The European curtain raiser to the classics season begins with the 70th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; requiring a real specialist to rise to the occasion and slay this tough beast. With weeks of racing in the legs of many who found seasonal refuge in the climates of Oman, Dubai and Qatar; a taste of Belgian grit will be a shock to the system for the ill-prepared. Life in the continental spring shall not start softly at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; this is no longer a case of ‘getting the miles in’ for the peloton.
Short, sharp and often cobbled climbs will be the order of play for a large part of the day; the diet of many champion strongmen. Its 200km distance is enough to jelly the legs of many, but when factoring in the possibility of dismal weather, this really can become a war of attrition. The total of official climbs has increased by one (to 11) and has once again utilised the testing Muur van Geraardsbergen; a formerly decisive cobbled climb of the Tour of Flanders. Despite many of the hills being unlikely to decided the race’s outcome, it is a case of the accumulative damage inflicted throughout the day which will see contenders tossed aside.
Life will become tense as the peloton approach the 65km marker, where positioning for the oncoming barrage of hills and attacks will be imperative for those with an eye on the win. The Taaienberg will appear around this time; signalling a crushing triumvirate of slopes (as well as the obligatory Boonen attack) in the space of 10km alongside the Elkenberg and Wolvenberg. This trio is followed by another, on this occasion pavé in nature, which will lead directly into the final two climbs of the day. Afterwards, any leading breakaway will be left with a flat 37.2km run to the finish; provided with three further cobbled sectors upon which to play their race winning moves or gamble to win in the sprint.
Classics specialists are few, but contenders remain many as ever; these turbulent courses can churn up the most unlikely of winners on occasion. At this point in time, even the strongmen favourites are unlikely to be riding at 100% for this opening of the classics season. This has not prevented Greg Van Avermaet being named favourite however; the combination of a strong team and finishing second in last year’s edition being deciding factors. Many times before GVA has been deemed a forgone conclusion for a race win, but he always remain an awkward fit as a ‘dead-cert’ bet. BMC will also field Philippe Gilbert alongside him; though it does not seem a race to lure Gilbert out all guns blazing.
Alexander Kristoff is the other major favourite for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, returning from his dominant performance in the Middle East which resultantly saw Tom Boonen leave empty handed. Kristoff genuinely appears to be on form for this race so early in the classics campaign and will thrive if conditions become atrocious in the Belgian countryside. One glaring negative is the lack of depth apparent in his support team; no big name lieutenant is apparent to marshall Kristoff through the decisive maelstrom.
It would be challenging to argue Sep Vanmarcke’s credentials as one of the most talented riders to emerge from Belgium in recent years; especially in this environment. A true specialist with the consistency to negotiate the full support of his team, he is likely to be an antagonistic character amongst the pack. The day’s course probably calms down too far from the finish for him to be part of a winning move; it is over the difficult sections where he will make others suffer most. Teammate Tom Van Asbroeck could be an alternative; he has shown good condition already this year and is more than handy in a selective sprint.
The entire Etixx-Quick Step team pose a threat to everyone’s ambitions; Tom Boonen, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck could all take the reins if plan A does not go well. Though Boonen was consistent in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that he will find himself in a position to sprint for the win and demonstrate his turn of pace. On the other hand, Stybar has already demonstrated form beyond his usual terrain and has a much greater chance of finding himself in a race winning position.
Omloop’s defending champion this year is Ian Stannard, a rider who can win this back-to-back but will need truly atrocious conditions to do so. The assembled ranks of Team Sky also bolster Elia Viviani, Bradley Wiggins and Luke Rowe; it is perhaps the later who is the biggest wildcard for the team. The young Welshman is a growing talent on the classics scene and could be a threat in a reduced bunch kick.
Outsiders and dark horses are plentiful, with the permutations for what could happen in the race so broad proving inviting. Heinrich Haussler has demonstrated early season condition in both Australia and Qatar to hint at a possible return to the sort of form he wielded several years ago now. He enjoys a day on the cobbles and is long overdue for a another good result in such races; he is another who might benefit from a tougher ride. FDJ will aim for their riders to peak later in the classics campaign, but still come here with an aggressively mustered squad of riders. Perhaps the standout man in regards to being present at the decisive moment is Matthieu Ladagnous; he was on the ball at Haut Var last week and also suits the 1.5% drag when sprinting for the finish line. Pim Ligthart is another who has opened the season well and is likely to have the entire team at his disposal if he decides to really pursue the day’s racing. Buried beneath the big names at BMC is another possible contender for the day in the shape of Jean-Pierre Drucker. Having only recently stepped up to a major team as he approaches 30, the Luxembourg rider has a great depth of encouraging results at a variety of classic races and could serve as a handy contingency plan for any unforeseen events.
1st Zdenek Stybar 2nd Matthieu Ladagnous 3rd Jean-Pierre Drucker