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2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Preview

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2015

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 course

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.

Favorites

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.

Race stats

– 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

 

2015 Tour Down Under Preview

The first World Tour race of the season is ready to go underway in Australia, where some of the biggest stars are lining-up for the 17th edition of the Tour Down Under. After starting as a sprinters race, it evolved over the years and has become more suited to puncheurs and climbers, with the likes of Cadel Evans, Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte and Tom-Jelte Slagter amongst the riders who made the race more exciting with some fierce attacks and superb stage wins.

As was the case with the previous editions, there will be time bonuses, 3-2-1 at the intermediate sprints, and 10-6-4 at the finish of each stage. The leader of the race will wear the ochre jersey (introduced in 2006), and besides it, there will be other three jerseys put up for grabs, rewarding the best sprinter, the best climber and the best young rider. The winner will get 100 World Tour points and will get to lead the individual classification at least until March.

The course

TDU 2015 Campbelltown

Stage one of the Tour Down Under will take the peloton to Campbelltown, where Cadel Evans won last year, but the 2011 Tour de France winner can’t repeat that feat, as the Corkscrew Climb isn’t on the route anymore. This means the fast men of peloton will fight for the win in what will be the first of the three opportunities they’ll have at this edition. The final kilometer is slightly uphill, but not technical, so the power sprinters of the bunch will be the ones to watch for.

TDU 2015 Stirling

One day later, the riders will tackle the traditional Sterling finish (1,3 km long, 7,1% gradient), where is very likely to see a strong sprinter or a puncheur going for it. With the ascent not being so long, a rider who jumps from the bunch at the right moment can come home first. This doesn’t mean the GC contenders will not play along, as the bonus second will make the finish very interesting to them. Most likely, the ochre leader will pass on another rider’s shoulders.

TDU 2015 Paracombe

Stage three has some undulating roads and a circuit the peloton will face three times. There’s a climb – Torrens Hill Road – waiting at the finish, where the main contenders, after fighting for the best position at the front, will have the first real showdown on a tough hill, with gradients of 10%, 15% and even 20%. Paracombe is a new addition on the race’s course and is expected to deliver some proper fireworks and significant splits in the bunch.

TDU 2015 Mount Barker

Day four of racing has some climbs and that could help the breakaway stick to the line, although the sprinters teams will try to control the escape and set up their leaders for the finish in Mount Barker. The main problem for the peloton will not come from the undulating route, which will bring a steady climb in the last 40 kilometers, but from the crosswinds, which can make the race very frantic. Thus, the GC riders will have an extra reason to stay at the front and make sure they won’t be caught off guard. If everything will go fine, then the sprinters will be in the spotlight in Mount Barker.

TDU 2015 Willunga Hill

Stage five will bring the Old Willunga Hill, a climb which can help the contenders create some important gaps, if they will have the legs. Willunga Hill – 3 kilometers long and with an average gradient of 7,5% – will be climbed twice, first time with 26 kilometers remaining, and then at the finish, when it will be the scene of a fine showdown between the climbers. Last year, Richie Porte won at the top, with a 10 seconds advantage over Simon Gerrans, but it wasn’t enough to help the Sky rider take the GC, as Gerrans made sure of gaining a lot of bonifications during the race. For the pure climbers, it will be important to leave behind the fast cyclists, because the road eases up in the last 100 meters, which favors the guys who have an extra kick.

Last day of the race will take the peloton to the streets of Adelaide, for the traditional criterium (40 laps of 2,5 kilometers) that will give one last chance to the sprinters. Former winners of the Adelaide stage include André Greipel, Ben Swift, Robbie McEwen, Chris Sutton and Francesco Chicchi.

The favorites

Richie Porte is very lean, in great shape and comes here with the Aussie ITT under his belt and ready to win a second World Tour race, after Paris-Nice in 2013. Last year, Porte stormed on the Willunga Hill to take a memorable victory, which helped him finish 4th in the GC, just 10 seconds off Simon Gerrans. This season, he will have also the finish to Paracombe to make the difference, so there’s a pretty big chance he’ll take the GC, especially as he can count on a strong team, which includes former stage winner Geraint Thomas and British champion Peter Kennaugh. A triumph in Down Under would be very important for Porte’s confidence before returning to Europe, where he’s expected to lead Sky at the Paris-Nice and Giro d’Italia.

Making his 9th appearance in what will be his penultimate race, Cadel Evans knows the race inside out and has a huge motivation to be first in the GC, after missing on the win for just a second last season. The 37-year-old, three times winner of the best climber jersey, is well-known for being a fine tactician, so watch out for him to pick a moment to attack when everyone can be caught off guard. He too is backed by a strong team (Rohan Dennis, Silvan Dillier, Peter Stetina) and has the advantage of being fast from a small group, which means the 2009 world champion will go for some bonifications that can prove decisive at the end of the race.

Another Aussie who can rock the race is Nathan Haas, who stepped up in the past season and improved his climbing skills. He came 5th last year in Down Under, but now he can think of at least a top 3. Haas will be protected by the likes of Ryder Hesjedal, Davide Villella and Moreno Moser, who can all help him on the undulating roads of the race. With Simon Gerrans out of the race, the versatile Haas is Australia’s second best chance of taking the honors in this 17th edition, but it will be very important not to lose so much time on the Willunga Hill like last year, when he came 17 seconds after Porte had already crossed the finish line.

How about Luis Leon Sanchez? Many aren’t considering him a top favorite, but that could turn out to be a mistake, as the Astana rider is motivated to start the year with a bang and prove what he’s worth. When it comes to the Spanish cyclist, one should remember he always has a great start to the season, regardless of the race he does. Winner of the Tour Down Under in 2005, when he and Alberto Contador ripped the peloton to pieces on the Willunga Hill, Sanchez feels like home here and can take also a stage win while going for the GC.

After losing defending champion Simon Gerrans due to a collarbone injury, Orica-GreenEdge had to find a Plan B, which looks to be Daryl Impey, winner of the Tour of Alberta last September. The 30-year-old South-African has a very fast finish and can also climb, enough to make him one of the favorites for the overall. Also, thanks to his sprinting skills on tough terrain, he doesn’t need to attack and can just take wheels instead, waiting for the last meters to make the difference.

2014 saw Tom Dumoulin get his first World Tour win (in the Eneco Tour ITT), as well as finishing 3rd against the clock, behind Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin, at the Ponferrada World Championships. Never before he has started the season so early, but that shouldn’t be a problem for the Giant-Alpecin rider, who will be mixing his GC hopes with helping Marcel Kittel on the flat stages. The main problem for Dumoulin – who will have Simon Geschke alongside – is that he lacks the kick Porte, Evans or Sanchez have, although there’s always the possibility to take people by surprise after he focused more on developing his climbing skills in the winter.

Uni-SA comes at the start with a very strong team, spearheaded by the talented Robert Power and Jack Haig. Power will make his debut here and many are curious to see what the 19-year-old can do against the pros, after such a strong season in 2014, which saw him win three one-day races in Italy and finish second in the Tour de l’Avenir (best result ever for an Australian rider). When it comes to Haig, he’s returning here after a fine ride last year, which saw him win the best young rider jersey, as well as finishing 17th. Also worth mentioning is that Jack Haig has had a strong start to the season last week, with top 10 placings in the U23 road race and time trial at the Nationals.

So who else can light up the race? One obvious pick is Tiago Machado, Katusha’s leader, who is returning to the World Tour after a year with NetApp-Endura, during which he won his first stage race, the Tour de Slovenie. Machado was 3rd back in 2012 and he sure is capable of another podium. Another outsider who can make himself noticed is Blel Kadri, stage winner at the 2014 Tour de France, in the Vosges Mountains. He likes this type of finishes, has a good record in Down Under and is expected to be the leader of the team, despite the presence of Domenico Pozzovivo, whose goals will come later in the season.

Another interesting outsider is Movistar’s Gorka Izagirre. Starting his 6th season as a pro, the Basque rider made quite an impression in 2013, when he finished 7th on the Willunga Hill, just 16 seconds behind Simon Gerrans, the winner of the stage, but ahead of Kenny Elissonde, Ivan Santaromita or Geraint Thomas. Besides him, other names to watch include Etixx-Quick Step duo David de la Cruz and Pieter Serry, LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett (5th in the New Zealand National Championships), Drapac’s Tim Roe, who looks ready for a new start in his career, and Adam Hansen, best climber of the 2014 race, who will most likely try to slip away and get a win.

When it comes to the sprints, things are much simpler: Marcel Kittel, winner of the People’s Choice Classic on Sunday, will be the overwhelming favorite on the flat stages, the German’s goal being to take a win after he disappointed in the previous two years in Oz. Australian champion Heinrich Haussler is very confident and on a rise after taking the national title and should be a protagonist in the sprints, as well as Trek’s Giacomo Nizzolo, who’s still searching for his first World Tour win in more than two years.

Other sprinters worth following are Greg Henderson, Mark Renshaw, Gianni Meersman (when the finish becomes too tough for the pure sprinters), Juan Jose Lobato, criterium champion Steele Von Hoff, Lorrenzo Manzin (a neo-pro, but who can be one of the season’s revelations), Wouter Wippert, and Lampre-Merida’s Niccolo Bonifazio, who scored some impressive wins in the last races of 2014.

Race stats

– The Tour Down Under was created in 1999 and in 2008 it became the first UCI World Tour event outside Europe

– First rider to take a stage was Nicolaj Bo Larsen, from Denmark

– Simon Gerrans has the most GC wins, three: 2006, 2012, 2014

– Another Aussie rider, Stuart O’Grady, collected the most podiums, six, including two wins

– As expected, Australia has the most GC wins since the inception of the race, 9, and the most stage wins, 48

– André Greipel is missing from this year’s race, but the German will be sure of remaining the on top of the stage wins all-time classification, with 16 victories

– Robbie McEwen (2002) and André Greipel (2008) share the record for the most stage wins at one edition, 4

– No road race world champions has ever won the Tour Down Under

– Luis Leon Sanchez (21) is the youngest winner of the race, the oldest being Patrick Jonker (34)

– Biggest winning margin came in 2004, when Patrick Jonker finished 1:13 ahead of Robbie McEwen

– Four former winners will be at the start in 2015: Michael Rogers, Luis Leon Sanchez, Martin Elmiger and Cameron Meyer

– Longest stage (McLaren Vale – Victor Harbor, 165,5 km) came in 2001 and was won by Italy’s Alessio Galletti

– On two occasions (2003 and 2012), first two riders in the GC had the same time

– 2006 was the year of the hottest edition, with four consecutive days over 42 degrees

– Adelaide is the city with most stage starts and finishes

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