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The cobbles are coming!
After sunny starts in France, Spain, Portugal, and the Middle East, the men’s peloton converges Belgium for the “opening weekend” of the classics. The riders should still get some sun but it will be a bit colder than what they’ve had so far.
The double whammy of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne has long been the traditional opener to the cobbled campaign and is a small insight into what is to come later in the spring.
As the UCI calendar has changed over the years, some of big classics stars have skipped the weekend for warmer climes, but most of the key cobbles contenders will line out in Belgium this week for their first taste of the pavé in 2022.
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While riders will want to perform at Omloop and Kuurne, a victory in either of these races rarely turns into success in the monuments of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Indeed, the last time that someone won “KBK” and one of the cobbled monuments was Tom Boonen in 2009 when he took the third of his Paris-Roubaix wins. Meanwhile, Greg Van Avermaet was the last to win Omloop and Roubaix in 2017, while Johan Museeuw had been the last one to achieve it prior to Van Avermaet in 2000 with his second Paris-Roubaix win.
Rather than coming out all guns blazing, the opening weekend is about setting a solid benchmark to build upon throughout March.
Peter Sagan returns, Wout van Aert debuts
With different qualities to their parcours, there are some chops and changes between the line-ups for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, but the main bulk of the start lists will remain the same.
Omloop will mark the return to road racing for Wout van Aert after the Belgian finished his cyclocross season with victory at the national championships at the start of January. It is a tentative return to the rough and ready racing of the classics as he will head off for Paris-Nice next week.
He last raced at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2020, just before the whole world went on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. He finished 11th there, his best finish at the race, and a top 10 this year would be a solid opener to his year.
Another returnee to the Omloop, and Kuurne, start line is Peter Sagan. Following his move to Team TotalEnergies over the winter, he is racing the opening weekend for the first time since 2017 — when he won “KBK” and finished second at Omloop.
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Sagan had a pretty quiet start to the season at the Tour des Alpes-Maritimes et du Var last week so it’s unclear just how well he’s going. He will be racing both events and it will be intriguing to see how he races on the cobbles with his new squad.
Last year’s Omloop winner Davide Ballerini will not be back for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, but the team will have the usual list of big hitters. Defending Tour of Flanders champion Kasper Asgreen will lead the line for the Belgian team along with Zdeněk Štybar, Yves Lampaert, and Mikkel Honoré among others. For Kuurne, the team has in-form sprinter Fabio Jakobsen looking for glory.
Other sprinters jetting in just for Kuurne are Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel-Premier Tech), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Dan McLay (Arkéa-Samsic), while Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) and Bryan Coquard (Cofidis) are racing both days.
New cyclocross world champion, Tom Pidcock didn’t wait as long to hit the road as van Aert, and he comes into opening weekend after a stint at the Volta ao Algarve. The Ineos Grenadiers rider ended the week with a crash in Portugal but still appears to be growing in road race form.
Alongside Sagan, Jasper Stuyven is one of the few big classics stars lining up at both races. With no Mads Pedersen set to ride, he will shoulder much to the Trek-Segafredo hopes with Edward Theuns a solid plan B.
Other riders to watch out for at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad are Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-Citroën), Gianni Moscon (Astana-Qazaqstan), Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech), John Degenkolb (Team DSM), and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Alpecin-Fenix).
Mixing the old and the new
The parcours for both races remain much the same as they have in previous seasons, but with some key changes.
At Omloop, the riders will set out from Ghent right beside t’Kuipke velodrome where the team presentation will be held with fans for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. From there, the riders head south before turning west and beginning a large loop over the Belgian hellingen.
Traditional Molenberg ascent has had to be cut for this year due to road works in the area. To make up for it, the organizer added the 900-meter cobbled climb of the Marlboroughstraat and the 800-meter Biesestraat.
The final flat cobblestone section of the Haaghoek will follow soon after and then the peloton will hit the Leberg, Berendries, Elverenberg-Vossenhol, the Muur-Kapelmuur, and the final climb of the Bosberg, which comes with just under 13km to go.
There have been some tweaks to the Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne route, too, with the Oude Kwaremont axed in favor of a bigger trip to the Hainaut Ardennes. The race organizer chose to cut the ascent as it was already so prolific in the Belgian cobbled races.
The Tiegemberg, Katteberg, Boembeek, Bossenaarstraat, and Berg Tenhoutte will all feature early on before the race heads toward Pay de Collines in the north-west corner of Wallonia.
The Hainaut Ardennes loop will begin with the well-known La Houppe followed by the new Hameau des Papins, a 1,200m ascent that averages 6.6 percent and maxes out at 16.2 percent.
Next up is another new one in the 1,300m Le Bourliquet, which averages 6.8 percent and hits an upper gradient of 15.3 percent. Finishing the Ardennes loop is Mont Saint-Laurent, which was a new climb in 2019 and is the toughest of the loop at 1,300m averaging 7.8 percent and topping out at 17 percent.
Winning may not be the most important thing for some of the top classics riders looking further down the calendar for their major targets, but all will want a strong outing on the opening weekend.