This Saturday is openingsweekend and the start of the cobbled classics season with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It’s an old race but a copycat contest too that has found its place on the calendar by constantly frontrunning the Tour of Flanders. So much so that this year’s Omloop poaches the beloved old roads of the Ronde.
It was born out of a backlash. The Tour of Flanders was first run in 1913 and it continued during Belgian’s Nazi occupation between 1940-1944 which was controversial because it relied on military police to secure the route and it was only open to Belgians. It was run by the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper and the wartime editions were seen as acts of collaboration and once the war was over some of the newspaper staff were put on trial. Rival newspaper Het Volk swung into action and created their own race in 1945, the Omloop Van Vlaanderen.
Now for a quick language lesson. Omloop is the local word for a loop, a circuit. Ronde is the word for a round or a tour. They are essentially the same thing and this was half the point of Omloop Van Vlaanderen when it was launched in 1945: a rival newspaper creating a similar race to the Ronde, only untainted by the war.
Omloop vs Ronde? The name was too similar to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen so after various battles the newspaper branded it with its own name and it became the Omloop Het Volk, a name which stuck for decades although the Het Volk and Het Nieuwsblad newspapers were such fierce rivals that Het Nieuwsblad could not bring itself to call the rival race the Omloop Het Volk, labelling it “Gent-Gent” instead. Ironically in 2009 the two newspapers merged and so the Omloop was rebranded the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It’s now run under the same roof of Flanders Classics, the Belgian race organiser. Name changes, politics, newspaper rivalry and more, the short version is that the Omloop is the upstart rival to the Ronde.
New for 2018 is the Omloop’s route with the finish in Meerbeke on the outside of Ninove, which comes after the final combo of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg hill. This was the finale of the Ronde up until 2012 when the route was switched over to Oudenaarde and the finish we know today with the laps around the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, a financial decision because Oudenaarde paid for it and they can install VIP catering tends alongside the two final climbs whereas the old beer tent in Geraardsbergen was staged out of the races control. The move prompted outrage in Belgium, or at least in a few corners of it. Cycling is a conservative sport – history matters – and there were debates and even a “protest” (read media stunt) on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. For good reason, a Tour of Flanders without the Muur is like a tour of the Pyrenees without the Tourmalet or more appropriately Belgium without beer. The Muur’s absence was felt so much that last year the Ronde went back.
Now the Omloop is resurrecting the famous finish, almost as if again it’s trying to feed off the Ronde’s glorious history: the good old days are back. But it raises the question of whether everything has to stay the same and that to gain validation the Omloop has to go and use the Ronde finish of the past rather than pioneering its own path? Yes and no. Certainly reviving this finish is interesting, the Muur supplied some great moments but that was because it happened in a great race and came after 250km by which point a canal bridge starts to become selective, strategic. Changes happen though the Tour of Flanders itself has changed routes regularly; the Koppenberg was only “discovered” in 1976 meaning the likes of Briek Schotte and Rik Van Looy never raced up it.
The Omloop’s route can change and so can its status. It seems to have gone up in importance of late; it wasn’t long ago that riders fretted about winning the Omloop for fear of going stale by the time the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix came around. It’s joined the UCI World Tour too and if the UCI label isn’t always the guarantee it ought to be, it still marks something.
Finally the Omloop can copy the Ronde for two reasons. First because it’s this Saturday and the start of the cobbled classics meaning there’s a lot of interest and anticipation, perhaps more so than the likes of the Dwars Door Vlaanderen or the GP E3 Harelbeke can muster, they tried the same finish it could look a bit desperate, no? Second because the Omloop and Ronde now share the same organiser meaning the company can afford to spread its assets around the country. If the Omloop will never be the Ronde maybe it can be the next best thing?