Ghent-Wevelgem falls in the middle of the week, sandwiched between the opposing weekend races of the Tour of Flanders on April 4 and Paris-Roubaix on April 11. As such, this one-day Classic race is always in a bit of an odd situation. While some of the leading riders choose to skip it in order to save their legs for the more prestigious Paris-Roubaix, Ghent-Wevelgem still usually features a nicely star-studded start list... but until the race actually unfolds, it's impossible to tell which riders are treating it as basically a training race, and which are there with victory in mind.
2004's edition of Ghent-Wevelgem offers a solid example of what this race is all about. The team to beat is clearly QuickStep-Davitamon, whose riders are smarting after slipping up badly a few days earlier in the Tour of Flanders. With a roster that includes Johann Museeuw and his talented protege Tom Boonen as well as seasoned riders like Servais Knaven, it's no wonder that young Boonen is the favorite to win. T-Mobile's Steffen Wesemann, fresh off his Tour of Flanders victory, has chosen to skip Ghent-Wevelgem, but his teammate Andreas Klier carries the number "1" as last year's winner. Other riders to watch include US Postal's George Hincapie, also a former winner, and Magnus Backstedt from Alessio-Bianchi. Co-commentator Paul Sherwen interviews a number of riders before the race , giving viewers a nice review of who's who in the race (though it would be nice if he'd interview non-English-speaking riders as well.)
The early April weather is bitterly cold, and the addition of rain to the mix makes it tough going for all the riders, who nonetheless put in strong efforts to make breaks and keep them going. There are some very intelligent tactical moves here; one of the most impressive comes from Bodysol's Nico Mattan, who strikes boldly out from the peloton to close a 30-second gap and join the leading breakaway group.
Ghent-Wevelgem is a mainly flat race, although breaks can and do form on the flat, since the winding Belgian back roads make it easier for a small group to slip out of sight of the main peloton. In fact, the 2004 edition gets off to an excellent start, with nice attacking action and a strong breakaway group forming early on. The race route takes the riders over the famous cobbled climb of the Kemmelberg twice; this is normally a decisive break point for the race, but in 2004 it doesn't play out quite that way.
As the race heads into its last third, the dominance of the QuickStep team comes into play, with six of their eight riders making it into the leading group. The "blue train" is able to dictate the pace, and nothing much of interest happens from the point at which they take over, until the finish. The final few kilometers become more interesting once again, as the rest of the breakaway, who have wisely been "passengers" on the train, letting the QuickStep riders tire themselves on the front, start to jockey for position. The finish ends up in an exciting bunch sprint, with the victory in contention right up to the very end.
The 2004 Ghent-Wevelgem DVD is a one-disc set, with the program running approximately two hours. Viewers who are familiar with WCP's releases may be wondering "Where's Het Volk?" since that race is often paired with Ghent-Wevelgem. Well, in 2004 the Het Volk was canceled due to inclement weather, so that's why it's not here. It would have been nice if WCP had taken the opportunity to pair up this race with another one, especially the Amstel Gold race which is becoming ever more interesting, but this time we just get Ghent-Wevelgem by itself. (Maybe we'll get Amstel Gold another year...)
The video quality for the 2004 Ghent-Wevelgem race is quite solid, with a generally clean, bright appearance. The image is entirely free of noise, colors look natural, and both close-up and middle-distance shots look reasonably detailed. Considering the rainy weather and overcast skies, it's impressive that the race footage looks as good as it does; clearly it doesn't look as crisp and sharp as a race on a sunny day, but all in all, it does offer a very good viewing experience. The race appears in its original television broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The sound quality for the Ghent-Wevelgem race is excellent, with the commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen coming across clearly and crisply. The sounds of the race are also included in the soundtrack, making a pleasing "you are there" feeling for viewers.
The only special feature is a complete start list of all the teams and riders in the race, printed on the back of the DVD cover (and visible through the clear case). It's a useful reference for viewers. The overall menu design is clear and easy to navigate.
The 2004 Ghent-Wevelgem race offers cycle racing fans a solid Classic race to add to their collection. There's quite a bit of exciting racing in the first half of the race, and while the "blue train" of QuickStep locks things down later in the race, we do get rewarded in the end with an exciting bunch sprint. All in all, this edition of Ghent-Wevelgem earns a solid "recommended."