The peloton dip their toes into the freezing waters of the classics season for the first time in 2017, as the hellingen of Belgium seek to break riders’ spirits before Spring as even arrived. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will not only drop the flag to begin its 198.3km journey out of Gent and back again, but also signal the start of the oncoming wave of cobbled races which traditionalists view as the true beginning to the cycling season. Many riders will be familiar with the roads and climbs used during the days race, as given the size of Belgium, parts of the course also crop up in classics such as Ronde van Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke. A total of 13 different hellingen and 10 pavé sections will combine to make this a selective race where much of the final action occurs during the concluding 50km, as the attritional nature of the contest sees the most cunning riders capitalise en route to victory.
Peter Sagan is the day’s favourite for many people, arriving here in the rainbow stripes of the World Champion for the second consecutive year after finishing behind Greg Van Avermaet in 2016. Sagan’s programme so far this year has been light, gradually building him into race condition without having to risk him amongst the season’s early twitchy races. The last couple of years have cemented the belief that Sagan can near enough achieve anything which he desires, and given that the obstacles present today are his favoured hunting grounds, it is difficult to believe Peter Sagan will not win in Gent.
Sep Vanmarcke is yet to find a great deal of glory in races such as these, a surprising factor when seeing him put his rivals to the sword by accelerating over cobbled sectors and hills. The Belgian rider has been plagued continually by bad luck, mechanical issues and poor tactics whenever looking in good contention for a cobbled victory. Regardless, he has always performed well at this time of year and on this type of terrain, Vanmarcke now possesses a stronger team to support him and can hopefully earn a much deserved win at last.
Greg Van Avermaet was last year’s champion, finally getting the better of rival Peter Sagan in a reduced sprint and will be aware that a rematch may well be on the cards in 2017. His ability to always be in the right race move, following the wheels of his major rivals, has always been an impressive skill of his during these often chaotic affairs. Avermaet will no doubt be as astute as ever here, but his preparation has not been ideal due to a broken ankle sustained late last year. This means he could be somewhat behind his expected condition for this time of year, however, if there is one man who can overcome a physical disadvantage through mental strength it is Avermaet.
Tiesj Benoot made all the right moves last year, finishing amongst the elite pack of five riders which decided the race, led home by Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. He has been much hyped by his home nation of Belgium and is shouldering the burden of being marked as their future saviour for the cobbled classics. His current form is extremely encouraging and there is every reason to believe that he will once again feature as part of the group which crowns the day’s winner.
Luke Rowe was one of the other riders who made it to the finish in the leading pack last year and is in the type of condition which suggests he could be in the mix once again. Despite his diminishing prowess as a sprinter, the Welshman is developing a skill for solo moves, something which he demonstrated earlier in the year at the Herald Sun Tour; a performance which should not be forgotten by his rivals today.
Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar pose a headache for their team Quick Step, as each have a proven ability to really shake things up during a gritty contest like this. Between the two of them, there is the ability to either solo away to victory or wait in hope of a sprint finish, but it will be tough to choose which is best to back. The Belgian outfit have a poor reputation for tactical nous after their farcical finale in 2015, making this a very interesting dynamic to watch throughout the day.
Other noteworthy riders who could cause a stir are Alexander Kristoff, Jasper Stuyven, Niki Terpstra, Ian Stannard and Jens Debusschere
1st Peter Sagan 2nd Sep Vanmarcke 3rd Luke Rowe