The spring classics start this weekend with the double-header of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday. No more Arabian nights in five star hotels or photos ops with a cute kangaroo, now it’s time for some cobbles, narrow roads and wintry weather. There’s no gentle introduction here. Time for the hardmen to fight.
This preview’s in conjunction with Rapha. Take a look at www.rapha.cc to see a similar preview.
It’s a sign of the confusing pro cycling calendar that the Omloop and K-B-K are not on the UCI World Tour yet are regarded by some as the true start to the season. That debate is for another day, what’s certain is that we get landmark cobbled climbs, big prestige and large crowds. Nobody else likes cycling as much as the Belgians and locals and visitors alike will brave this weekend’s cold weather, many warmed by beer and fries. It’s also the start of superb entertainment. The spring classics are a media event in Belgium where even team reconnaissance rides are newsworthy.
First a word on the weather. We’ve seen the opening weekend’s racing cancelled before because of snow. A few snowflakes have been spotted in Belgium but the forecast says it’ll stay dry so hopefully the race is on.
Still it will be very cold this weekend with temperatures around freezing at the start and not rising much during the day. Watch for the riders on the startline in shorts with their legs covered in embrocation, they’ll be the ones to attack immediately. The cold weather might give them a chance to escape whilst the big names stay cocooned in thermal gear for as long as possible. Managing the layers of clothing could be an important tactic to get the balance right between warmth and aerodynamics. Dry weather makes the cobbles less treacherous. An Arctic wind could prove some crosswinds but the forecast suggests a 20km/h breeze which shouldn’t scatter the peloton.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Omloop means “loop” or “circuit” and in 1945 the Omloop Het Volk race was created by the Het Volk newspaper in an attempt to counter the mighty Ronde van Vlaanderen race, then owned by rival paper Het Nieuwsblad. Jump to today and the two newspapers have merged meaning the race has changed name to the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and there’s little rivalry with the Ronde, more complementarity as both events are owned by the same company.
If the names have changed over the years the racing doesn’t. The Omloop is 199km long and features 12 climbs and eight cobbled sections. View the route map and it looks like someone’s dropped a plate of spaghetti onto a map of Flanders, such is the way the course twists and turns. The race is concentrated into the space between Gent and Geraardsbergen, normally 40km apart but somehow you use and re-use roads to make a longer race. This matters because the race is forever twisting and turning, a headwind one minute is a crosswind the next. The route has climbs but the flat cobbled sections like the Haaghoek, Paddestraat and Lange Munte are equally decisive.
It’s hard to pick a favourite. Last year’s winner Sep Vanmarke is back with the Blanco team and in-form riders like Lars Boom – recent winner of the time trial stage in the Tour Med and he’ll want to make amends for his spectacular wipe out on the Taaienberg last year.
Team Sky have said the classics are a big goal this year but they might be waiting for the bigger races in March and April although they’re sending a strong contingent led by Edvald Boasson Hagen who offers great versatility as he can sprint or win solo. The team are making a name for their rational data-driven approach and it’ll be interesting to see how this fares in the classics where luck can play such a part. You can work to minimise misfortune but it only takes a crash or a cobble to ruin the plans. Now we can’t see Boasson Hagen’s power training data but we can see other numbers, the odds from bookmakers and the Norwegian seems to be the pre-race pick. Remember the Omloop was the team’s first big win when Juan Antonio Flecha barged away from Philippe Gilbert to win solo? Ian Stannard could try this whilst Geraint Thomas is back on the road and already showed his form in Australia a month ago. Bernhard Eisel’s come close in this race before and Chris Sutton has won in Belgium too.
The Omega Pharma-Quickstep team are another team to watch because of their strength in numbers and they’re playing at home. Like Sky there’s one leader and plenty of lieutenants. Tom Boonen will be racing as he tries to get fit after being hospitalised with an elbow infection in January. Big training miles plus the Tour of Oman should help and we should expect to see him on the Taaienberg. For years Boonen has done his “Balen shake” here, dancing up the climb solo and forcing the rest of the race to chase and often prompting a selection. It’s 60km from the finish and a move might seems too early but Boonen’s shake up helps to eject the weaker riders from the race. This year he’s joined by Zdenek Stybar, Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra and don’t forget the 22 year-old Guillaume Van Keirsbulck either.
The other outstanding team is BMC Racing. Their world champion Philippe Gilbert has won the race twice before but won’t ride. Instead we’ll see Thor Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet, Adam Blythe and Taylor Phinney provide some a lot of sprinting power from a group and Daniel Oss is a powerhouse.
Amongst the others Jürgen Roelandts of Lotto-Belisol and John Degenkolb are both effective riders, Roelandts is an attacking rider who can sprint whilst Degenkolb is a sprinter who can cope with the climbs. On past performance alone Juan Antonio Flecha can’t be ignored, Vacansoleil’s recruit has been on the podium for the four years. Filippo Pozzato’s another obvious pick but his win rate is lower than his media profile suggests. Still, it’s only the opening weekend and neither race is hard enough to create the “last man standing” scenarios of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix and there’s a big cast of potential actors.
The Scenario: with the cold weather we could see a large group slowly fragment under testing attacks. If a move goes it has to contain riders from Sky, OPQS and BMC otherwise they’ll chase but this is a liability for them too and others will exploit this. Ideally we’ll see the big names battle but you wonder if a few might opt for the warmth of the team car with a view to saving themselves for another day. But there’s a big win up for grabs and hopefully we’ll see a select group form in the final hour and then some lively racing to determine the winner.
Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is a fine race in its own right but tends to be seen as a revenge race where riders can make amends for mistakes and misfortune on Saturday only you wonder if the cold might encourage a few to skip this race if they rode hard on Saturday. This year’s edition promises a duel between Mark Cavendish and André Greipel, their first meeting this year. This alone is exciting but we can add cobbled climbs and another startlist packed with exciting riders.
Despite the name if it starts and finishes in Kuurne the race doesn’t go to the Belgian capital any more. It’s got a less selective route where a sprint finish is more likely, although usually amongst a large group that’s been thinned down by the racing because there are eight climbs along the way. They’re tough but mostly during the middle of the race although the ramp-like Nokereberg is often enough to expel any flagging riders. The race ends with two 16km circuits around Kuurne where last year Cavendish rode with the fearless determination of a Bangkok tuk-tuk driver in rush hour traffic to pick his way through the field to win the sprint… and an ass. Belgium can be an eccentric place, it’s the home of the Manneken Pis and René Magritte. The K-B-K podium ceremony doesn’t disappoint. It features a donkey or two in reference to the self-deprecating label adopted by inhabitants of Kuurne.
Cavendish is back but with the Omega Pharma – Quickstep team and it’ll be the first big test of his new sprint train. It worked well in Qatar but this is another story. The same for Lotto-Belisol who looked so effective in the Tour Down Under this time but what will some cobbled climbs and distance do for André Greipel’s lead out? Other sprinters will their say too. Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar has come close this season but he’s got the advantage of riding at home, he speaks fluent Flemish. France’s Arnaud Démare is young pretender.
The Scenario: a sprint finish seems most likely but only from a reduced bunch. Once again the cold could play its part but expect things to hot up in the finish. If it comes to a sprint finish watch the fight for position as riders try to place themselves on the right wheel, near the front but never in the wind.
Both races are being covered live but it depends where you live. Sunday’s K-B-K has produced a PDF to list the international TV schedules although note it’s provisional.
For an internet video stream, legal or pirate, check the likes of cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv for links to video streams. Don’t be afraid of Flemish commentary, you’ll soon pick out the rider names.
Saturday’s finish of the Omloop is expected between 3.40-4.00pm Euro time with Sunday’s K-B-K expected to arrive around 4.45-5.00pm.