The cobbled classics start this weekend with Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a 200km introduction to Flanders with all the classic ingredients from bad weather to great fans. Some races are held to promote tourism but this is so grim the images must put people off visiting Belgium but the rough conditions make the race all the better.
Omloop is Dutch for a loop, a circuit race. The race was created in 1945 and was named the Omloop Het Volk but the Het Volk newspaper was merged into Het Nieuwsblad. Het Nieuwsblad is a newspaper whose name literally translates as The News Sheet.
The Course: Starting and finishing in the city of Ghent the race occupies a triangular sector to the south, criss-crossing roads to use as much of the terrain as possible. As the profile suggests, the first 100km are without too many obstacles although they tackle the infamous Muur early, it helps to sap the legs. Things get serious with 80km to go, anyone badly positioned from now on is going to waste energy needed for later. A succession of short climbs, cobbles and cobbled climbs ensures the process of attrition.
The Molenberg is the last climb with 35km to go, the climb near the famous Vinkemolen windmill. Then with 30km 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. After there’s a series of exposed roads for the final 20km.
The Finish: a sprint into Gent, sheltered by the urban environment. During the final kilometre the road curves slightly and there’s a slight gradient, nothing selective but just enough to punish someone who is too tired for a sprint in a big gear.
The Scenario: the early break will go overloaded with riders from wildcard teams and a sprinkling of B-list contenders. If you’re not going to win the race you might as well get in a move get on TV and there’s usually a scrap to go clear at the start.
After the feedzone the bunch will start to control the race, look to see which teams lead the chase. The Kruisberg marks the start of open hostilities. Each climb and cobbled sector has a before, a during and an after:
- Before: the approach can’t be underestimated with riders fighting for position on narrow roads as the bunch bears down on the climb at 55-60km/h
- During: the cobbles and climbs are tiring and any mistakes are paid for in full, cash-on-delivery: drop your chain or stall in the ditch and you lose 50 places
- After: the moment after the climb or pavé is equally important, everyone’s gone into the red uphill and the stronger riders can force a selection while others are repaying oxygen debt
However the course is such that the connecting roads are dangerous too, they twist and turn and knowing the route counts for plenty. By 30km to go we should be down to a selection of riders and teams. Team tactics play a big part here because the final 20km are on fast and open roads. If a team has a man up the road it can police any chase group so watch the composition of the lead group and the chasers.
The Contenders: it’s a hard course but not a 250km slog-fest nor selective to the end. With this in mind our prototype winner must have a strong team to lock down the race and a fast sprint to finish the job.
Greg Van Avermaet is the prime pick. His BMC team is strong, he is in good form, so strong he had to back off in Qatar and he packs a good sprint. Were it not for a wardrobe malfunction last year arguably he would have got the better of Ian Stannard and won the sprint. He needs a win for confidence and get the team on his side. Just don’t bet the ranch on it, he’s adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Philippe Gilbert has won the race twice before but that was during his FDJ era and these days he’s too much of star to let go.
Sep Vanmarcke is the next name. The Belgian is a classics expert who has won this race before and after coming close in Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders in 2013 and 2014 this race is well within his reach. He’s not been on dazzling form so far but there’s a pattern where he rides the Volta ao Algarve in anonymity before emerging like a yellow daffodil in home soil. In case of a sprint new hire Tom Van Asbroeck is fast too, he’s only 24 and was on the podium in many races last year and the rest of the team should offer support late into the race.
Who to pick from Etixx-Quick Step? Tom Boonen hasn’t won this race before but it’s not for the want of trying. He’s got all the right ingredients with good form, a strong team and of course he packs a powerful punch. But he’s going to be marked and if anything he’ll act like a magnet for rival teams, he only has to lift his rear of the saddle on the Taaienberg for half the bunch to tremble. So while he gets shut down we could see the old 1-2 and a team mate goes up the road with Boonen sitting back to play the sprint card, a move deployed with success by Niki Terpstra several times last year. Zdeněk Štybar is a stylish pick, he’s got to win something big in the spring classics sometime but this is a strong team with Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Matteo Trentin capable of winning too. Just remember the team has form for bungling this race, Pat Lefevere’s outfit hasn’t won it since 2005.
Alexander Kristoff leads a strong Katusha team, an outfit lined up in the service of their leader. Marco Haller, Rüdiger Selig and Alexei Tsatevich all finish fast but they’re surely all in support of their Norwegian captain. Kristoff is a difficult customer for other teams, he’ll outsprint almost anyone and he’ll survive the cobbles, in fact he’s willing to provoke moves too.
What of defending champion Ian Stannard? Back-to-back wins are common here but the British rider probably needs harder conditions to help his chances, he seems to thrive when the weather turns from grim to apocalyptic. With Team Sky Bradley Wiggins brings the curiosity factor, look to see his positioning and race craft while Luke Rowe is an outsider and Andrew Fenn brings some sprint options.
Lotto-Soudal tend to time their classics season implosion for April but this time they’ve already lost top pick Jurgen Roelandts to ‘flu. The likes of Jens Debusschere and Kenny Dehaes sprint fast and in-form Pim Ligthart can’t be ignored.
FDJ bring Arnaud Démare, the French rider is a brilliant sprinter and tough for the classics but imagining him and his team get the better of everyone else is a big ask, Yoann Offredo and Matthieu Ladagnous are Paris-Roubaix outsiders and Johan Le Bon stirred up the race last year, expect the team to get stronger in the coming weeks. Cofidis don’t bring their new sprinter Nacer Bouhanni but Florian Sénéchal is a tip for the classics this spring, while Adrien Petit sprints and Gert Jõeäär is a bet for the early breakaway.
IAM Cycling have had a great start to the season, now we’ll see how they fare on the rough roads. Sylvain Chavanel looked excellent in Andalucia, ninth overall and third on the tricky uphill sprint for the final stage, ditto Matthias Brändle who soloed for the win in Oman. Assuming they adapt to the cold weather either can barge ahead knowing Heinrich Haussler is the sprint card.
Ag2r aren’t famous for the classics but have beefed up here with Johan Vansummeren who can double-up as a GC support rider for grand tours while Damien Gaudin is still dining out on one good Paris-Roubaix. Watch Gougeard for a promising young rider.
MTN-Qhubeka are the interesting wildcard picks although put aside the “Africa rising” story for the weekend, this is more about the new signings with Edvald Boasson-Hagen the biggest curiosity. He was close to winning last year and returns after a winter reunited with his old coach from pre-Sky days and several extra kilos heavier, the result of strength building rather than greed we’re told. Alongside him is “local” Tyler Farrar, Gerald Ciolek and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg.
Local team Topsport Vlaanderen have a pearl in Edward Theuns, the revelation of the early season so far thanks to consistent sprinting that’s got him seven top-10 places. A win? Unlikely but watch him. As this isn’t a World Tour race there are a lot of invited teams from the Pro Conti ranks who might feature in the break but are less to appear the longer the race goes on. Still Europcar have Gène and Martinez for the sprint, Wanty-Gobert have Leukemans, Selvaggi and Marcato and Roompot have Kreder. Bretagne-Séché’s Dan McLay won a stage in La Tropicale but now he’s got to contend with De Winter.
|Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff|
|Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Zdeněk Štybar|
|Haussler, Boasson-Hagen, Van Keirsbulck, Stannard, Démare|
|Gilbert, Rowe, Van Asbroeck, Theuns, Farrar, Chavanel, Arndt, Gougeard, Sénéchal|
- Nobody gets five rings and if there are some big names often they prefer to sit tight between now and Milan-Sanremo
- See procyclingstats.com for the full startlist.
Weather (updated Saturday): cool and cloudy, temperatures will reach no more than 9°C. The wind will blow from the south with a forecast 20-30km/h which could gust to 45km/h. It’ll be enough to ravage the peloton before a crash-generating tailwind on the return to Ghent.
TV: the finish is expected for 4.40pm Euro time. Belgian TV goes starts coverage at 1.30pm but with introductions and magazine programmes before live footage. Tune in by 3.00pm to get the action from the Kruisberg onwards.
Women’s Race: there’s the women’s edition too and hopefully Belgian TV will cut to this at times. The finish is forecast for 2.50pm and you can read a preview over at velofocus.com
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: a preview should go online on Saturday evening for Sunday’s race.