‘Opening weekend’: Six things we learned from the first classics races
The four races that make up the men's and women's opening classics delivered plenty of action and provided lots of talking points.
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There was plenty of anticipation for the Belgian “opening weekend,” and it didn’t disappoint.
Over two days and four races, we had aggressive, suspenseful racing that left us wanting more.
Wout van Aert soloed to victory at the men’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, while Annemiek van Vleuten had to survive an onslaught from SD Worx to win the women’s race Saturday.
On Sunday, it was the turn of the sprinters, with Fabio Jakobsen denying a late breakaway in the final meters of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, while Marta Bastianelli besting Emma Norsgaard in a reduced sprint at Omloop van het Hageland.
“Opening weekend” has always been an opportunity to suss out the classics contenders and their teams and where their form is at ahead of the bigger cobbled races later in the spring.
With that in mind, let’s take a look and some of the things we’ve learned from the 2022 “opening weekend.”
Annemiek van Vleuten is still the rider to beat
If we were in any doubt after her performance in Valencia earlier this month, Annemiek van Vleuten proved once again this weekend that she’s going to be tough to beat this spring.
Despite having the odds stacked against her in the final of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, van Vleuten remained cool and collected to out-maneuver Demi Vollering after the pair went clear on the Bosberg.
What makes her recent performances even more impressive — if they weren’t impressive enough already — it is that she was still using crutches to get around in the middle of last December.
After her victory, van Vleuten indicated that her big aim this spring will be to take another Liège-Bastogne-Liège title after she was beaten to the punch by Vollering last year. That could open the door to others to vie to succeed her as the Tour of Flanders champion, but van Vleuten won’t let that tile go easily.
If she’s in with a chance of taking a third De Ronde win, you bet she’ll go for it.
Jumbo-Visma is more than Wout van Aert, but he’s still streets ahead
The “opening weekend” was a very good two days for the Jumbo-Visma squad with Wout van Aert romping to victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Christophe Laporte coming a hair’s breadth from winning Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
Both situations were set up by aggressive race tactics from the Dutch squad, with new signings Laporte and Tiesj Benoot — who were making their team debuts this weekend — at the heart of the action.
The Frenchman and the Belgian helped to animate both races, driving key splits and making it into most big moves. Laporte almost delivered on one of his as he charged away with Taco van der Hoorn and Jhonatan Narváez, only to be caught within touching distance of the finish line.
However, it was van Aert that stole the show with his Omloop-winning attack Saturday. The Belgian champion hadn’t raced since finishing his cyclocross season at the start of January, but he hardly skipped a beat with his return to the road.
There’s no doubt that he is still the focus of the team’s classics line-up, but the pressure is no longer all on him to deliver.
SD Worx is still a force without Anna van der Breggen
Though the team didn’t come away with a victory at “opening weekend,” the SD Worx squad still showed that it is a force to be reckoned with post-Anna van der Breggen.
The squad has always had some serious depth in its roster but losing its most successful rider was always going to have an impact.
While there’s merit in questioning whether van der Breggen may have had the edge to defeat Annemiek van Vleuten in that final sprint at Omloop, it’s something we’ll never be able to answer.
There was little else that the team could have done to win at Omloop with a van Vleuten on serious form.
Demi Vollering, along with new signings Marlen Reusser and Lotte Kopecky, helped SD Worx dominate much of the closing stages of the race and the team was present in pretty much every move. The team was also aggressive at Omloop van het Hageland as they tried to get rid of some of the top sprinters from the pack.
Though they ultimately didn’t succeed in coming home with a victory in its opening two races of the season, the performances show that the team has picked up where it left off at the end of last season.
Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is going to be a tough act to beat
Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne has put forward a strong early claim for best race of the 2022 classics. There’s still a long way to go this spring, but it’s going to take a lot to do any better than Sunday’s nail-biting action.
The one-day race had almost everything going for it, with big-name attacks, an unexpected breakaway almost undoing the peloton, and a last-minute heart-breaking catch.
Sometimes seen as the lesser of the two “opening weekend” races, this year’s “KBK” featured a star-studded line-up. A new route, which omitted the Oude Kawaremont, added a little extra intrigue to the race.
The dynamic between the sprinters’ teams trying to keep it together for a bunch-kick and the other squads looking to tear the race apart only served to heighten the tension Sunday.
.@FabioJakobsen vence a #KuurneBrusselKuurne 2022 pic.twitter.com/obBtigq1Ia
— País do Ciclismo (@DoCiclismo) February 27, 2022
Fabio Jakobsen saved the weekend for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl
The double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne was a mixed bag for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl.
Fabio Jakobsen’s last-gasp victory Sunday gave the team something to smile about, but there’ll be some conversations about what went wrong the day before that.
The Belgian team was far below par and was left scrabbling as its rivals dictated the race with Florian Sénéchal the best-placed finisher from the squad in ninth place.
Team boss Patrick Lefevere criticized his riders after the race for being unable to ride defensively.
We’ve been here before with Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl as its “many cooks” approach doesn’t always work but the team has always been quick to bounce back from disappointments. There’s still time to work out some of the kinks to ensure the team isn’t on the backfoot at the bigger races later this spring.
Cycling is just a sideshow right now
Amid the joy of fans returning to the Belgian roadsides and the amazing racing over the past two days, there was no getting away from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Cycling can often bury its head in the sand during major world events — it took weeks for it to make a small anti-racism gesture amid worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
However, both Wout van Aert and Fabio Jakobsen spoke out about the invasion of Ukraine over the weekend and were keen to impress that cycling was a mere distraction in these times — as it often proved to be during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Cycling is the most important sideshow in the world, with the emphasis on sideshow,” van Aert said following his race victory.
The UCI has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and vowed it will not hold any races in Russia, though there are currently no events scheduled to be held in the country at this time.
Cycling won’t change anything right now, but it can be a helpful distraction for fans and riders alike.
Fabio Jakobsen on Ukraine: “Here we have 25-year-old guys fighting for a win and there you have 25-year-olds fighting for freedom. It puts things into perspective.” #KBK22
— Sadhbh O’Shea (@SadhbhOS) February 27, 2022