The Moment Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Was Won:

Luke Rowe Taaienberg

Luke Rowe and Greg Van Avermaet attacked up the Taaienberg. Normally the climb has been reserved for Tom Boonen but he and his team were absent this time and with over 55km to go the pair went clear with Tiesj Benoot and Peter Sagan joining them over the top of the climb. This was the moment the race was won.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2016 breakaway

The early break went and had all the usual ingredients of lesser teams alongside the irrepressible Alexis Gougeard of Ag2r La Mondiale: half jack-in-box, half Jacky Durand. Among them was Kai Reus, the Dutchman crashed in 2007 training solo on the Col de l’Iseran, Europe’s highest paved pass. He fell so hard he was in a coma for 11 days. They never got much of a lead but bought options over valuable TV coverage and without any threatening names or teams it left the bunch relaxed.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

The early chase saw Katusha and Trek Factory Racing at work with the speed picking up as the cobbled sectors and climbs came. With the increased pace came the pressure as riders were seen swerving around parked cars and kerb-hopping and soon a crash took out Lotto-Jumbo’s Dennis Van Winden, Orica-Greendge’s Magnus Cort and Lotto-Soudal’s Tosh Van Der Sande.

The race sped to the Taaienberg and Belgium held its breath for the annual Tom Boonen outing that’s been as as a part of the spring ritual as flowers and birdsong. Only Etixx-Quickstep were not driving the bunch and Tom Boonen wasn’t in the box seats as they hit the early slopes. It was Luke Rowe of Team Sky and BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet who clipped off. Moments later Tiesj Benoot gave chase, flashing past and identifiable thanks to his arched back, camel style. Peter Sagan took off next with friend and former team mate Daniel Oss briefly on his wheel for a moment before popping.

Luke Rowe Greg Van Avermaet Taaienberg

Suddenly there were four but was the Taaienberg test worth it? As much as Boonen has made famous moves here he’s tended to accelerate and blast away a few cobwebs all while benefiting from his frontal position in the race to blast away a few struggling riders before the race regroups and gradually refines and reduces. After all there’s 57km to go and the messy situation of a large breakaway up ahead. To complicate things further Etixx-Quickstep had missed the move and were sure to chase.

Etixx Quick Step

Etixx-Quickstep did start chasing but it took them almost 10km to get going and it seemed as if Sporza were a moto down for a moment as there were no images from the chase. Soon after the pictures picked up Tony Martin went down, sliding away on a left-hand turn and his fall sent Niki Terpstra straight into the spectators. They’d regroup again but were faced with a dilemma: chase and they’d just tow everyone into Gent for free or face the wrath of the Belgian tabloids for not trying. They opted to chase again but the gap was not falling and didn’t have much help with Lotto-Soudal licking their lips given Benoot was up the road.

Ahead the four were ploughing past the remnants of the breakaway and caught the final four escapees in neo-pro Julien Morice of Direct Energie but already a bronze medallist in the track pursuit worlds last year, Gougeard and Brecht Dhaene and Kai Reus of Verandas Williams. These survivors latched on to the four stars and had every right to sit tight but knew if they could just hang in they’d be sure of a top-10 placing. Behind the chase continued in a half-hearted way with various counter-attacks with IAM trying two moves, Sylvain Chavanel showing, and the longest move by Jasper Stuyven of Trek who was potato-hunting until he slid out on a bend and got caught by the bunch. Others had their accidents too, notably BMC Racing when one crash took out Philippe Gilbert, Jempy Drucker and Daniel Oss.

The final cobbled sector came. The Lange Munte is flat and relatively even, the kind you can drive fast over in a large car but it’s exposed and crosswind quickly unpicked the early breakaway riders. But Gougeard wasn’t done and in an act of superb haulage to make his truck driver dad proud heaved his way back to the lead four once again.

It was now poker time with the four riders and Gougeard beginning to mark each other and taking a soft turn here and there. It wasn’t visibly slower but it the gap was falling and as they road into Gent there was little more than 20 seconds in it. Were they going to stay away? This question was the preoccupying one instead of trying to work out who would win the sprint.

Cycling’s version of the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox arose once more: Van Avermaet always finishes second and so does Peter Sagan so what happens when they contest a finish together? Meanwhile Benoot had been looking very strong all day and the uphill run to the line suited his power and relative lighter build. As for Rowe, he’s got track craft and had beaten Alexander Kristoff and Arnaud Démare to win the bunch sprint here a year ago. It made for an open sprint and when Van Avermaet started Peter Sagan chased but could not close him down on the uphill drag yet alone overtake him leaving the Belgian to finally take the win he wanted after years of near misses. Gougeard salvaged fifth place just ahead of what was left of the peloton, just over 30 riders, led by Jens Debusschere.

Greg Van Avermaet

Looking ahead is Van Avermaet cursed? Of course not and this would could take the pressure off him now which will only help him. Rowe was both bold and strong on the Taaienberg and should be around from here to Roubaix, ditto Tiesj Benoot. Peter Sagan put any doubts about his form away and in case you’re wondering, he’s kept his hairy legs. As for the others Alexander Kristoff backed off after being caught by a crash and then a mechanical and will be back for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Gougeard has been an early breakaway specialist but has the power to match the big names but easier said than done, he’s a giant diesel and if latching onto today’s quartet takes giant stamina having the explosive power to match Sagan and Benoot uphill is another matter. If anything his team will let him keep playing, “Gougou” is still 22 and tied to the team until the end of 2018.

The big absentee was Etixx-Quickstep. When asked by Sporza what happened Patrick Lefevere quipped “we’ve won, but in France” after Petr Vakoč had taken the Classic Sud Ardèche before lamenting Tony Martin’s crash and the way it took out Terpstra too. But where was Tom Boonen? He wasn’t full of beans on the Taaienberg and told the media that he’d been out of position and never had the legs to follow the eventual winners.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2016 podium

The Verdict: the long winter break is over. As good as some races have been so far this year they’re never as tactically complex nor offer excitement and uncertainty for so long. This was a superb edition with a long range attack that never got a minute on the bunch and the time gap was plunging as they raced into Gent to add to the tension. Gougeard was never going to win but the other four all had their cards to play and it was only the final metres that we saw Sagan could not pass Van Avermaet.

55 thoughts on “The Moment Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Was Won:”

  1. Nice review. I managed to find a pirate feed that worked down here in Sicily. Sagan let the slightest gap open when GVA jumped and that was it…maybe the wind was blowing in a direction that made following not its usual advantage? This Benoot kid looks like the real deal. Nice to see racing “in a proper cycling country” where there were more fans on one cobbled climb than all the spectators combined for any of the sandbox races.

    • My feed died just as they started on the Taaienberg, so I missed probably the most important minute of the race.
      To copy and paste what I’d put at the bottom of the previous blog:
      Sagan’s positioning in the sprint was poor as usual but GVA was evidently the strongest.
      Rowe wasted precious energy by – a number of times – forcing Gougeard to chase. (The other three were happy to let Gougeard sit at the back, as he was clearly shattered, having been in the break.) Each time he did this, Rowe himself lost momentum as he had to pause and then chase after Gougeard, whilst the others circulated in front of Gougeard, keeping their rhythm each time. I’d have thought the team would have spotted that and told him not to bother.
      I know the jostling for the gutter is part of it, but I’d still like to see them forced to ride on the cobbles on the Taaienberg.
      Gougeard had the good sense at the end to keep the speed high and ensure he got 5th, knowing he wasn’t going to get any higher.
      All four (five, even) looked good – I never thought they were going to get caught after the first 10k away – but it’s early days.

      • Actually, I like the singletrack nature of the Taaienberg gutter, which, coupled with the fact that it is a steep climb, forces some tactical decisions. It’s very different from eliminating a stretch of cobbles by hopping onto a sidewalk or bike lane.
        A clear example in this race was when the peleton split in two, ‘like the red sea’ (Sporza commentary), to use the sidewalks on either side of a stretch of cobbles. So much, once again, for upholding the ‘use the road’ rule.

      • It was the gutter on the Taaienberg that allowed the move. I love when teams exploit a feature like this to perfection- which is was happened here.

        Rowe, GVA and Oss hit the bottom together with Oss then dropping the wheel and letting Rowe and GVA go. Benoot and Sagan then had to come around Oss who followed Sagan over the top but as noted above didn’t/couldn’t follow all the way to the break. Thus the move formed and ended up sticking!

      • I definitely take both of your points – I just find it disappointing that as we have so few races on cobbles, a lot of the time the riders are not on the cobbles.

    • “Nice to see racing “in a proper cycling country” where there were more fans on one cobbled climb than all the spectators combined for any of the sandbox races.”

      Great rant, Larry, keep them coming!

      • If you enjoyed this rant, fear not, you can guarantee a word-for-word repeat of it again next year and every year subsequent (with the free inclusion of a swipe against the Tour Down Under, despite the fact that by any measure Australia is a “proper cycling country” as the national successes and huge crowd put the lie to to Larry’s dismissal).

        • Indeed. I suggest Larry takes a roadside seat on Old Willunga Hill at the TDU. It’s a long way from Sicily and a long way from the sandboxes too. Nice write up inrng.

          • Former East German leader Erich Honecker famously said in 1989 “The [Berlin] Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years.” so from this we can deduce that not everything that was true in the 1980s is equally true today. No one gets you started, your negative and tedious rants are offered without provocation or invitation. Try positivity for once, believe me, it doesn’t hurt.

        • Augie March – calm down, eh? Did you even bother noticing I listed my OWN country (USA) as NOT being a “proper cycling country” either? Example: The big Colorado road race seems to be dead after just a few years and the ToC promotors are unable to unload their event for the big profits they expected when they launched it before the BigTex scandal. Meanwhile in OZ cycling’s such an incredible advertising opportunity and so popular it’s still “ORICA – Your Name Here”.
          If all this really bothers you there’s nothing stopping you from scrolling past anything I post. Finally, please note my fairly positive comments about Murdoch’s BIKE CHANNEL further down….made before your rather personal attack I might add.

          • Well whether or not you slag off the USA is up to you, but I will point out you can’t measure the health of cycling in a country by the financial situation of the organisers. Europe has lost many storied races in the last few years and a lot of the ones that remain lose money. As for Orica GreenEdge, a potential problem could be that after early Feb they aren’t seen in their native land for the rest of the year, and Australian companies probably aren’t worried about selling their goods and services to TV viewers in Europe. However the real reason for the lack of a second sponsor is because multi millionaire team owner Gerry Ryan keeps funding the rest of the operation, so there’s probably little pressure on the rest of the management team to find that other big corporate name on board.

            I read all the comments here because most of them are informative, including many of yours. I appreciate your knowledge of cycling history and culture. What I, and many others, don’t enjoy is your endless and repetitive “FINALLY the REAL racing season starts at OHN/Paris-Nice/Milan-San Remo” style sneering. We know you think this, you’ve said it many times before, time to give it a rest, eh?

          • Larry, just ignore it and rest assured, knowing you are not the only one feeling that way. There is no point arguing in/with this special case.

          • The US bike industry are very supportive of cycling in Europe with Trek, Specialized, Cannondale funding/supplying teams without any much financial support from other corporations. And these teams don’t employ many US riders.

            Anyway, if they would be spending more of their marketing money in US, there would have more funding for racers and bike race. It looks like most of promoters struggle for funding the races and volunteer. A lot of races are gone and it is truth for every competitive level (beginners, juniors to Pro level). And most of these great grassroots program are non existent nowadays.

  2. Luke Rowe will pack a spare energy bar from now on..

    Great race, great opener, great Belgian presence (even Topsport and VWT showed) apart from a very notable exception.
    And on the Taaienberg too. What is the world coming to?

      • Scrabbling around in his pockets at 19km, and then in desperation motioning Gougeard for a drink / bidon around 9-10km out!
        And he was on the radio several times too , probably pleading for a Mars Bar.

        • I saw Rowe motioning to Gougeard four or five times: it happened each time that Rowe had done his turn on the front and then came to the back. GVA, Sagan and Benoot would slot into fourth, ahead of Gougeard, after their turns on the front; whereas Rowe would make Gougeard go past him and chase back on – forcing Gougeard to take his turn on the front. The downside for Rowe was that he lost his momentum each time and had to chase after Gougeard, wasting his own energy – bad tactics.
          Perhaps that was the motioning you saw too. It seems unlikely that Rowe after hassling him for so many km would then ask Gougeard for food – and why not the others? Of course, that’s just based on my assumptions being correct about what I saw and doesn’t mean that Rowe wasn’t short of food (maybe that’s what made him so bad tempered).

          • Rowe was right. What if Gougeard was rested enough to contest the finish as a result of the free ride? You can’t just assume the look on the face/body is true. Plenty of races have been lost at the line with some good acting by the weaker opponent. The peloton was very close too, so, there was no confidence they had a good gap.

            If Rowe was calculating reserves to the point Gougeard’s suffering on the back was an issue, it would have been a fourth place contest for Rowe.

          • Gougeard had been in the break all day, and Sagan, GVA and Benoot are stronger riders (that’s why they let him ride at the back), so he was likely to be the weakest of the five.
            Rowe has said that going into the final sprint he was confident of a podium. So, for me, it seems a bad tactical choice to waste his own energy forcing Gougeard to ride.

          • I saw Rowe take very few and very short turns, especially compared to Benoot. This considered, Benoot looks like an enormous figure for the future – insatiable drive, I thought it’d have exhausted him, but no, third. Extraordinary. And so pleased for GVA, the toast that finally landed butter side up. Chapeau to all five.

          • Kit – I was yelling at Rowe to get off the front and stop wasting more energy than the others!…. Shows the difference of perspective I guess.

  3. Excellent first major Belgium race of the season, even without the strong winds and rain ! Gougeard showed exceptional strength on his way to a well deserved top six place.

    Incidentally, I watched on “SKY’s free to air channel BIKE. Excellent commentary and long time coverage to see the race develop. I guess the feed came via Sporza. I wonder if this is the start of something better or simply a ‘one off’.

    • My only quibble with the BIKE coverage was that they cut to adverts just as he key moment approached and came back to Rowe and GVA 50m up the road – it sounds like there was a feed problem tho so maybe not their fault.
      HD would be nice if I’m being picky also.

    • Dunno whether this is the same as SKY’s BIKE CHANNEL, one we got last year while living in Rome. As much as I dislike Murdoch I have to say his bike channel was good. Most of what we saw seemed to have been created in Italy with Paolo Savoldelli providing commentary. Some nice features on Italian bike makers both new and old, historical bits, race coverage that nobody else (save pirates) had, plus features on some of the legendary climbs. Tough to fill day after day so there was plenty of repeats if you missed something, but I spent plenty (probably too much) of time watching. Free, over-the-air would be icing on the cake!!!

      • The Sporza coverage was streamed live on YouTube as well (not with English commentary obviously). It’s often worth checking YouTube for sporting streams rather than going straight to “pirate” feeds – there are no pop-ups or dodgy ads. Another example being the recent England cricket test matches in South Africa which were broadcast on Sky in the UK were also available on YouTube.

        Sky’s Bike Channel seems really good but if you haven’t got satellite or cable you can’t watch it unfortunately. Maybe they will introduce streaming or an internet player of some kind in the future.

  4. Does the lack of a picture of the finish signal a subconscious unwillingness to precipitate the collapse of that charming Schrödingerian duality?

  5. Great race to watch. I had not expected the break to stay clear but Quickstep had some bad luck and not much help. I would not be surprised if we see Sagan and GVA get second a few times more this season… behind one another. Awesome performance for Gougeard to stay with the rest on the Lange Munte after being at the front from km 1. With a stiff wind in the back on the cobbles there’s not that much to be gained from drafting and they weren’t holding back. You could tell he was driving the group in the last km to stay out of reach of the peleton.
    The Boonen vs Cancellara heyday may be over, but with a group of fast finishing hardmen like Sagan, Van Avermaet, Kristoff and Degenkolb around, the competition for the classics is a very interesting one at the moment.

  6. Just to be clear – a rider with shaved legs defeated the rider with hairy legs, right?
    All is well in the world.

    (that four inches of exposed hair clearly slowed Sagan down)

  7. Long time reader, first time poster on this this amazing site :). So I do apologize if my two cents has already been shared within this fine community 🙂

    I know that I shouldn’t love Gougeard , because he seems to defy team orders and ride on initial feelings rather than intelligence, But WOW, he can just keep on forever!


  8. Gougeard was the man of match. I found myself gritting my teeth as he dug deep to claw back on the final sector of pave as Sagan was laying down the hurt. He even did a massive pull inside the final km to ensure his high placing ahead the bunch. One of those micro dramas within a race that makes cycling great.

    • Agreed – it’s rare that I cheer on a rider similar to that of a horse race, but I applauded loudly when he got back on.

      My wife reckon’s that’s what I look like most of the time in my D grade crit! The only difference being my efforts come after the first 3 or so laps 🙂

  9. What a great race – really feels like the season has started now. I was willing Rowe to jump earlier, felt he left it a little late, although once they did go it was clear he didn’t have the legs to get near GVA. It did look like Gougeard skipping his turns got to Rowe as well and he wasted both real and emotional energy on that. Really enjoyed that though and, as ever, a super write up by inrng.

  10. Good writing that.
    Just ‘Belgian tabloids’ sounds odd because 1. the media landscape and focus are very different Flanders vs. Frenchspeaking; 2. we have popular press, but no tabloids.
    And Boonen wasn’t expecting to be a factor, but the experience must have been a setback.

    • There’s a LIDL store not-too-far from us. I’ll pop over there and get a bottle, chill it down, pop the cork and let you know. The Astoria stuff they spray around at the RCS races is pretty good, BTW.

  11. Apologies, but could someone explain the potato-hunting reference?

    “who was potato-hunting until he slid out on a bend and got caught by the bunch.”

    • It’s a slang term for being caught between two groups.

      The phrase has its origins in the Paris Six Day race on the track where riders actually raced nearly non-stop with pauses to eat, drink, sleep etc. When a rider stopped to eat they’d often consume potatoes and so their chase (“chasse” in French), to get back to the leaders in the race was labelled chasse patate or “potato chase”. But “chasse” also means hunting and it’s come to signal the sometimes forlorn chase where a rider is stuck between the breakaway and the peloton. They try their hardest but they cannot close the gap.

    • I’m glad someone else asked – I can’t remember where I put my newbie hat, and was worried that I’d have to go find it. Thank INRNG for the explain.


  12. It was great to see GVA take the win, . . . and from Sagan, no less! Perhaps the birth of his baby boy has given him that extra spark plug in his engine for that extra Oomph! in the sprints? I hope it’s the beginning of a new era for him: no more Mr. Second-place.

  13. Shouldn’t there be some sort of rule that if you’re riding on one of the cobbled sections, you should actually be on the cobbles? And not in a gutter or some path next to it?
    In the first picture, the Lotto Soudal (Benoot???) and Orica riders are clearly at a disadvantage compared to all the others that are in the gutter

      • Quite, and it’s a part of the course you have to fight to get onto. In my view it’s a legitimate part of racing to get yourself the best line, and force your opponents to use worse ones.

    • The legend that is cobbled sections has been ‘created’ over many years with riders doing exactly that, if anything they are now forced to ride the cobbles even more because of roadside barriers – this will be more evident in RvV and PR – Arenberg being a good example

    • I’ve had the pleasure to ride some of those cobbled climbs recently and I can report that some have gutters that are tougher than the cobbles. And some have the occasional whole that would buckle your wheel or cause a major crash. Taaienberg, Paterberg have nice gutters, though.

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