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Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: It feels like ‘the first day of school’ as fans return to the classics

For the first time in two years, spectators have been allowed to watch the team presentation at 't Kuipke and watch at the roadside at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

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The Belgian classics without the fans are just not the same.

For the first time since the 2020 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, spectators were allowed back into the iconic Kuipke velodrome in the center of Gent for one of the best pre-race team presentations of the year.

About 4,000 people — with their COVID-19 vaccination pass in hand — rolled into the small track to welcome the men’s peloton ahead of the start of the race.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which is organized by Flanders Classics, was one of the final races to be run under “normal” conditions two years ago. Race operations are not quite back to normal yet, with access to team busses completely restricted, but the buzz around the start felt like a big step back to normality.

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“It feels like the first day of school for all of us. Not just for me, but for the whole organization, for the press, and the fans,” Flanders Classics CEO Tomas Van Den Spiegel told VeloNews. “Even though we can’t yet welcome fans to the riders, I saw in ‘t Kuipke that there are several thousand people. It’s really exciting and this is what you do it for.

“The last two years have been really tough on us on the logistical side but also on the emotional side, because you want to offer emotions to the people. We couldn’t do it the same that we used to so that’s the feeling today. The sun is out, and everybody is happy so that helps.”

Around 4,000 people packed into the Kuipke velodrome in Gent
Around 4,000 people packed into the Kuipke velodrome in Gent (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

While it might not be the same outpouring of excitement that we saw at the road world championships in Flanders late last year, the atmosphere in ‘t Kuipke was still akin to a concert with fans rapturously welcoming each team onto the stage.

“It took me a little moment to realize that it was the velodrome because there were so many people, but I think it just shows the unique atmosphere with racing in Belgium,” Magus Sheffield, who is making his debut at the race, said shortly before the start. “There’s nothing like this in the US. I think it’s really about soaking up all of the memories so I can remember it in 20 years.”

Oliver Naesen is riding his eighth Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and experienced last year’s behind closed doors edition. Though it’s not yet back to business as usual, he’s happy to see fans being able to get a taste of the race up close.

“It’s nice, it’s good that almost everybody is back. Normally there are people at the busses but it’s a good start,” Naesen said.

The relaxation of COVID-19 rules as the latest omicron wave of the virus has subsided in recent weeks has allowed for the organizers to open their doors, literally and metaphorically. The cheering fans and bustling roadside is a stark difference to the last two years where you’d have been almost able to hear a pin drop at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

The riders got a rock star entry into the velodrome
The riders got a rock star entry into the velodrome (Photo: David Stockman/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

With the last two years showing us that anything can change at any moment, Van Den Spiegel hopes that the opening up of races to the fans will continue into the heart of the spring classics.

“We have a legal framework now in Belgium that allows us to have fans inside, with some demands. We are very happy that we can welcome 4,000 fans inside ‘t Kuipke,” van den Spiegel said. “I’ve been in the organization since 2018 so half of my time has been crisis management during COVID-19. It has been tough on us, and it felt like crisis management. It still feels like that but at the same time you get a lot of satisfaction.

“Everything is going for us, we will keep our fingers crossed and we won’t take anything for granted.”