It’s openingsweekend and Belgium is open too, locked indoors last year, the crowds will be back to enjoy a cobbled classic on their doorstep. Here’s a quick preview.
204km from Gent to Ninove and the action happens in the final 60km. The difference this year is the removal of the Molenberg climb with 45km to go. The race now diverts around it and the plan is to avoid this pinchpoint, although that’s relative given all the twists and traps along the way.
The moneytime is with 18km to go and the Muur van Geraardsbergen. It starts climbing in town and then enters the woodland section which is steep and brutal and the pavé is rough, even if it’s been remade of late. 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 and a final chance to break rivals. This time it comes after 190km 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 13km to go from here until the streets of Ninove and a wide road for the sprint. In the finish there’s a right turn chased by a left turn onto the finishing straight, all wide roads.
Quick-Step bring six potential winners but have they got a rider to bank on in case of a sprint in a large group? Florian Sénéchal keeps improving and he’s become a dependable rider for the team – picked for the Tour de France already – but now in search of a big win. The team won’t sit still, Yves Lampaert and Kasper Asgreen can make moves. They might have bigger friten to fry in April but a win here would keep the Belgian media off their backs.
Wout van Aert is the safe pick, capable of going solo, likely to win a sprint from a group of 20 riders. Like many he’s aiming for top form in April and playing down his chances but unlike many, he can win at 90%. Still, today is as much about seeing how Jumbo-Visma’s recently beefed-up classics team works. New recruit Tiesj Benoot has won this race before and Mike Teunissen is due a win.
Lotto-Soudal are a force on home soil but rarely win anything, look at the team’s wins every year and the classics are often their most barren spell all year, they haven’t won a major cobbled classic since Peter Van Petergem took the Ronde in 2003. Victor Campenaerts, Florian Vermeersch, Brent Van Moer and Harry Sweeney make for a solid team but the in form rider is Tim Wellens, or rather was as overnight he’s fallen ill and won’t race.
If Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain) can continue where he left off last season he’s an easy pick too. Useful on the climbs and strong in a sprint, but form unknown. Matej Mohorič is in better form and always got an eye for the right breakaway.
The usual “Ineos send a strong squad” line gets replaced with Ineos send a young squad with Tom Pidcock, Ethan Hayter, Ben Turner and Magnus Sheffield. Youth can win in the Omloop, ask Sep Vanmarcke and Tiesj Benoot but they’d also grown up within range of the course and knew the course well. Pidcock ought to be the best bet but could still be sore from crashes in the Algarve, Hayter is quick in a sprint.
Trek-Segafredo return with 2020 winner Jasper Stuyven but no Mads Pedersen. This blog’s Neo-Pros to watch mentioned Daan Hoole and he’s one to watch closely today too after a top-10 ride in the long Volta ao Algarve TT last Sunday.
Ag2r Citroën have assembled a solid classics squad with the recruitment of Greg Van Avermaet to co-lead with Oliver Naesen. But what if 24 year old Stan De Wulf delivers? He was floating in the recent Ruta Del Sol.
Sep Vanmarcke (Israel) had a sustained knee injury over winter – if it wasn’t for bad luck he wouldn’t have any luck at all and so been playing down his chances given a lack of training. But what if this meant he was fresher? Update: he’s out of the race with a cold.
Conditions look too nice for Alexander Kristoff to win. He can still bide his time, hope to stay in contact over the Muur and Bosberg and hope for a sprint to deliver Intermarché-Wanty a giant win.
UAE are more than team Pogačar and have been bulking out the roster. Matteo Trentin knows the roads well and in good form but late last year he was often in a winning position but lost out; younger rider Alessandro Covi is on the top but can he cope with the course, he’s only raced once before in Flanders and that was the 2020 Omloop and a DNF.
Astana have in-form Alexey Lutsenko but the course might not be hard enough for him, he’d like longer climbs to wear down rivals more. Gianni Moscon gets his first outing with the team.
A final rattle through more names. Past winner Michael Valgren (EF Education) is back and seemed to find winning form last season after a couple of barren years so watch out for him today and this spring. Team DSM are still searching for a win this year, Nils Eeckhoff and Søren Kragh Andersen look like their best bets but at long odds. Peter Sagan starts but the form’s not there, his Total team mate Anthony Turgis keeps “turning around the pot” as he’d say in French and has been working on his sprint. Uno-X bring Tobias Johannessen and Rasmus Tiller. Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) is in great form but often wins on the road in grim conditions when he can barge clear, today’s weather is gentle. Arkéa-Samsic have started well but today’s a World Tour race with a dense field, still Conor Swift is a growing threat and the kind of rider you could see joining Quick Step in the coming years. Jasper Philipsen’s on form in the UAE but otherwise Alpecin-Fenix have had a slow start to the season and seem more suited to tomorrow’s finish in Kuurne.
|Wout van Aert
|Colbrelli, Stuyven, Trentin, Lampaert, Benoot, Asgreen, Kristoff, Pidcock
|Covi, Valgren, Štybar, Lutsenko, Hayter, SKA, Turgis, C Swift
Weather: not much of a factor as it’ll be dry, cold and sunny with a top temperature of 9°C and little wind.
TV: the official start is at 11.00am CET and the finish is forecast for 4.15pm CET. Sporza’s coverage begins at 1.30pm with the international feeds likely to start soon after, tune in from 3.00pm to get the Wolvenenberg and the rest.
Women’s Race: the women’s race starts at 1.25pm CET and finishes at 5.15pm and the last hour will be live on TV. There’s a good preview at procyclinguk.com.