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 and applying sun lotion, now it’s time to charge down farm tracks and apply a coating of mud.
Here’s a preview of the race with route info, the contenders, as well as the weather and TV timings.
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.
Spread between Gent and Geraardsbergen, each about 40km apart the race is twists and turns like a tangled headphones cable to make a course that is 198km long. It changes every year and this year’s vintage has fewer climbs but is said to be concentrated. Here are the strategic points condensed:
It includes infamous the Muur van Geraardsbergen but this comes after just 80km meaning it’s not going to decide the race, a symbolic passage. Instead the race is about the final two hours / 90 kilometres where a series of climbs and cobbled, including cobbled climbs help force a selection. The significant change is the reintroduction of the Wolvenberg instead of Varent, meaning a very steep climb with 53km to go and coming in a 10km section that includes the Taaienberg and Eikenberg. It’s here that the moto cameras will be shooting the dropped riders who didn’t make the cut.
After these climbs come some flat cobbled sections to bounce the bike and crucially reward positioning until the Molenberg comes, the climb near the famous Vinkemolen windmill. With 31km to go comes the final cobbled shake out with the Padestraat, Lippenhoestraat and Lange Munte sections over 10km. These are flat sections and exposed and the winning move often goes clear.
The race rides into Gent and finishes on the St Petersplein, a long straight road that’s flat and reasonably sheltered by tall buildings.
If a picture says a thousand words the image above from the Tour of Qatar podium shows three contenders for Saturday.
Tom Boonen is the prime pick despite never winning this race before. At 33 he might like to add his name to the list while he still can but this isn’t a sentimental pick. Logic says he’s got everything needed to win: he’s loves the cobbles and climbs, has a great team in OPQS and as André Greipel knows only too well Tommeke is in top sprinting form. A bunch sprint is unlikely – we haven’t had one for almost 20 years – but Boonen can realistically hope to win a sprint from a group. Boone’s problem is his reputation, he only has to lift his rear of his special wide saddle for rivals to respond with the clunk of chains dropping onto the 11 sprocket. He’ll be heavily marked and OPQS will exploit this by firing Niki Terpstra (pictured), Zdeněk Štybar or Stijn Vandenbergh up the road and force others to chase.
Arguably BMC Racing have the second strongest team. Led by Marcus Burghardt there’s Thor Hushovd, Taylor Phinney and Greg Van Avermaet, backed up by a strong roster. GVA, Phinney and Hushovd can solo away and sprint, it’ll be interesting to see the dynamics. The Norwegian is back in form and went on a solo rampage in last weekend’s Tour du Haut Var which helped to set up team mate Amaël Moinard’s win.
The dark horse pick is Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), he’s a fast finisher but more than a sprinter, he’s suited to the classics and is becoming a regular if infrequent winner, if he doesn’t strike on Saturday he’ll surely win between now and April. Compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen is worth watching as he’s agile on the cobbles and sprints very fast. Recent form suggests he’s going well but is not yet at 100%. Perhaps Sky team mate Ian Stannard could give the group the slip on the Lange Munte instead?
Belkin have Sep Vanmarke and Lars Boom, each with a different tale as Vanmarcke won on the same day Boom crashed out two years ago on the Taaienberg. Boom was once touted as the-next-big-thing but has yet to win a classic and has only once placed in the top-10 of a spring Monument.
Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) is the third man in the Qatar podium pic and leads a strong domestic team, backed up by Jens Debusschere, a fast-finisher who racked up several late season wins last year and has a podium place in Majorca this year. Garmin Sharp come with their classics team and new signing Sebastian Langeveld is the one to watch.
Gerhard Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) can’t be overlooked, especially has he’s just taken a sprint win in the Ruta Del Sol. Sylvain Chavanel is IAM Cycling’s leader which is interesting alone as he has preferred to play a team role and get up the road, maybe he will again knowing Heinrich Haussler can cover behind. There will be a minute’s silence for Kristoff Goddaert who’s funeral service was held on Thursday.
Saturday is a good test for Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr), the young sprinter wants to branch out into the classics as well and we’ll see if he’s got the skills to be in the right place at the right time, his FDJ team are optimistic as ever, watch Yoann Offredo, often in a long range move.
Last but not least is Luca Paolini who was the surprise winner last year. A regular in the top-10 on hard days, wins don’t come regularly for the Katusha rider but he’s aiming for Milan-Sanremo and so should be in top condition. The race has seen many back-to-back winners since it started in 1945.
Prime Pick: Tom Boonen
Likely winners: Half of OPQS, Jürgen Roelandts
Dark Horse: Alexander Kristoff
Note the absences, this is a great race but it’s not on the World Tour calendar and the likes of Cannondale and Trek Factory Racing are absent.
New for 2014: loyal readers will recall the new UCI rule requiring riders to stick to the road, cycle paths and other shortcuts are forbidden and it’ll be interested to see how well this is enforced by the commissaires. More on the new rule at Stick to the Road.
Old for 2014: poorly pixellated pop-up pirate feeds, the voice of Michel Wuyts and traditional scenes like and the ambush banner-wavers like “Luc”.
Weather: cold and the possibility of light showers. A top temperature of 6° gives a wintry feel. Pre-race forecasts suggested a 20km/h wind coming from the north-west but this has switched and during the course of the race a 20km/h wind will turn from the south to the west and strengthen to 25km/h. Not enough to rip up the race but enough to sap the energy of riders on the limit and the changing direction is awkward with the route’s constant changes.
TV: Belgian broadcaster Sporza starts its cycling coverage at 1.35pm Euro time but offers a round-up of recent cyclo-cross and the track cycling worlds before the race goes live. It is on other channels in different countries but the list varies and if you can’t find it on TV, check cyclingfans.com for a pirate feed. The finish is expected for 4.30pm but try to tune in for 3.00pm to catch the action.
Women’s Race: there’s a women’s race over the final 130km with the finish planned for around 3.00pm. Velofocus has a good preview of the route that’s applicable to men and women’s races alike and pelotonwatch.com runs through the contenders.
A separate preview of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne should go online on Saturday