No suncream. No sand. No sheikhs. No skyscrapers. Welcome to a weekend’s racing in Belgium with its crowds, cobbled tracks and muddy landscapes. The Omloop opens spring classics season and traditionally offers fine racing, often supplying action and suspense for hours.
Starting and finishing in the city of Ghent the race occupies a triangular sector to the south of the city, criss-crossing roads to use as much of the terrain as possible. As the profile suggests, the first 100km are without too many obstacles. They tackle the infamous Muur van Geraardsbergen early, it helps to sap the legs before more and more climbs appear.
Things get serious with 80km to go and the Kaperij climb, anyone badly positioned from now on is going to waste energy and pay for it sooner or later. A succession of short climbs, cobbles and cobbled climbs ensures the process of attrition. Watch for Tom Boonen on the Taaienberg and then a series of attacks, moves, splits and crashes will hone down the field. The Haaghoek cobbles are apparently a mess thanks to works. The final climb is the Molenberg, back after last year’s absence. The final cobbled sector is the Lange Munte, a long straight section that’s tiring but with a regular surface but very exposed to the wind.
The same as last year’s new finish. The Emile Claaslaan is wide with a slight uphill drag to the line.
Omloop is the local word for a loop, a circuit. The race began in 1945 as the Omloop Van Vlaanderen but the name was too similar to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen so it became the Omloop Het Volk, taking its name from the newspaper that organised it. For years the Het Volk and Het Nieuwsblad newspapers were fierce rivals, so much so that Het Nieuwsblad could not bring itself to call the race the Omloop Het Volk, using Gent-Gent instead. The enmity ended when the papers merged and the race is now called the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
A pinch of salt? Get a shovel because predicting race results is never easy and it’s even harder when it comes to the opening race as form is harder to judge. The easy pick is Greg Van Avermaet because he won last year and has the skillset and the team to repeat, as we saw a year ago he packs a good sprint from a small group. We don’t know much about his form but he was working well for his BMC Racing team in Oman. He’s got a strong team with Jean-Pierre “Jempy” Drucker as a dark horse for a sprint.
Alexander Kristoff is a dangerous rider in all the cobbled classics and is well suited to Saturday’s course. He’s shown in the Tour of Flanders that he can ride away but will surely prefer the sprint card so as strong as he may be, this race doesn’t often end in a bunch sprint, the last time a sizeable group arrived to contest the finish was in 2009. Watch Katusha-Alpecin team mate Tony Martin who says he’s been working on more explosive efforts in training because if he can zip away and get 10 metres then he’s very hard to bring back.
Tom Boonen is the people’s choice. His looming retirement is going to be a perpetual theme this spring. The Omloop is the missing trophy in his collection of spring classics and he’s come close in recent years, think of his loss to Sep Vanmarcke in 2012 or Ian Stannard in 2015 so this isn’t a race where he just does a training test on the Taaienberg and rolls home. His form seems decent and he’s won already this year. His team is phenomenal, all seven other riders could plausibly win. Philippe Gilbert has won this race before and back to targeting the cobbled classics again so it’ll be interesting to see the team work. Iljo Keisse is the local pick, Zdeněk Štybar remains a classy rider but the longer flat approach doesn’t help him, instead Niki Terpstra could barge away while Matteo Trentin is another sprint card to play. The whole team is so strong that a “failure” to win will bring instant interrogation from the Belgian media.
Sep Vanmarcke has joined Cannondale-Drapac and it’s almost a return to where things began for him as it was with the old Garmin team that he outsprinted Tom Boonen to win this race. Now he’s marked man and will find it harder to win but he’s got the raw power and if he’s had no particular results so far this season he’s looked very ease in the peloton. The team’s strong on paper with Dylan Van Baarle, Tom Van Asbroeck and 2011 winner Sebastian Langeveld as a road captain.
Who’d bet against Peter Sagan? He’s got a fast sprint, he’s world champion and even if his goal is Paris-Roubaix – meaning his form is not on the boil yet – he remains one of those riders who seems able to win with one leg, see how he was almost winning stages Down Under with so little training. Marcus Burghardt and Aleksejs Saramotins are good recruits for Bora-Hansgrohe but the team still looks top-heavy, Sagan surely can’t sit tight for the sprint but will have to take risks.
Team Sky bring their A-team with Ian Stannard, famous for his 2015 overwinning, and Luke Rowe who was the instigator of the big attacks last year on the Taaienberg’s last year and has shown his sprint in this race too. Gianni Moscon and Danny Van Poppel bring more options.
Lotto-Soudal have struggled for years to win a “big” classic but they have a roster that can deliver if they get a few breaks. Jürgen Roelandts leads the team and packs a fast finish, as does Jens Debusschere who won the bunch sprint here a year ago.
As of pixel time Tiesj Benoot isn’t down to start. Tiesj Benoot rides and is a prodigous talent but how can he win? He’s suited towards harder, hillier terrain and the flat run to the line won’t help him as we saw last year.
Lotto-Jumbo lose Sep Vanmarcke and gain Lars Boom who’s back with a home team. He’s been good in the shorter classics but this one has a long run to the line but here Boom can always sit on any moves he joins because Dylan Groenewegen is there for the sprint, unless he’s already thinking about Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne which looks ideal for him.
Trek-Segafredo face life without Fabian Cancellara, one of the most bankable riders every spring. Jasper Stuyven can get away with others while Edward Theuns is useful for the sprint.
Jens Keukeleire leads Orica-Scott with Luke Durbridge focussing on the classics again and Magnus Cort-Nielsen as a handy sprinter who has been seen to win in Spain but prior to joining the World Tour was at ease on cobbled races in the U23 ranks.
Ag2r La Mondiale have beefed up for the classics with Stijn Vandenbergh and Oliver Naesen and there’s Alexis Gougeard for the morning breakaway too, remember he made the finish last year.
Finally let’s rattle through some more names. FDJ’s Arnaud Démare is enjoying a good start to the season and packs a powerful, long sprint which has made his reputation but he’s really a classics rider at heart. Bahrein-Merida’s best rider on paper is Sonny Colbrelli but watch neo-pro David Per who is more suited to these northern races. Bryan Coquard‘s fine on the cobbles and hills but may sit tight for Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Fortuneo-Vital Concept’s Dan McClay can’t because his team aren’t riding and he is back from training in Colombia which either means he’s flying or suffers from the thermal shock incurred when going from the tropics to Flanders. Finally a first with the Israel Cycling Academy team in the race where Kiwi Hamish Schreurs is one to watch, probably not for Saturday but one day in the future.
|Greg Van Avermaet
|Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff
|Philippe Gilbert, Tom Boonen, Jürgen Roelandts, Niki Terpstra, Luke Rowe, Dylan Groenewegen, Tiesj Benoot
|Démare, Martin, Boom, Stannard, Theuns, Stuyven, Debusschere, Keukeleire, Trentin
Weather: cool and cloudy with 9°C in the afternoon. There will be a 20km/h breeze from the SW which is just maybe enough to help split things up, especially as several of the important later phases of the race run perpendicular to the wind direction.
TV: the race starts at 11.35am Euro tome and local Belgian TV coverage starts at 1.30pm Euro time with studio introduction before the live racing and the finish is forecast for 4.35pm but tune in well before to watch the action. The Taaiennberg at around 3.00pm.
Women’s Race: the women’s edition is on while the men are still rolling with the finish forecast for 2.55pm. Ella Cyclingtips has an expert preview of the contenders and pretenders.