The Belgian classics season opens this weekend. Yes the season has been raging for a month already and we’ve had plenty of action so far but the openingsweekend in Flanders always marks an increase in the intensity with fierce racing where riders scrap for position on narrow roads ahead of steep climbs or bone-shaking cobbled paths and where the action comes thick and fast in the final hour.
The Course: Gent to Ninove the long way, 207km with a course that spirals around to take as many difficulties as it can in the second half. The first cobbles come after just 36km with the Haagehoek and they’re chased by the Leberg hill. Added back to the race, the Lange Munte pavé come after 96km and mark a change in the race as from here the cobbles and climbs start to come thick and fast, as you can see on the profile above.
Removed last year, the Molenberg is also back and with 50km to go. The moneytime is with 18km to go and the start of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. It starts climbing in town and then enters the woodland section which is steep with rough cobbles before reaching the chapel at the top which gives the climb its Kapelmuur ,”Chapel wall”, nickname. Don’t forget the twisty descent where it’s hard to retake lost ground for a moment, gaps established over the climb can stick.
The final climb is the Bosberg, which at 1.3 kilometres is long for a climb in Flanders. The 5% average slope isn’t fierce and there are no pinchpoints or bends to exploit, it’s just a test of brute force after 190km where some attack and others hold on with all they’ve got left. Over the top and there’s 13km to go from here until the streets of Ninove.
The Finish: a new finish but nothing exciting. On the contrary, it’s further outside Ninove on the nondescript bypass road. Anyway for the race it’s a big wide road that dips a touch and then rises to the line in the final kilometre.
How to win this race? The Geraardsbergen-Bosberg combo is so often crucial with what’s left of the race fragmenting on the slopes of the Kapelmuur. This Saturday offers a slight headwind up the Bosberg and to the finish which can help a lone escapee while others hesitate in a stand-off but it can equally keep a lid on things.
None of the galatico riders are here, starting with last year’s winner Wout van Aert. So Jumbo-Visma make up for it in numbers with Christophe Laporte, past podium-finisher Tiesj Benoot and new recruit Dylan van Baarle. Now they’d all love to win here but the team’s focus this spring has to be on Flanders and Roubaix. Still of the trio Laporte is very consistent, a regular top-10 and a decent win rate when he can take his chances, he can sprint or go solo while Benoot and van Baarle are strong but less versatile, ideally they’ll want to barge clear solo. Jan Tratnik is also worth watching, the new signing’s reportedly been storming around Mount Teide too.
Soudal-Quickstep rely on firing riders forward to give them an option on the win. This is a previewer’s predicament, as who to pick? Yves Lampaert has got strength and experience but doesn’t have a fast finish, up to him to go solo. Kasper Asgreen is ill
hunting for the form of old but he can go solo and still pack a sprint. Casper Pedersen, Florian Sénéchal and 2021 race winner Davide Ballerini are all fast finishers whose best chance might be combining to ensure a handy lead out. The team will have bigger goals for later but a win here gets the Belgian media off their backs.
Ineos bring three youngsters in Tom Pidcock, Ben Turner and Magnus Sheffield. Of the trio, Turner looks the pure classics contender – although he’ll make a handy helper in a grand tour as well – and he’s a form pick too having recently won in Spain. Pidcock’s a confounding rider who can win on many a terrain and is hard to bet against, but which route to victory here, he could fly up a climb but has he got the power to stay away solo? Sheffield has more of this on tap and combined they have a good chance of a result.
Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) can handle a sharp climb and take a bunch sprint, he’s one of the most versatile sprinters these days. New recruit Søren Kragh Andersen is worth watching as he can sneak away in the finale and pressure others to move, it’s an obvious tactic to play and the question is whether both are in shape to pull this off as this is their first race of the season.
Arnaud De Lie has the form and the ability but winning here would involve more than he’s put together so far. The “Bull of Lescheret” will have to fight for position more than ever, cope with the climbs and then use his sprint to stampede past some big name rivals. If so it’d be a huge win for Lotto-Dstny as the Belgian team hasn’t won a major cobbled classic (major as in Dwars and Nokere don’t count) since 2005 when Nico Mattan won Gent-Wevelgem. The team can also fire Victor Campenaerts off the front.
If many eyes are on De Lie, how about another rider with a bovine nickname? Stefan “Muni” Bissegger (EF Education-Easypost) is better known as a time triallist and his nickname comes from the Swiss-German word for a young bull. He likes the classics and all that beefy build means a decent sprint making him not so much a dark horse as a black angus but watch for him this spring.
Ag2r Citroën bring experience in Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen who were third and fourth here a year ago but both need harder, more attritional race to see others fade away. On the youth side Stan Dewulf and Benoît Cosnefroy offer promise but the latter’s had a disrupted start to the season already, although in part that means he’s under the radar.
As ever Bahrain come with plenty of menace. Give Matej Mohorič an inch on a flat road and he’ll gladly take a mile on his rivals. Jonathan Milan packs a mean sprint and more, a dangerman if he’s there in the finish while Fred Wright is the joker card to play in search of the big win.
UAE have a strong team on paper with Tim Wellens for the breakaway and Pascal Ackermann for a sprint but can the latter cope with the climbs, he might prefer Sunday’s Kuurne finish. Veteran Matteo Trentin is on hand for guidance and can sniff out a win.
Groupama-FDJ bring a solid team with Kevin Geniets in good form and Stefan Küng has just won the Algarve TT but as ever his challenge is he’ll be beaten in a sprint so he’ll want to get away solo but is heavily marked.
Trek-Segafredo always bring a coherent team for the spring classics but assembling the win is the hard part. Jasper Stuyven is their kopman who can go solo or win a sprint alike.
Never say never for Total Energies with Peter Sagan and Edvald Boasson Hagen but arguably Anthony Turgis and Dries Van Gestel are more motivated than ever. DSM have Nils Eekhoff plus Cadel Evans race winner Marius Mayrhofer who wants to be a classics rider more than a sprinter. Bora-hansgrohe bring Jordi Meeus for the sprint or Kuurne and Nils Politt as an ever-present threat but still hunting for his first classics win of any kind.
Intermarché-Circus-Wanty are good at creating upsets but their problem today is that they have some good sprint options but if there is a bunch gallop, normally someone else is faster, but watch Mike Teunissen who’s left Jumbo to get more opportunities. Alexander Kristoff (Uno-X) has a win already but can he cope with the climbs, team mate Rasmus Tiller can. Finally never say never for Sep Vanmarcke as the other day his team tweeted he wasn’t ill , as if for once he wasn’t the victim of misfortune.
|Jasper Philipsen, Christophe Laporte|
|Tiesj Benoot, Arnaud De Lie, Ben Turner, Jasper Stuyven|
|Casper Pedersen, Matej Mohorič, Davide Ballerini|
|SKA, Wellens, Lampaert, Sheffield, Pidcock, Milan, Wright, Sénéchal|
Weather: dry, cold and mostly cloudy. The wind will blow from the north at about 15-20km/h.
TV: the race starts at 10.55am CET. There’s live coverage on Sporza for locals and Eurosport/GCN internationally starting at 1.30pm CET and the finish is around 4.00pm CET. By all means catch it all but the last hour is where the big action should come.
Women’s Omloop: stay tuned as this race follows the men with the finish around 5.15pm CET and there’s a thorough and informed preview over at procyclinguk.com.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: Sunday’s race is more sprinter-friendly but has delivered suspense in recent years as valiant breakaway riders have sometimes taken the win. The finish is forecast for 5.00pm CET.