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Conclusions after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

It’s hard to believe that Etixx-Quick Step lost a race in which everything was going in its favor, but this is what happened on Saturday, in the 70th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. After forcing the main selection with 43 km to go, the Belgian team had three riders at the front – Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh – who had only one thing to do: make the life of Ian Stannard (the other cyclist in the group) difficult and break him on the cobbles and hills that were remaining until the finish. At first, the team lead by sports director Wilfried Peters worked hard and made sure of staying at the front, so that the chasing group will not come back. Everything was looking perfect for Etixx at that point, but something happened in the last 10 km, when the three riders of the team began to act in a chaotic manner, without a clear strategy and that cost them big time. With 5 km to go, Terpstra accelerated, but was brought back in by Stannard. Then, all of the sudden, Boonen attacked, even though he didn’t need to, because he could count on his sprint. His move was a short on, with Stannard covering it immediately. Afterwards, Terpstra escaped again, but Vandenbergh made a surprising move by chasing his teammate. Eventually, Terpstra and Stannard flew from there, while Boonen and Vandenbergh were cooked. In the sprint, Terpstra made one final mistake, leading-out the Brit, who had an extra ounce of energy that gifted him the win in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Few people gave a chance to Ian Stannard when he was up against three Etixx-Quick Step guys, but the Sky leader made the race of his career and outwitted his opponents to take a huge win, which will boost his confidence ahead of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. One of the strongest riders out there, the 27-year-old was also a great poker player and that payed off eventually, as he crossed the finish line in Ghent with his arms raised high, just like last season. If then he won ahead of Greg Van Avermaet, this time the British cyclist defeated a whole team, which was looking for its first Omloop victory in ten years. As Ian Stannard – who continues to impress with his brute strentgth – said after the race, everything aligned on a day that didn’t looked to be so promising with 40 km left until the end, when he was on an impossible mission, against three riders who were expected to outmaneuver him and land the win.

The first important Classic of the season is over, but it’s worth mentioning it isn’t relevant for the big cobbled Monuments of April, Flanders and Roubaix. The riders who didn’t make the cut in the final group had either bad luck (one example is Sep Vanmarcke, who punctured at the moment of the decisive move), or they still aren’t at their best, which isn’t a problem considering they have five more weeks until De Ronde. Actually, throughout history, no rider won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders in the same year, while only Eddy Merckx (1973), Franco Ballerini (1995) and Johan Museeuw (2000) have won the Paris-Roubaix after taking the victory in the Belgian season opener.

Mark Cavendish is on fire this season, one in which he has to clock up as many (big) wins as he can, so that Etixx-Quick Step comes with a new deal. A favorite in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the former world champion was the first to cross the finish line after an impressive sprint, which found him without a lead-out and facing a fierce Alexander Kristoff. Much skinnier than he was in other seasons at this time of the year, Cavendish is not only in a great condition, but also has the mentality and determination to give it all and prove he’s the best sprinter in the world. The six victories he scored so far make Mark Cavendish one of the big favorites for Milan-Sanremo, the Spring’s first Monument, which is scheduled to take place in three weeks. But until then, he will go to Tirreno-Adriatico, where he is expected to finally defeat Marcel Kittel, his “bestia nera” in the previous years.

Both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurse showed a very nervous Tom Boonen, always irritated and having something to make a reproach to other cyclists. Unlike Cavendish, the 2005 world champion isn’t in his final year of contract, but the pressure is huge also on his shoulders, because there are now three seasons since he last won a Monument. Etixx-Quick Step’s leader for the Spring one-day races, Boonen wanted to have a dream start by winning Omloop, a victory that would have reassured his status in a team where Niki Terpstra is strongly coming from behind. Thanks to Mark Cavendish’s victory on Sunday, things are much calmer in the Belgium squad, but the situation can explode very easily in April, if the team will fail to win at least one of the cobbled Monuments.

Sep Vanmarcke missed on a win last week-end, but the signs are encouraging for the LottoNL-Jumbo rider, who hopes to finally get a Monument under his belt. Coming into the Classics from the Volta ao Algarve, the Belgian had a fine display on home turf until bad luck struck, a puncture which came at the moment of the Etixx attack taking him out of contention. Nevertheless, Vanmarcke showed he is already in great form, and there’s still room for improvement in the next weeks, before the “holy weeks” of April, which include E3 Prijs Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. One more thing worth mentioning is that Vanmarcke has found a great support in the young Tom Van Asbroeck, who can prove to be of great help in the Belgian’s attempt to have its name engraved in the history books.

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