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The Guide: Classics Opening Weekend
Words and images: Inner Ring
The Spring Classics start this weekend with the double-header of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday. No more Arabian nights in five-star hotels or photo-ops with kangaroos – now it’s cobbles, narrow roads and wintry weather. There’s no gentle introduction here. Time for the hardmen to fight.
It's a sign of the confusing nature of the pro cycling calendar that the Omloop and K-B-K are not on the UCI World Tour, yet are regarded by some as the true start to the season. That debate is for another time but what’s certain is that we get landmark cobbled climbs, large crowds and big prestige. Nobody else likes cycling as much as the Belgians and locals and visitors alike will brave this weekend’s cold weather, keeping warm with beer and fries. It’s also the start of a media frenzy in the Benelux region, where even team reconnaissance rides are newsworthy.
A quick word on weather; we’ve seen the opening weekend’s racing cancelled before because of snow. A few snowflakes have been spotted in Belgium but the forecast says it’ll stay dry, so hopefully the racing is on. Still, it will be very cold this weekend with temperatures around freezing at the start and not rising much during the day. Watch for the riders on the line in shorts with their legs covered in embrocation, they’ll be the ones to attack immediately. The cold weather might give them a chance to escape whilst the big names stay cocooned in thermal gear for as long as possible. Managing the layers of clothing could be an important tactic to get the balance right between warmth and aerodynamics. Dry weather makes the cobbles less treacherous. An Arctic wind could provide crosswinds but the forecast suggests a 20kph breeze which shouldn’t scatter the peloton.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Omloop means “loop” or “circuit” and in 1945 the Omloop Het Volk race was created by the Het Volk newspaper in an attempt to counter the mighty Ronde van Vlaanderen race, then owned by rival paper Het Nieuwsblad. Jump to 2013 and the two newspapers have merged giving the race the name Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Nowadays there’s little rivalry with the Ronde, as both events are owned by the same company.
If the name has changed, the type of racing hasn’t. The Omloop is 199km long and features 12 climbs and eight cobbled sections. View the route map and it looks like someone’s dropped a plate of spaghetti on to a map of Flanders, such is the way the course twists and turns. The race is concentrated into the space between Gent and Geraardsbergen, normally 40km apart but the roads are ridden numerous times to make a longer race. This matters because the race is forever changing direction; a headwind one minute is a crosswind the next. The route has climbs but the flat cobbled sections like the Haaghoek, Paddestraat and Lange Munte are equally decisive.
It’s hard to pick a winner. Last year’s victor, Sep Vanmarcke, is back with the Blanco outfit and in-form teammates like Lars Boom, who’ll want to make amends for his spectacular wipeout on the Taaienberg last year (pictured below).
Team Sky have said the Classics are a big goal this year but they might be waiting for the bigger races in March and April. However, they’re sending a strong contingent, led by Edvald Boasson Hagen, who offers great versatility as he can sprint or win solo. Luck can play a big part in the Classics and it only takes a crash or a cobble to ruin well-laid plans. We can’t see Boasson Hagen’s training data but we can see other numbers, those being the odds from bookmakers, and the Norwegian seems to be the pre-race pick. The Omloop was Team Sky’s first big win when, in 2010, Juan Antonio Flecha charged away from Philippe Gilbert to win solo. Ian Stannard could try this approach, whilst Geraint Thomas is back on the road and already showed his form in Australia a month ago. Bernie Eisel has already come close in this race, too.
The Omega Pharma-Quick Step (OPQS) team is another one to watch, both because of their strength in numbers and the fact they’re playing at home. Like Sky there’s one leader and plenty of lieutenants. Tom Boonen will be racing as he tries to get fit after being hospitalised with an elbow infection in January. Big training miles, plus the Tour of Oman, should help and we should expect to see him up on the Taaienberg. For years, Boonen has used the climb to dance away solo and force the rest of the race to chase. This year, he’s joined by teammates Zdeněk Štybar, Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck.
The other outstanding team is BMC Racing. Their world champion, Philippe Gilbert, has won the race twice before but won’t ride. Instead, we’ll see Thor Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet, Adam Blythe and Taylor Phinney provide a lot of power.
Amongst the others, Jürgen Roelandts of Lotto-Belisol and John Degenkolb are both effective riders. Roelandts is an attacking rider who can sprint whilst Degenkolb is a sprinter who can cope with the climbs. On past performance alone, Juan Antonio Flecha can’t be ignored – Vacansoleil’s recruit has been on the podium for the last four years. Filippo Pozzato is another obvious pick but his win rate is lower than his media profile suggests. Still, it’s only the opening weekend and neither race is hard enough to create the “last man standing” scenarios of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.
If a move goes it will have to contain riders from Sky, OPQS and BMC, otherwise they’ll chase but this is a liability for them too and others will exploit this. Ideally we’ll see the big names battle but you wonder if a few might opt for the warmth of the team car with a view to saving themselves for another day. But there’s a big win up for grabs so hopefully we’ll see a select group form in the final hour and then some lively racing to determine the winner.
Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is a fine race in its own right but tends to be seen as an opportunity for riders who make mistakes or suffer misfortune on Saturday. However, the cold might encourage a few to skip this race if they rode hard on Saturday. This year’s edition promises a duel between Mark Cavendish and André Greipel, their first meeting this year. This alone should prove exciting enough but to it we can add cobbled climbs and another start list packed with exciting riders.
Despite the name, the race doesn’t actually go to the Belgian capital these days (although it does start and finish in Kuurne). It’s got a less selective route, where a sprint finish is more likely, although usually amongst a large group that’s been thinned down by eight climbs along the way and the ramp-like Nokereberg, often the final straw for flagging riders. The race ends with two 16km circuits around Kuurne where last year Cavendish rode with the fearlessness of a Bangkok tuk-tuk driver in rush-hour traffic to pick his way through the field to win the sprint. Belgium can be an eccentric place; after all, it’s the home of the Manneken Pis and René Magritte. The K-B-K podium ceremony doesn’t disappoint either and usually features a donkey or two, in reference to the nickname given to the natives of Kuurne.
Cavendish is back but with the Omega-Pharma-Quick Step team and it’ll be the first big test of his new sprint train. It worked well in Qatar but this is another story. The same applies to Lotto Belisol, who looked so effective in the Tour Down Under – what will cobbled climbs and distance do for André Greipel’s leadout? Other sprinters will have their say, too: Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar has come close this season and now he’s got the advantage of riding at ‘home’ (he speaks fluent Flemish). France’s Arnaud Démare is a young pretender worth keeping an eye on. A sprint finish seems most likely but only from a reduced bunch. Once again, the cold could play its part but expect things to hot up in the final hour. If it comes to a sprint finale watch the fight for position as riders try to place themselves on the right wheel, jockeying to the front but never in the wind.
Both races are being covered live but it depends where you live. Check the likes of cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv for links to video streams. Don’t be afraid of Flemish commentary, you’ll soon pick out the rider names.
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