Forget the Tour de France. For many, the spring classics represent the very best of what bike racing should be: Cobblestones, wind, rain, and that lovely Flandrian perfume that permeates the air. The classics are the place legends are made. The classics start now.
This weekend sees the first touch of the Belgian calendar for 2014, with a pair of “semi-classics” designed to wet the beak, test the legs, and start up the motors.
Saturday’s 69th edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has all the feel of a mini-Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), while Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne typically sees the sprinters take a shot at victory.
After some spicy early-season racing, many of the top favorites for the upcoming northern classics have returned from the warmer climes from Qatar, Oman, and Dubai, and will plunge straight into the mud, muck, and wind of Belgium.
Forecasters are calling for cool temperatures in the low 50s, with a chance of rain Saturday, and clearer skies Sunday. That come as a relief as foul winter weather can sometimes force the cancellation of races, which is what happened last year for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, with heavy snow and cold temperatures enveloping Flanders.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the mini-Flanders
Somewhat surprisingly for a rider as prolific as Belgian Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), he’s never won the Omloop.
The race, formerly known as Omloop Het Volk, has seen some big winners since its inception in 1945, but it’s also been a race for young up-and-comers and second-tier captains to take their chances.
Boonen will be back, but a stacked Omega Pharma team will bring many cards to play, and that could see Boonen holding back his fire until Flanders-Roubaix week, still more than a month away.
“It’s a race a bit different from the other classics, because it’s the first one, but also tactically the teams tend to ride it differently than how they do the other cobbled classics,” Boonen said in a team release. “There are a lot of riders in good condition and there will be a great fight to stay in the front. But we have a good and balanced team, and we are looking forward to this race to try and get a good result. As usual, the wind will be a factor. It will influence the race for sure.”
Last year’s winner, Italian veteran Luca Paolini (Katusha), starts with the No. 1 bib, but Omega Pharma will be the team everyone will be watching. Behind Boonen, the squad will be packing potential winners in Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, and even Stijn Vandenbergh, second last year to Paolini.
The revived BMC Racing squad also brings a deep squad, with former winner Thor Hushovd, Marcus Burghardt, Taylor Phinney, and Greg Van Avermaet.
“I go to Belgium to race to win,” Hushovd said in a team release. “We have a strong team, which should be present from start to end. My level is high now, but I just have to follow, and hopefully have something left for a good sprint in the end.”
The route has all the characteristics of a monument, save the distance; at 198 kilometers, rather than the 259km for Flanders. The route starts in Gent, with an official start in Merelbeke, and ends back in Gent, but takes in many of the cobbles and bergs featured in Flanders. This year sees the return of the Muur-Kapelmuur, perhaps the most famed of the Flemish hellingen, after a three-year absence.
Add forecast rain and inevitable wind, and it’s usually a battle of attrition, with dozens of riders starting with ambitions of winning.
Somewhat surprisingly, Giant-Shimano is leaving home both its top guns, Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. The two Germans have had hot starts to the 2014 season, but team brass have decided to sideline them this weekend to keep them fresh for other upcoming dates.
In sharp contrast, Lotto-Belisol will bring its A-team to this weekend’s Belgian season openers, with Jürgen Roelandts, third in last year’s Tour of Flanders, leading for Saturday’s Omloop, and German ace sprinter André Greipel, already with six wins in his pocket this season, leading for Sunday’s KBK.
Belkin, with Lars Boom and 2012 winner Sep Vanmarcke, will surely be a factor, as will Garmin-Sharp, which brings its revived classics team to the fray, with former winners Nick Nuyens and Sebastian Langeveld joined by former Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Van Summeren and Tyler Farrar, who lives in Gent and still harbors classics dreams.
Edvald Boasson Hagen leads a deep Sky squad and Milano-Sanremo winner Gerard Ciolek heads up MTN-Qhubeka. Sylvain Chavanel and Heinrich Haussler lead IAM Cycling as the team builds for what it hopes will be a strong classics campaign.
The field is also full of second-tier Belgian teams, which will surely light up the breakaways and try their best to derail the top pro teams.
Earlier Saturday, the elite women will take on the classics opener. The women’s route covers 126km and includes the Côte de Trieu and Paterberg among eight climbs.
Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) has twice won the race since its inception in 2006 and will start alongside teammate and 2012 winner Loes Gunnewijk.
Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized-lululemon) is the defending champion and American Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) was second in 2013.
Other Americans on the preliminary startlist include Taylor Wiles and Alley Stacher (Specialized), Amanda Miller, Samantha Schneider, Lauren Stephens, and Andrea Dvorak (Tibco-To the Top), and the seven-rider U.S. National Team led by national champion Jade Wilcoxson.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne welcomes sprinters to Belgium
The fun continues the next day with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, also dating back to 1945, but this is one race Boonen has won. In fact, he’s won it twice, in 2007 and 2009. While some riders skip KBK after racing Omloop, Boonen is on for both days.
The route features some climbing, including the Oude Kwaremont and the Cote de Trieu, but they’re a long way from the finish. KBK usually ends in a reduced bunch sprint, but not always.
With last year’s race canceled due to snow and cold, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma) is the “defending” champion, who won in 2012, but he won’t be racing this weekend. A few of the bigger names will also skip out on Sunday’s race, with Hushovd, Haussler, Boom, Phinney, and Stybar not likely to start.
“We have a very good group,” said Omega Pharma sport director Wilfried Peeters. “Last year we didn’t do the race due to the snow, but this year there will be no problem. In general our team is on a good level. All riders are good for this kind of parcours and we are ready for all scenarios. There could be a breakaway or a small group, or even a bunch sprint. We have the possibility to put good riders in place for any situation.”
Long gone are the days when pros used these early-season races as preparation for the spring classics. This weekend’s battles should clearly reveal who’s in fighting shape to challenge for Milano-San Remo in less than a month, and then Flanders and Roubaix in early April.
Onward to Belgium.