While the peloton’s far-flung excursions to such locales as Australia (the Tour Down Under), Qatar, Oman and Malaysia (the Tour de Langkawi) offer a taste of the exotic, there is nothing quite like the sight of professional cyclists toiling over rolling hills and mud-splattered cobbles in northern Europe to make the seasoned viewer feel that the cycling season has really begun. And if the Tour Down Under marked the official start of the season for the WorldTour, this weekend’s double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne heralds the start of many fans’ favourite part of the year: the spring Classics.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Today (Saturday) sees the 67th running of the Omloop Het Nieuewsblad – Omloop is the Dutch for ‘circuit’, while Het Nieuewsblad is a local newspaper – a hilly, cobbled Classic typical of the region.
The punishing 200.3km parcours follows a circuitous route through East Flanders, starting and finishing in Gent and taking in ten climbs and nine sections of flat cobbled kasseien or pavé. Much of it is run in either a northerly or southerly direction, which brings the added potential complication of crosswinds blowing in off the North Sea.
The two toughest hills – Leberg and Molenberg – are just 41km and 36km from the finish respectively. It is not so much the severity of the climbs as their relentless nature which will sap the legs of the riders: the last six ascents come in quick succession with just 33km separating hill five (Kruisberg) from the final Molenberg climb. The gradient here averages close to 10% and provides the perfect springboard for a speculative attack.
As for the pavé, the first few sections are interspersed between the final climbs, but the final four come after Molenberg in the final 31km of racing, with the last (Steenakker) barely 3km from the finish. It will make for a tense and bone-jarring conclusion to the race, with the order subject to sudden changes due to attacks and the ever-present threat of mechanical mishaps. It’s fairly typical for the attritional nature of the race to whittle the field down slowly, particularly if the weather is wet and wintry, and there is plenty of scope for either a decisive break or a regrouping to occur in the final 25km. Overall, Omloop is one of the least predictable – and therefore most exciting – of the one-day races, with several different scenarios possible.
Last year saw Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) and 2010 winner Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) go mano a mano in a successful two-man break, with the Dutchman edging out the Spaniard as the pair finished a minute ahead of the chasers.
Overall, although four of the five previous champions have been non-Belgians, the winners’ list reads like a who’s who of Belgian cycling, including such legendary names as Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Tom Steels and more recently 2006 and 2008 winner Philippe Gilbert. Indeed Belgian riders have won Omloop on 53 out of 66 occasions. The most recent winners are:
2007: Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas)
2008: Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux)
2009: Thor Hushovd (Cervelo)
2010: Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky)
2011: Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank)
This year’s winner could come from any of a large number of Classics specialists. Flecha has finished first and second in the past two editions, while Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) already has three wins to his name this season and will form a formidable one-two punch with teammate Sylvain Chavanel. Similarly Garmin-Barracuda can boast the duo of Johan Vansummeren, who knows his way over the cobbles having won last year’s Paris-Roubaix, and Heinrich Haussler, who was second to Flecha in 2010 and has also finished as runner-up at the Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo.
It is probably a bit too early for Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler to feature, and the same is probably true for BMC’s King of the Classics Philippe Gilbert, who appeared to still be finding his form at the Tour du Haut Var last weekend. Should the race come back together in the closing kilometres, however, his teammate Greg Van Avermaet (winner of last year’s Paris-Tours) might fancy his chances in a sprint, as might Alessandro Ballan or Thor Hushovd. Langeveld is back to defend his title, with Rabobank teammate Matti Breschel also likely to feature.
Although the 195km route features eight climbs, with most occurring in the second half of the race as the route sweeps back through the Ardennes, the last (Nokereberg) comes 53km from the finish, making a bunch finish likely. As a result, the winner is most likely to be a sprinter with the best combination of outright speed and ability to get over the hills.
Like the Omloop, Belgians have traditionally dominated this race, although the last home winner was Tom Boonen, who captured his second title in 2009. The most recent winners are:
2007: Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic)
2008: Steven de Jongh (Quick Step)
2009: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
2010: Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil)
2011: Chris Sutton (Sky)
Last year’s race saw Sky’s Chris Sutton triumph in a mass sprint ahead of FDJ’s Yauheni Hutarovich and Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Andre Greipel. All three return this year, with the 29-year old Greipel the hot favourite. The German has had a stellar start to the season, recording six wins already and showing off good climbing legs at the Tour of Oman last week.
Many of the sport’s other top quick men will be present here, including world champion Mark Cavendish and Tour of Qatar champion and two-time K-B-K winner Boonen, not to mention Rabobank’s Mark Renshaw and Matti Breschel and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda). Among others, watch out also for a pair of young guns in 1t4i’s John Degenkolb, a former understudy of Cavendish’s at HTC-Highroad, and BMC’s English sprinter Adam Blythe.
For live coverage of both races, check out cyclingfans.com.