The cobbles are here! The cobbles are here! The Classics get under way this weekend, with the 68th edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicking off a weekend of cold and muddy Belgian fun on Saturday. A hotly contested and prestigious race, many of the big names will be using it as they prepare for the major Monuments later in the spring.
What kind of race is it?
Originally named Omloop Het Volk after a local newspaper, the race has been run since 1945. Now a 199km circuit beginning and ending in Gent, it is a typically nasty Belgian parcours, with a total of 12 climbs and eight punishing cobbled sections.
Marking the arrival of the classics season, it is a prestigious race which some of cycling’s great names have on their palmares, including Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Johan Museeuw – and more recently Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd – with rider-turned-race director Peter Van Petegem‘s three victories the joint-highest of any rider.
As the above would suggest, it is a race traditionally dominated by Belgian riders on home turf. Of its 67 editions to date, only 11 have been won by foreigners – and three of them have come in the last four editions, before a surprise win by youngster Sep Vanmarcke restored local pride last year.
The most recent winners of the race are:
2008: Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux)
2009: Thor Hushovd (Cervelo)
2010: Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky)
2011: Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank)
2012: Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda)
What happened last year?
Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke took the biggest win of his career, when he surprisingly out-sprinted wily Classics veterans Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) to win from a three-man break.
Some hard pushing by the peloton in a bid to capture the day’s breakaway eventually left an elite group out front, which gradually disintegrated until there was only the aforementioned trio left leading. Some clever riding from Vanmarcke allowed him to upset the odds, with the rest of the peloton following in almost half a minute down.
1. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) 4:52:34
2. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) same time
3. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) s/t
4. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:25
5. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) s/t
6. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t
7. Lloyd Mondory (Ag2r La Mondiale) s/t
8. Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ-Big Mat) s/t
9. Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) s/t
10. Staf Scheirlinckx (Accent Jobs-Willems Veranda’s) s/t
Our 2012 race review can be found here.
This year’s race
A race which roughly follows the same route each year, there have been a few subtle adjustments to the parcours for this edition, as Peter van Petegem has explained:
We do not really want to tinker with the course, [but road construction has forced alterations]. Therefore Wolvenberg road and the cobblestones of Mater are replaced by the Varent.
The Varent is a tough climb which comes with 152km in the legs, and could really splinter the peloton. It is one of a couple of climbs which have been added for this year’s edition.
However, it’s the pavé sections rather than climbs which really do the damage, though they probably aren’t severe enough to mean the race will end in a dramatic solo attack. The comparatively simple run-in to the finish and a flat last 20km mean that a small group of riders finishing together is a more likely scenario, such as the three-man break from which Vanmarcke won last year.
Having said that, there is the problematic presence of three serious climbs, starting with the Varent, and six cobbled sections in the last 40km of racing, with the last section inside the final 5km before a kick up to the finish. With many different outcomes possible, predicting this race is harder than most others.
Who to watch
With Philippe Gilbert (BMC) – winner of this race in 2008 – not riding this edition, home support will be most likely unanimously behind Tom Boonen (OPQS), who will look to bounce back from the disappointment of finishing second last year. However, still recovering from the nasty arm infection he suffered earlier this year, Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra may be the ones to watch from the Belgian outfit.
The man who pipped Boonen to the post last time out, Sep Vanmarcke, is riding again this year, heading a Blanco team jam-packed with Classics specialists, including Lars Boom and Maarten Tjallingii. He’s an outsider, but Vanmarcke may well be in the mix again.
BMC may be Gilbert-less, but they’re not without strong riders. Thor Hushovd won here in 2009, while Greg Van Avermaet is usually there or thereabouts when it comes to the Classics. While BMC are without a Gilbert, the race isn’t. Jerome Gilbert, Philippe’s little brother, is set to start for the Accent Jobs-Wanty team. He may have an extremely minimal chance of winning, though there’s a name to keep half an eye on. Gilbert Jr’s teammate Staf Scheirlinckx finished tenth here last year, and should lead his team’s charge again.
Pippo Pozzato – returning to the WorldTour this year with Lampre-ISD – will spearhead an all-Italian outfit in this race, and with his cobbled prowess, he’s sure to be in the mix. Sky have Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas and Bernhard Eisel on their start-list – all riders who can excel on this terrain.
Elsewhere, cobbles specialist Juan Antonio Flecha – winner of this race with Sky in 2010 – will hope to get his Vacansoleil career off to the perfect start with another win, while FDJ’s Yoann Offredo and Dominique Rollin are both rank outsiders, alongside the perpetually frustrating Heinrich Haussler (IAM). Maybe this will finally be the 28-year old’s breakout season, though don’t hold your breath.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place on Saturday 23rd February. For live coverage check cyclingfans.com.
Link: Official website