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Storming the Belgian Castle: Who could breach the Omloop walls this year?

Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Circuit Het Nieuwsblad) is not the biggest bike race in Belgium. That’s the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). It isn’t the oldest. Liège-Bastogne-Liège predates the Omloop by a good half century. Technically, it isn’t even in the top tier of Belgian races — Ghent-Wevelgem, Flèche Wallonne, and even the younger, less storied E3 Harelbeke are ranked higher, all on the WorldTour calendar versus Het Nieuwsblad’s UCI 1.HC ranking. But the Belgian season opener (known as the Omloop Het Volk through 2007) may be the most quintessentially Belgian of the classics.

Compared with its more celebrated peers, the top step of the Het Nieuwsblad podium has remained under Belgian cleats more often than any other, and the Belgians have a profound sense of ownership over their opening day. Even as the sport has grown more international around it, Het Nieuwsblad has remained relatively impervious to foreigners, with 83 percent of wins claimed by Belgian riders. The race was 15 years old before a non-Belgian claimed the title, a task finally and fittingly accomplished by Irishman Shay Elliot, no stranger to breaking down barriers as one of the first Anglophone professionals in the 1950s.

By comparison, the mighty Ronde, object of so many Belgian schoolboys’ ambitions, has been won by a native 71 percent of the time. Sprinter-friendly Ghent-Wevelgem has stayed in the family 65 percent of the time. And Liège, a magnet for the stage-race types that Belgium has produced precious few of for the past 30 years, has seen 40 percent of its trophies leave the country.

Part of the Belgian dominance at Het Nieuwsblad is down to simple statistics — as a lower-ranked race, the Omloop has historically attracted less of the top foreign teams than De Ronde or Liège, leaving it as a largely provincial battle. Less foreign riders, less foreign winners. And even when the invaders do arrive so early in the season, before they’ve crossed and re-crossed the hills of the Flemish Ardennes, the roads favor the riders who have ridden them all winter, and in some cases, all their lives.

But the locals are also motivated to come out swinging for a big result in front of the home crowd and the fickle Belgian cycling press, which will both trumpet the winner and pounce on any perceived blunders. For the big classics teams — Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Lotto-Belisol, Blanco, and BMC Racing, for instance — chalking up the early win can relieve pressure leading into the Holy Week races in late March and early April. For smaller teams, a good ride means exposure and recognition on a bigger stage, the opportunity to upset the big guns, and potential invitations to other races. Unlike WorldTour races like De Ronde and Roubaix, there is no baggage, no slots reserved for disinterested Spaniards looking to climb off in the first feedzone. The result is one of the most undiluted contests of northern brawlers on the calendar. [Yes, Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha won Het Nieuwsblad in 2010. But in defense of the stereotype, at the 2010 Ronde, not a single member of the Footon-Servetto squad finished the race. At last year’s Paris-Roubaix, Euskaltel-Euskadi had one classified finisher, Jon Izaguirre Insausti, in 79th place, 13 minutes behind Tom Boonen.]

An invasive victory in 2013?

After a spate of foreign wins in recent years, the Belgians will not surrender victory without a fight. Defending champion Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) will look to confirm the promise he showed with a second-place Ghent-Wevelgem ride and his Het Nieuwsblad win, ideally helping his team land a title sponsor in process. Nick Nuyens, winner of the 2005 Het Volk and 2011 Ronde, will try to shake off a joyless 2012 season when he takes the helm of a decidedly northern version of Garmin, where he’ll be backed by 2011 Roubaix winner Johan Van Summeren and Sèbastien Rosseler. Jürgen Roelandts, who has hovered on the periphery of a breakout classics result for years, has declared himself ready to lead Lotto-Belisol following his Tour Meditérranéen stage win. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), who hails from the former Het Volk finish town of Lokeren, will look to shake off his nearly-man status and establish a protected position in a crowded lineup.

But if there’s ever been a chance to topple the Belgians on their home turf, this year may be it. Tom Boonen, whose sparkling resume noticeably lacks a Het Nieuwsblad title, will ride on Saturday, but has abdicated leadership of Omega Pharma as he recovers from an elbow infection that’s marred his early season. World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), a two-time winner (2006, 2008), has opted to start his classics campaign at the GP Lugano in Switzerland on Sunday. And while the non-participation of RadioShack removes Fabian Cancellara from the mix, it also leaves out Stijn Devolder, an opportunist who’s always at his best as part of a one-two punch. Reunited with his old mentor, Dirk Demol, following several anonymous seasons, the two-time Ronde winner could have had a substantial impact on the race.

With four wins under their collective belts (Jo de Roo, 1966; Jan Raas, 1981; Teun Van Vliet, 1987, Sebastian Langeveld, 2011), the Dutch have been the biggest threat to their southern neighbors, and this year may be no different. Likely interlopers will include Langeveld, now with Orica-GreenEdge, and two-time world cyclocross champion Lars Boom, who will share leadership at Blanco with Vanmarcke. Many have expected Boom to shine in the classics since he committed to the road in 2009, and at 27, he’s now in his prime and riding a wave of good form following his win at the Tour du Haut Var. If he works well with Vanmarcke, he could claim a fifth Dutch victory in the event.

With Boonen content to ride a support role, his Omega Pharm mate Niki Terpstra could also be the man to seal that fifth Dutch victory. The reining national road champion showed he has what it takes to contend with the best with a storming win in Dwars door Vlaanderen (Across Flanders) last year, as well as a sixth place in De Ronde and fifth in Paris-Roubaix in support of Boonen last year. He’ll get the support of Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, who’s capable of a big result of his own.

With Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) severely injured in a training crash, 2007 Het Volk winner Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) will be left alone to shoulder Italy’s hopes. The hit-or-miss Italian was second behind an untouchable Tom Boonen at last year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, riding on a one-year deal with the small Italian Farnese Vini team after escaping a tumultuous and unproductive final two years with Katusha. Now back riding for a major Italian team with Lampre, the 31-year-old from the Veneto is off to a good start, having won the 197km Trofeo Laigueglia for the third time in his career. The question, as always, is which “Pippo” will turn up: the easily frustrated playboy, or the tenacious classics man who shrugged off a shower of Flemish spit and beer in a dogged, doomed pursuit of Boonen at the 2009 Roubaix?

Pozzato shares his question mark status with Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), whose 2012 was a complete write-off that team doctors attributed to a mystery virus and muscle inflammation. But like Pozzato, the Norwegian’s 2013 season has already showed promising signs. He scored a stage win at the Tour du Haut Var, and he’ll have the support of a strong BMC squad that includes Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato, and Taylor Phinney. Perhaps most importantly, he’ll be able to play off teammate Van Avermaet, tipped by Boonen as being a danger man for Saturday.

What does it all mean?

Whether or not the trophy crosses the Belgian border, observers will study the results of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad like cast bones for hints about the future. So, what will this edition tell us about the rest of the cobbled classics season? What will the race billed as a mini-Ronde reveal about the actual Ronde?

Possibly not much. Cancellara and a healthy Boonen can change the dynamic of any race, especially when they are pitted against one another, and Devolder should give Cancellara and RadioShack some flexibility that’s been lacking. Like RadioShack and game-changer Cancellara, Cannondale and Slovak Peter Sagan will be absent from the weekend’s Flemish proceedings. Dane Matti Breschel, who has shown flashes of brilliance on the cobbles, will remain an unknown quantity for a bit longer as well, as Saxo-Tinkoff trains in Corsica, France ahead of Paris-Nice.

Gilbert, though primarily a tarmac specialist, has proven he has a Ronde win well within his capabilities, and with the rainbow stripes on his shoulders he might find some extra motivation. And historically, missing out on a Nieuwsblad win may bode well for anyone’s chances on March 31: Only 11 men have won both Het Nieuwsblad and the Ronde. Nobody has ever won both in the same season.

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