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Women’s peloton ready for Belgian cobbles

A deep sigh of relief has dropped over the cycling world this week, as the spring classics are finally here. The women’s peloton will pound the cobblestones just the like the men this weekend with two races of their own — Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Omloop van Het Hageland.

As with the men’s opening weekend, Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is expected to be a war, while Omloop van Het Hageland usually comes down to a select bunch sprint.

The women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is fairly young, having only begun in 2008. Swede Emma Johansson is the only two-time winner, powering to victories in 2010 and 2011.

Hageland has an even shorter history, with the race beginning in 2011. Former world champion Lizzie Deignan is the only multi-time winner. She was victorious in 2012 and 2014.

The Parcours

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad goes from Ghent to Ninove this year and, as with the men’s event, covers the last 60 kilometers of the old Tour of Flanders route. This means the women will get to tackle the brutal Muur van Geraardbergen-Bosberg finish to end the opening classic of the season. The Bosberg comes a mere 12km from the finish, but by then, a very select group or a solo rider should be in the lead.

The race is 122km and the women will tackle eight climbs and three cobbled sectors. All of those come in the second half of the race, giving the riders ample time to get motivated to dig deep.

The first real selection of the race should come at the Haaghoek sector with about 45km to race. It is the fifth obstacle the riders will tackle on the day, with the Katteberg kicking off the cobblestones after the riders pass through Oudenaarde about 50km into the race.

Haaghoek is a brutal stretch of cobblestones and nearly 2km in length. Positioning will be key heading into this sector because the race might not be won at Haaghoek, but it can certainly be lost.

After the climbs and sectors begin, the riders will have very few kilometers of pavement between each cobbled obstacle. The longest gap of recovery, or greatest distance between the cobbles, is near the end of the race between the Tenbosse and the Muur. There are 10km between those two climbs, with the Murr beginning about 16km from the finish.

Omloop van Het Hageland on Sunday is a race in the Lotto Cycling Cup, a series of Belgian UCI races. The start and finish are in Tielt-Winge. The race consists of an opening 53km loop, followed by six local laps of 13.3km. The race covers 133km overall. The lap contains a short, steep climb that could provide the opportunity for a rider to upset the sprinters, but a bunch gallop is very much expected.

The race will be shown live at livestream.com. The broadcast is not geo-restricted.

Both races this weekend have a status of UCI 1.1, which for the women is one step below the WorldTour.

Sunweb has an embarrassment of riches

In 2017, Dutch riders took a sweep of the first four places at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and it could very well happen again in 2018.

Defending champion Lucinda Brand of Team Sunweb will be on the start line and has said the new route with the tough, two-climb finish suits her better. She will have an impressive team backing her up, which includes two former Tour of Flanders winners.

Ellen Van Dijk won the Tour of Flanders in 2014 and finished fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last year, after spending a good chunk of the race out front alone. The “pocket rocket,” American Coryn Rivera, emphatically won Flanders last year in a sprint to the line. If Rivera’s at the front of the race after the Bosberg, she will be a good bet to take home the victory.

Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) will be making her debut as UCI world road champion and will hope the rainbow bands bring her a little luck on Saturday. She has finished second in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the last two years, and in 2015 she was fourth. She helped her teammate Lizzie Deignan win her first race as world champion back in 2016, so she’s aiming to repeat the feat of her teammate.

The new course should suit world time trial champion Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott). She kicked off her season last month in Australia, and her time trial abilities could come to the fore should a select group of riders enter the final two climbs battling for the victory. We could see a long-range attack from Van Vleuten if she’s at the front of the race when the finale kicks off.

Mitchelton-Scott has a great 1-2 punch with Jolien D’Hoore able to finish the race off if it comes down to a sprint. The fast-finishing Belgian switched from Wiggle High5 to Mitchelton-Scott over the winter. D’hoore should be in the mix both days this weekend, as she is the defending champion at Omloop van Het Hageland.

Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) and Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) are two other riders that should factor into the finale on Saturday.

With Sunday’s race set for the sprinters, many teams are swapping out riders overnight, though Boels-Dolmans is most notably not. D’hoore is the heavy favorite on Sunday as the defending champion. Chloe Hosking (Ale-Cipollini) won the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Road last month in a sprint on a difficult course. She finished second to D’hoore last year at Omloop van Het Hageland.

Ellen Van Dijk will lead Team Sunweb on Sunday. American Ruth Winder is a solid second option for the squad, should Van Dijk fatigue in the finale from racing the day before. Winder is only racing on Sunday.

Notably, 19-year-old American Skylar Schneider will be making her debut with Boels-Dolmans this weekend. There is no easing into the racing for Schneider, as she will be racing both days to kick off her 2018 season.

Many riders are starting their 2018 racing seasons this weekend, so we could potentially see one or two big names falter. However, it is only the opening weekend of the classics and there are still five weeks until the Tour of Flanders.

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