-day Classic – instead choosing to put his eggs in a very different basket.

Was this the race Thomas decided to call it a day in Classics?

"No, it wasn't," he says tells Eurosport. "It was because the Tour, that year, I was fourth going into stage 19 and I thought I could do something in the Grand Tours as well. That's where I wanted to give a really good go and not try and do a bit of everything."

It paid off. After twice finishing 15th before crashing out in 2017, Thomas became the first Welshman to win cycling's biggest prize in 2018, before finishing runner-up to Ineos teammate Egan Bernal one year later.

As for Gent-Wevelgem, drama turned into tragedy in 2016 when the Belgian rider Antoine Demoitié was killed during the race after being hit by a motorcycle following a crash. Two years later, a fire 5km from the finish as the men's race was approaching Wevelgem meant Griet Langedock and her team had to improvise and change the route at the 11th hour.

Should the 2015 edition have been called off?

A bike lays discarded in water

A bike lays discarded in waterGetty Images

There was much talk in the wake of the race that it should have been cancelled because of the weather. At the time, Brian Cookson, then at the helm of the UCI, said the conditions were "very difficult, but not impossible".

The proud Lancastrian thought the conditions made it an "a real classic race", adding: "It's what makes cycling beautiful. This one will go down in history for years to come."

Five years on from that assessment, and Cookson hasn't changed his tune.

"It was pretty horrendous,” he says. “It was epic, but I didn't feel it was impossible at the time. It was certainly challenging, and I stick by the comments I made at the time. We got a great, epic, race out of it.

"Let's not forget that road racing is by definition out on the roads. You're always going to have mixed conditions; it's always going to be subject to the weather. It's not going to be like Formula 1 circuits, where everything is controlled and there are barriers. That's the beauty and potential downside of road racing. It's a live sport that takes place in a very changeable and challenging environment because of the terrain and weather conditions."

They say a three-week Grand Tour ages you. But for Gent-Wevelgem organiser Langedock, one day was enough. "That race I aged many years. It was only the day after when I was able to watch the race and I was like: 'Oh, my God, how exciting is this?’ For the fans at home and media it was a case of: 'Wow, what is happening out there?' But, as an organiser, I died. I died several times that day.”

Langedock admits that she was haunted by the thought of what might have happened had, say, "a rotting tree that would have fallen down anyway, fell down that day onto the peloton because of the wind,” she muses. “We would have been [branded] criminals, killers."

In recent years, since the development of the UCI's Extreme Weather Protocol, competitive rides in conditions as hard as this have become few and far between – as encapsulated by the cancellation of stage 19 during the Tour de France after freak storms in the Alps.

As Cookson, the man who presided over the introduction of the protocol explains:

"We look at things more cautiously from the safety point of view now. That's right and proper. I think, probably, some of the epics of the past would not be tolerated today. Snow, and stuff like that. If the riders are being put in danger, that's not acceptable. And that's why, at the UCI, we introduced the Extreme Weather Protocol."

Thomas agrees that, five years on, there probably would be no place for the Gent-Wevelgem we saw in 2015.

" I don't think there's a place for it, really. I don't think we'd race in those conditions now. It was just crazy, it was too dangerous. But everyone speaks about it now, and it's kind of what cyclists love. You always complain about hard days, but then you look back and you're seen as legends, hardmen and whatever. But I think that was definitely too dangerous and we shouldn't have raced."

Proof of cycling at its most beautiful

Another crash on that infamous day

Another crash on that infamous dayGetty Images

Although he finished third and was made to look like a beginner on a bike, Thomas agrees that there was "definitely a sense of achievement" in being one of the 39 riders who got to the end that Sunday.

It was a race that led to a new meteorological expression in Flemish, as Langedock recalls with delight: "In Belgium it's even a type of weather,” she says. “People don't always say ‘it's windy’ or ‘it's raining’. They say: ‘It's Gent-Wevelgem weather.’ Not only in Belgium, but you see it on Twitter. It has become a weather type."

It was also exactly the kind of race that almost certainly won the sport more fans. Just ask Thijs Zonneveld, who concluded his own review of that day with these memorable lines:

" Let me put it this way: the next time someone asks you why, for God's sake, you always watch cycling, drag that person by their hair to a computer, type 'YouTube Gent-Wevelgem 2015' into a Google search, and click play. Because yesterday's race is the best proof that cycling is the toughest, most ridiculous and most beautiful sport there is."

Luca Paolini, serving coffee on the shores of Como, no doubt agrees.