The season goes up a notch with the start of the cobbled classics this Saturday and racing that supplies action for hours rather thanks to the tricky course and the ferocity of the peloton as it twists around the Flemish countryside. More than ever the Omloop is a mini Tour of Flanders and all the better for it.
The Route: 196km. A start in Gent outside the Kuipke velodrome and then the first 30km head roughly south-east meaning instant crosswinds (see “weather” below). After 60km the road starts snaking all over the place meaning one minute a crosswind, the next a headwind and so knowing the route from here on is crucial. It’s here the cobbled difficulties begin with the first of three passages over the long and exposed Haaghoek pavé before the asphalted Leberg climb, 6% average but with 14% early on. Onto the feedzone and the TV coverage should pick up from here with another loop to the Haaghoek-Leberg combo.
It’s back to the future with the route embracing the old Tour of Flanders route for the final 60km, a 2001 a race odyssey. This means no Taaienberg, the climb where Tom Boonen always attacked to test his legs and where the race would often split apart. Instead the Wolvenberg is hard, tarmac but it reaches 19%. The Jagerij cobbles have suburban feel, lined by houses and not too rough. The Molenberg is iconic, look for the TV shots of the windmill but for the riders the rough cobbles are selective.
The third passage over the Haaghoek and Leberg should be decisive. There’s still 41km to go and a tarmac trifecta of the Berendries, Valkenberg and Tenbosse brings us to the moneytime moment with the Muur van Geraardsbergen, also known as the Kapelmuur. After a hard start roared on by the crowds they enter the woodland section which is steep and brutal and the pavé feel medieval before rounding the bend to the chapel. The final climb is the Bosberg, 1.35km which is long for a climb in Flanders and just 5% average and almost in one long straight line. It doesn’t sound hard but in the old Tour of Flanders it was after 240km and the final straw for some and a launchpad to victory for others. This time it comes after 185km and may not be as decisive, we could see some cagey riders hanging on with others reluctant to attack for fear of being brought back. There’s 12km to go.
The Finish: north into Meerbeke and under the flamme rouge. There’s a wide right hand bend and 500m into a headwind before another right-hander and a slight uphill finish.
Greg Van Avermaet is the prime pick. He has won this race for the last two years, he has a strong team riding in his service and he’s in great shape too. To expand on this his two past wins have seen him make the selection from far out and then confidently win the sprint. His BMC Racing team are strong with Jürgen Roelandts, Stefan Kung and Jempy Drucker possible outsiders if BMC have to play other cards. As for the form, watch the video of the last kilometre of Stage 3 in the Tour of Oman as GVA just rides the field off his wheel, exhibiting the kind of power which he can use in the sprint or to force a selection over the pavé. Better still for him he can afford to lose this race because the Tour of Flanders in April is the big goal.
Next come Quick Step. The shrink down to seven riders per team means more than ever you wonder who is on bottle duty because on their day all Quick Steppers can win. Dries Devenyns and Iljo Keisse are the probable domestiques. On paper Philippe Gilbert wins is the leader because of seniority but Quick Step’s tactic is to throw riders forward into the final phase of the race and win by numerical superiority rather than line up for one rider… although this doesn’t always work. Gilbert looks to be in good shape following several close results and has won this race twice. Fernando Gaviria could be in for a shock in the cold and besides it normally takes a few years to learn these roads although his performances in Sanremo show he’s a fast learner. Zdeněk Štybar has the experience but not the trophies, he’s still hunting for a big classics win but showed good form in last week’s Tour of the Algarve. Yves Lampaert and Niki Terpstra bring yet more options.
Astana have had a strong start to the season. They seem more orientated to stage races but Alexey Lutsenko is a versatile rider, he’s just won on the green mountain and won an uphill finish in the Vuelta last year but was also on the podium in Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Magnus Cort Nielsen (pictured) is more than a sprinter and fellow Scandinavians Michael Valgren and Truls Korsaeth bring more to the table.
A few years ago Ag2r La Mondiale were among the whipping boys of the spring classics, in 2012 they had to wait until late May to take their first victory of the season. Now with Oliver Naesen they’re serious contenders for the spring classics. Naesen was a revelation last year and is back for more and the straight-talker says he’s feeling better and his training numbers prove it. He’s got a broken nose which can’t help on the cobbles but he says it doesn’t bother him. The team go up a level in support too with new recruit Sylvan Dillier and if it means they’re strong in the classics it’s good for their habitual Tour de France ambitions too given the opening week with its coastal chaos and the team time trial. Alexis Gougeard is a perpetual breakaway contender too. How does Naesen win? By brute force, the harder the race the better.
EF-Drapac bring a strong squad too with Sep Vanmarcke praying for the law of averages. He’s been so strong in recent years only for a broken shoe here, planting his front wheel into a betonweg crack there and many more mishaps have left him with a near-blank palmarès after winning the Omloop as a neo-pro back in 2012. His luck has to turn at some point and he’s got a good squad in support with Mitchell Docker, Sebastian Langeveld and Matti Breschel bringing a lot of experience.
Lotto-Soudal have three options with Tiesj Benoot, Tim Wellens and new recruit Jens Keukeleire but the win is hard to see. Both Benoot and Wellens seem increasingly adept in stage races but they’ve also proved their worth in the classics and should enliven the race, Benoot in particular made the podium here in 2016 as a neo-pro still attending university.
Edvald Boasson Hagen is 30 now and has gone from great hope to disappointment and now has “mercurial” status, capable of winning a Tour de France stage but equally his best result in the classics last year was a modest 19th in Sanremo; in 2016 he was fifth in Paris-Roubaix. The cold weather, the hard course and his reliable sprint – he pushed Marcel Kittel to a photo finish last July when nobody else came close – still make him a pick with Di Data team mate Scott Thwaites a strong rider too.
Mitchelton-Scott have a strong classics team too but how can they win? Matteo Trentin is a good pick to sprint from a small group while Luke Durbridge has the horsepower to ride into contention.
Trek-Segafredo are in a transition year. They lost out in the bidding for a grand tour contender last autumn but can keep their powder dry for bidding this spring. In the meantime their classics team has promise with Jasper Stuyven as the captain capable of delivering a big win and some podiums. Mads Pedersen as one to watch while Giacomo Nizzolo and Fabio Felline are fast-finishing outsiders.
Team Sunweb have just taken their first win of 2018 and it’ll be hard to repeat this in Belgium. They have Michael Matthews opening his season so his form is unknown while Søren Kragh Andersen and Edward Theuns could figure but had a discreet Tour of Oman.
Arnaud Démare is capable of winning a cobbled classic but perhaps a flatter one but his form is there and the cold isn’t usually a problem for him. Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne surely suits him and his FDJ train more and if he’s out of contention on Saturday he could shut things down to save for the next day.
Bora-Hansgroge look like orphans without Peter Sagan but all the more reason to get stuck in before they’re back to being butlers for the World Champion. Team Sky bring a young squad with new recruit Dylan Van Baarle their best bet. Katusha-Alpecin also bring the young riders without an obvious leader but watch Mads Würtz Schmidt.
Bahrain’s been in the news this week for jailing a dissident for his tweets so they’ll hope Sonny Colbrelli can bring them more positive press coverage and he’s got a good sprint and copes well with the cold but is not the most enterprising rider to get in the moves.
Finally eight teams have wildcards but taking on the established teams is a big ask. Among all the others Guillaume Van Keirsbulck found winning ways with Wanty-Gobert last year. Sean De Bie has won for Verandas Willems this year and team mate Stijn Devolder is still racing aged 38 but all eyes will be on Wout Van Aert, the new cyclo-cross World Champion. He could be in form but he could equally be turning stale.
|Greg Van Avermaet|
|Quick Step, Sep Vanmarcke, Oliver Naesen|
|Jasper Stuyven, Matteo Trentin, Tiesj Benoot|
|Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tim Wellens|
|WVA, Terpstra, Lutsenko, Roelandts, Keukeleire, Matthews, Cort Nielsen, Colbrelli|
Weather: sunny and very cold. Much of Europe is about to get blasted by icy air and it’ll be 4°C at most on Saturday, expect to see riders with gloves, leg warmers and more. This is normal and the race has been snowed off in the past. There will be a 25km/h wind gusting to 37km/h coming from the north-east. As a rule 30km/h is sufficient to split a race up in crosswinds.
TV: Belgium’s Sporza is the local channel behind the production and worth watching. Even if you don’t speak Flemish you’ll still get plenty of what’s going on and after watching a few times you’ll pick up terms. Otherwise it’s on Eurosport across much of Europe.
The race starts at 11.45am CET and coverage on VRT/Sporza begins at 1.30pm with the finish forecast for 4.30pm Euro time.
Women’s Race: this starts at 11.55am and finishes at 3.20pm and uses the same final 60km as the men’s route. It’s not on TV (but the women’s Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem will be live) but the TV might cut to the finish line to show the finish. Velonews have a good preview online.