It was a wet and windy stage in Northern Ireland that ended as predicted with Marcel Kittel taking the first sprint of the Giro (almost certainly not his last). And although Svein Tuft lost the maglia rosa, his teammate Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews found it on his shoulders. Continue reading →
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?
Sep Vanmarcke (image courtesy of Garmin-Barracuda)
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.
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
Tom Boonen’s yet to get up to full fitness, but could still be in the running (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)
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.
The ‘Tourminater’ aka Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) easily triumphed once more on a stiff ramp and celebrated with a new Forrest Gump-style victory dance. He insouciantly sailed over the line ahead of runner-up Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky). Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was third, while Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) finished fourth to retain the maillot jaune.
Ruben Plaza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) initiated the day’s five-man breakaway, which was never allowed more than a five-minute advantage. Andriy Grivko (Astana) and mountains jersey wearer Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) – the latter in his third consecutive breakaway, earning him today’s most combative rider prize – were the last to be taken back. By then the race had already imploded with around 30km remaining, after a series of crashes and punctures on narrowing roads split in the peloton.
French housewives’ favourite Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS) launched his attack 5km from the finish on a course where last year he won his national road race. After almost coming to grief at a roundabout, he was reeled back in by the decimated, BMC-led chasing pack whose trajectory was halted in the final few hundred metres by a Vacansoleil rider falling in their midst.
As the final climb ramped up, Sagan jumped away and powered to his second win in three days, emulating a feat – two wins in a debut Tour – last achieved by Tom Boonen. He now has a firm hold on the green jersey, while Cancellara‘s still looking imperious in yellow.
VeloVoices rider of the day
This was a tricky one. In the end I went for Saxo Bank’s Michael Morkov. This is the third consecutive day he’s been in a breakaway, hoovering up King of the Mountains points to consolidate his hold on the jersey. A smart move, as his leader-less team needs both points and exposure.
Like Sagan, he too is a Tour virgin but, as his super smooth pedalling style reveals, he’s one of Denmark’s many, and probably most decorated, track stars. I’m hoping Saxo’s kit provider is finally going to spring for some spotted shorts and socks to go with the shirt, helmet and matching handlebar tape. At this stage, a spotted bike would be totally over the top – although team chef Hannah Grant has obviously been busy:
Morkov is also clearly a fan of the film Mary Poppins because in the post-race interview below (audio only) he described Sagan’s victory today as “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.
With about 20km of the stage remaining, it looked as if Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), escorted by a handful of his teammates, had punctured but it was instead a problem with his derailleur. His team car couldn’t get up to him so he resorted to the Mavic neutral service vehicle which was visibly ‘tangoed’ by the excitable orange-clad posse all shouting instructions in Spanish and Basque to the French-speaking mechanic. Fortunately, he rapidly resolved the problem and Samu and his boys shot off in pursuit of the leading group.
The various crashes in the final hour produced the first three abandons of the race: Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky) fractured his left tibia and Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) broke a collarbone, while Maarten Tjallingii withdrew after making it to the finish with a fractured hip.
Event director Jean-Francois Pescheux warned that today’s stage contained potential perils and that the Tour could be lost here. After a few seemingly innocuous spills and punctures in the first 100km of the race, it all blew apart in the final 30km. Those with the wit or luck to be up the front of the peloton took advantage of the crashes, punctures and narrow roads to decimate the bunch. So who were today’s losers?
Despite crashes, punctures and mechanicals, none of the GC contenders lost any time on today’s stage. Three riders – Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) – all of whom might have hoped to be in contention for today’s stage win, were distanced by the crashes and didn’t figure. Voeckler finished nearly 7½ minutes down complaining about the injured knee which nearly kept him out of the Tour.
More significantly, Sky have lost a valuable workhorse in Siutsou which puts team leader Bradley Wiggins at a disadvantage. Similarly Robert Gesink’s chances are diminished by the loss of Tjallingii. Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal may be in a similar situation if Tom Danielson’s shoulder injury prevents him from taking the start line tomorrow.
Conversely, who were today’s winners? One word: Sagan, who cemented both his growing reputation and his grip on the green jersey, extending his lead over Sky’s Mark Cavendish to 43 points.
VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitter, reviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.