For many, the Spring Classics, and not the Grand Tours, are what cycling is all about. With their twists and turns, with the cobbles, heavy rain and strong wind, the Classics represent the hardcore part of cycling, a battle of attrition where legends are born and where riders become immortal.
The first showdown of the season comes in Belgium, where this Saturday the 70th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will take place. Created by the Het Volk newspaper in 1945, the one-day race is characterised by the cold weather and small cobbled climbs, some of which we get to see also later in the season, at the Tour of Flanders. Although it resembles to its bigger “sister”, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad isn’t defining for the rest of the Spring, as we have to go back to the year 2000 to find the last rider (Johan Museeuw) who has won the one-day race, as well as a cobbled Monument.
Still, Omloop is an important appointment for most of the riders, and we can see this just by looking at the big names who have won it over the years, from Seamus Elliott, Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens, to Jan Raas, Peter Van Petegem, Michele Bartoli and Johan Museeuw.
The 200-km-long race starts and finishes in Ghent, the birthplace of world time trial champion Bradley Wiggins (who will be on Sky’s team for Omloop). The first 59 kilometers are flat, with the first obstacles coming once the riders hit Haaghoek, a 2000 meters long stretch of cobbles, which is followed by two hills, Leberg and Beredries (returning on the course). The third climb on the route is the legendary Muur-Kapelmuur, but coming with more than 100 kilometers before the finish means it will not have any serious impact on the race.
Later, the peloton will tackle the Haaghoek sector again, which will mark the beginning of the carousel that Omloop is once it enters its second half, with ups and downs that will make an important selection in the bunch. After Kaperij and Kruisberg, the real race will starts once the cyclists will go on Taaianberg (800 meters and a 7,1% average gradient). Better known as “Boonen’s hill”, the Taaianberg is expected to bring some serious attacks, which can tear up the peloton, especially is the weather is cold.
From there on, the pace can be a frantic one, and the riders will not have any real opportunity to recover. Eikenberg, Wolvenberg, Karel Martelstraat and Haaghoek should make for a tough race and great fight for a better position on the narrow roads, all this while the initial tactics will change, depending on the numerical advantage of some teams. The last hellingen on the route is Molenberg, which isn’t a long one (only 463 meters), but can turn out to be decisive, as the cyclists will be already tired by then and the 7,2% average gradient will prove too difficult for many in case of a late attack.
After Molenberg there will be only 35 kilometers left until the end, which will include three more cobbled sectors that can alter the fate of the race: Paddestraat, Lippenhovestraat and Lange Munte. Regardless of the riders who will be at the front, the only thing it will matter will be to stay away from the chasing group and make sure they’ll have enough left in the tank in case it comes down to a sprint on the slight uphill finish in Ghent. Of course, there’s always the possibility that one rider will go solo, but this hasn’t happened for some time now (2010 – Juan Antonio Flecha), a smaller group having more chances to succeed, giving the fact that the last 20 kilometers are perfectly flat.
For years now, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has become almost impossible to predict, with many outsiders taking the victory. What’s certain is that since 1998 the race winning group included more than three riders only on two occasions, which shows how difficult this Classic is, one reason for this situation being that it comes at the very beginning of Spring, when many top riders are still polishing their form.
The weather is likely to play a big role in the outcome of the race, with temperatures of just 6-8 degrees and even with some rain forecasted during the day. As always when it comes to Belgium, crosswinds and some headwind are expected on Saturday, which should split the main bunch and sape the energy of riders, making the favorites’ life tougher on the rolling hills of Flanders.
In the past seasons, many cyclists have decided to start their campaign in the Middle East – with Qatar, Oman and Dubai on the schedule – and as soon as they returned to Europe, their on the rise form helped them be among the protagonists in the early one-day races of the year. It happened in 2010 and 2014, and it could be the case also this season, because Alexander Kristoff is coming from a splendid run in the desert, where he got four stage wins. The Katusha rider will not be fazed by cobbled sectors or rough conditions, and being a powerful sprinter means he doesn’t need to attack and can let the others spend their energy while he takes wheels waiting for the finale. The main problem for the Norwegian comes from the fact that his team isn’t a strong one and could leave him alone in the key moments.
It’s very strange to see that Tom Boonen has never won this race, but truth is he came close just once, in 2012, when he surprisingly lost the sprint to Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian legend will once again lead Etixx-Quick Step, a team that will have many cards to play, with the former world champion being its prime pick. Boonen – ahead of his first real test of the year – has everything he needs to take a victory that has eluded him for almost a decade and prove the whole cycling world that he has found the form from the 2012 season, when he dominated the cobbled season.
Etixx-Quick Step has a lot of depth, so if anything is to happen to Boonen, there are enough riders ready to step up and take the leader’s role. One of these is Niki Terpstra, winner for the second time in a row of the Tour of Qatar. Terpstra is a very aggressive rider and can attack in order to make the other riders lose their grip on Boonen, giving the Belgian a free ride while they chase the Paris-Roubaix winner.
On the other hand, if Terpstra gets a gap and the group fails to cooperate, then the 30-year-old Dutch can solo to the win. What Terpstra lacks is the strong sprint, but here can step in Zdenek Stybar, the former cyclo-cross world champion. Since the 2013 edition of Paris-Roubaix, the Czech has been tipped for a victory on the cobbles, and Omloop could provide him that opportunity, even more now that he has a great form, highlighted by his strong results in the Vuelta a Murcia and the Volta ao Algarve.
Ian Stannard is the defending champion, and the British cyclist comes at the start with a strong morale following his 4th place in the Tour of Qatar. With Bernhard Eisel, Bradley Wiggins and Luke Rowe alongside, Stannard is definitely one to watch on Saturday, when he can become the first cyclist in 17 years to win Omloop two times in a row. Stannard is not strong in the sprint, so he knows that he has to attack in order to leave the others behind. But also his opponents are aware of this, which makes Stannard a marked man, with not so many opportunities.
Sep Vanmarcke has only five race days in 2015, but that shouldn’t be a problem for the LottoNL-Jumbo leader, who had the exact preparation in 2012, when he won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Touted for some time now as the-next-big-thing, Vanmarcke was a “near man” last season, when he finished all the cobbled Classics in the top 5, but missed on a win. If he has the legs, the Belgian should be one of the fiercest challengers this Saturday, where he can take advantage of his punchy style on the climbs and leave everyone behind. Another weapon for Vanmarcke is his sprint, which means that if he escapes with one of Boonen’s teammates –very likely, giving the fact that Etixx-Quick Stpe will try to use many of its cards during the race – he can seal the win in Ghent.
Last year, Greg Van Avermaet lost a two-man sprint against Ian Stannard, a thing many didn’t think it was possible when the two riders escaped in the last kilometers of the race. Like Vanmarcke, also the BMC rider has been knocking on the gates of greatness, but still hasn’t found just what it takes to finally win a Spring Classic. Much stronger and determined than last year, the Belgian cyclist will go in the race as one of the big favorites and if he will make the final selection, then maybe he’ll finally get that win he is hunting for. BMC will also have Philippe Gilbert, a double winner of Omloop, so if Greg Van Avermaet misses on the decisive move, and the 2012 world champion doesn’t, then he can take his teammates’ place as the leader of the team.
Another rider we should see in the mix is MTN-Qhubeka’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, third last year in the Belgian Classic. Starting a new adventure with the South-African squad, the Norwegian has worked on his sprint during the winter break and now is prepared to show that he can be again a contender for the one-day races. MTN will also have Tyler Farrar, the American who knows the parcours and can be, with some luck, a protagonist on the tough hellingen. Another squad that will come with a strong duo is IAM Cycling: Sylvain Chavanel and Heinrich Haussler are both hoping for a solid start in the Classics campaign, after what was a rather disappointing 2014, so they can’t be overlooked.
Even though he is 37-years-old, Björn Leukemans can still make an impact on the one-day races, and Wanty-Groupe Gobert is confident that the Belgian veteran can fight for a good result, even more now that he’ll be backed by a strong Marco Marcato. The same goes for the young Edward Theuns: after Tom Van Asbroeck and Kenneth Vanbilsen left Topsport Vlaanderen at the end of last season, it’s now up to Theuns to lead the team in the Northern Classics. Another young rider poised for success and worth watching for is Cofidis’ Florian Senechal, expected to step up in 2015, a season which can give the Frenchman’s career a whole new trajectory.
Finally, being the season opener and almost always surprising, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad doesn’t have a clear hierarchy of favorites, so riders like Arnaud Démare, Jean-Pierre Drucker, Tom Van Asbroeck, Oscar Gatto, Pim Ligthart, Matthieu Ladagnous and Dries Devenyns could also have a shot at taking the glory on Saturday.
– Jean Bogaerts is the first winner of the race; at that time (1945), he made his debut as a pro
– Joseph Bruyere, Ernest Sterckx and Peter Van Petegem are the riders with the most victories, three
– Belgium leads the nations classification, with 54 wins so far
– First rider from outside Belgium to take the victory was Ireland’s Seamus Elliott, in 1959
– Only one Tour de France champion has won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Eddy Merckx, back in 1971 and 1973
– Last cyclist to finish first while wearing the rainbow jersey was Freddy Maertens, in 1977
– This is the only big cobbled Classics Tom Boonen has never won
– Highest average speed came in 1975: 43,45 km/h
– Between 1996 and 2009, the race used to finish in Lokeren
– 2011 was the only year without a Belgian rider on the podium
– Five years ago, Tyler Farrar (U.S.A.) was the first non-European cyclists to finish in the top three
– The hills of the Flemish Ardennes were added to the route in the ‘50s
– Biggest time gap between first and second was in 1971, when Eddy Merckx finished 1:53 ahead of Roger Rosiers
– Roger De Vlaeminck is the youngest ever winner (21), while Johan Museeuw (37) is the oldest ever winner
– At the 2015 edition, Eduard Grosu will become the first Romanian cyclist to ride Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
– This year, Mads Pedersen (19 years) will be the youngest rider in the bunch, while Tomasz Kiendys (37) will be the oldest one
– Only three cyclists who have won the race will be at the start: Philippe Gilbert, Sep Vanmarcke and Ian Stannard