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Annemiek Van Vleuten, Elisa Balsamo, Emma Norsgaard, Lotte Kopecky line up at women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

After a long wait, the women's season is ramping up with the third race of the year and the opening cobbled classics hit.

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After a long wait, the women’s season is switching up another gear this coming weekend.

While it might not be a WorldTour event, yet, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has the feeling of a top-level race with most of the biggest names in the bunch set to line up. Several of those will also race at the Omloop van het Hageland, making up the unofficial women’s opening weekend.

It is the perfect primer for the opening of the Women’s WorldTour in Strade Bianche next week.

Also read: Annemiek van Vleuten sends warning shot to rivals with dominant Valenciana win

The one-day race is a comparatively old event compared to some of the other races on the current calendar, but it has only been around since 2006.

In recent years, the Dutch have dominated the race with Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Annemiek van Vleuten, and Anna van der Breggen winning the last three editions.

A new winner for 2022?

Only two previous winners are set to ride in van Vleuten and Canyon-SRAM’s Tiffany Cromwell — who are both likely to be racing in service of someone else — there could be a new name etched into the race’s history books.

After winning in Valencia last week, Van Vleuten has already said that she plans to use her form to work for Movistar teammate Emma Norsgaard. The Danish rider won the bunch sprint behind van der Breggen last year as part of a hugely consistent sprint campaign.

Omloop Het Niewsblad will be Norsgaard’s first race of the year and, with an extra season of experience under her belt, she is a red-hot favorite for the win Saturday.

Also read: Marlen Reusser: ‘At this moment of the season, I’ve never felt this good’

It’s not going to be quite so simple for Norsgaard to upgrade her second-place to a win, though. She’ll have plenty of top riders nipping at her heels.

Not least is the reigning world champion Elisa Balsamo, who arrives in Belgium with her first win already on the board from a frenetic opening stage of the Setmana Ciclista Volta Comunitat Valenciana. Balsamo won her title on the Flemish hills and she’s going to be a very dangerous competitor at the weekend.

Balsamo has the backing of a tough Trek-Segafredo team that includes Chloe Hosking, who is a good second option if Balsamo falters, European champion Ellen van Dijk, and new signing Leah Thomas.

Like Trek-Segafredo, SD Worx brings a line-up packed with star talent and led by a new signing. Lotte Kopecky suffered a lot of misfortune during last year’s classics, but she finished fourth in the 2021 Omloop before going on to win Le Samyn. The switch to SD Worx over the winter could be just what she needs to step things up a gear this season.

Elena Cecchini is a very strong second option for the team, while the likes of Marlen Reusser or Christine Majerus can be both used to control the peloton and go on the attack. Kopecky is the main focus of the team’s efforts, but the team continues to have multiple options.

While former champion Cromwell is always a strong wildcard to play, the Australian is likely to be working for her teammates. Should the race come to a bunch gallop, Canyon-SRAM has Alice Barnes and Sarah Roy, while Kasia Niewiadoma gives the squad some attacking options.

Also look out for this weekend: Grace Brown (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), Ruby Roseman-Gannon (BikeExchange-Jayco), Anna Henderson (Jumbo-Visma), Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team Emirates), Susanne Andersen (Uno-X), and Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM).

Roadwork forces route chance

There is not too much difference in this year’s route, but a few small tweaks around the edges — some of it due to necessity — will see the 2022 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Vrouwen the longest in the race’s history at 129km.

The updates will also add some more difficulty to the race with one more climb than in previous seasons.

Some minor changes have been made to the opening half of the race, but the key difference this year will be the disappearance of the Molenberg. The cobbled climb, which measures at just under 500 meters, has had to be removed due to road improvement in the area.

The first big challenge of the day will be the Huisepontweg after 56km, with the first climb of the Edalareberg coming at 69km. Five kilometers after, the riders will reach the Wolvenberg, which is where the men’s and women’s race routes merge.

Following the Wolvenberg — which usually precedes the Molenberg — the riders will tackle the new 2.5km Kerkgate flat, cobbled sector, and then the 1.1km Jagerij sector. The Marlboroughstraat is the first of two climbs that have been introduced to replace the missing Molenberg.

It is cobbled and is almost twice as long, at 900 meters. The 800-meter Biesestraat comes up next for the peloton before it re-joins the more traditional route from the Haaghoek cobbled sector. The Leberg, Berendries, Elverenberg-Vossenhol, the Muur-Kapelmuur, and the Bosberg round out the nine climbs.

The riders will then have a downhill sloping ride into Ninove for the race to the line. It has been five years since the race ended with a bunch sprint, so the wind is with the attackers — particularly with the extra climb — but there will be plenty of fast teams looking to keep it all together for the finish.