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Roundtable: Weekend thrillers kick off cobbles season

Could Van Avermaet have won Omloop if he'd played the tactics differently? We debate an exciting classics opener and look ahead to the spring season.

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We have been waiting all winter for the first cobbled one-day races of 2019. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne did not disappoint. In men’s Omloop, a scintillating breakaway dominated the final kilometers featuring Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (CCC). Try as he might, he couldn’t best Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). The women’s edition, on the other hand, saw a dominant display by Boels-Dolmans with Chantal Blaak winning the day. Deceuninck delivered again on Sunday with Bob Jungels soloing to victory in Kuurne.

What trends did we see in this first weekend of racing? Who are the up-and-comers that will conquer the cobbles? Why didn’t Van Avermaet claim victory in Omloop? Let’s roundtable!

It was an action-packed opening weekend for classics season. What did you see that got you most excited for the upcoming cobblestone races?

Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Deceuninck lost Niki Terpstra and didn’t miss a beat, and the dynamic has opened the door for Zdenek Stybar to become the star. I’m excited to see if Stybar can rise to the level of Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan at Flanders and Roubaix. I’m also excited to see whether Tim Wellens can play the role of spoiler at some of these races. He’s strong enough to have made the finale at Omloop; can his attacking style create headaches for the peloton’s heads of state?

Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegsOverall, after Kuurne wrapped up on Sunday, I was really pleased that both races featured unpredictable, down-to-the-wire finishes with breakaway riders dangling off the front by seconds. To me, that indicates that the teams are evenly matched and that the racing is hard. Sure, Deceuninck-Quick-Step won both days, but they weren’t completely dominant. The racing was anything but controlled and boring. On the women’s side of things, I’m intrigued to see if Marta Bastianelli can play spoiler to the dominant Boels-Dolmans team. She started off classics season brilliantly with second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and first at Omloop van het Hageland.

Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: Despite the apparent dominance by Deceuninck-Quick-Step, this classics season could be one of the most balanced in years. No longer is it Cancellara vs. Boonen, and it likely won’t be the same Quick-Step steamroll as last year. Every major team is bringing firepower to the classics. Quick-Step’s big advantage is that it still has enough depth to bring three or even four would-be winners to each race. Others are upping their game, however. I think we can expect some thrilling performances across the peloton over the next several weeks with wins from several teams.

Van avermaet
Greg Van Avermaet tried everything to shed his breakaway companions at Omloop, but couldn’t get clear. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Evaluate Greg van Avermaet’s tactics in the Omloop finale. What should he have done differently to win?

Fred: Van Avermaet was the most aggressive rider and he paid for his aggression. He attacked over the Muur and the Bosberg, and his inability to drop everyone should have been a sign that he wasn’t going to break away for the win. So, when Tim Wellens went for it, he made the decision to shut it down. Armchair quarterback time: He could have let Lutsenko or Stybar close it down, but he took the initiative. That surge opened the door for Stybar to go for it, yet GVA again tried to shut it down, but lacked the punch to do it. I know, I know, we’re analyzing this after the result. Still, maybe GVA could have let others shut down the moves.

Spencer: I think Fred’s analysis is on the right track. I’d add this nuance to the armchair quarterbacking: Van Avermaet showed his strength when he didn’t need to. He didn’t need to launch all those early attacks. Not only did they burn his matches, but the moves caused other riders to mark him cautiously since he seemed like the strongest in the bunch. Chill out Greg, it’s only the first weekend in March.

Andrew: Van Avermaet covered the wrong wheel by not chasing Stybar, who attacked just after Van Avermaet reeled in Wellens. It was an astute attack by Stybar in a race that wasn’t snuffed by headwinds. Van Avermaet’s second place in the chase group is telling and he comes out of the weekend looking very strong. His big goal of the spring is Flanders, well more than a month away.

Which rider surprised you the most in either Omloop or Kuurne, and why?

Fred: I’m tipping my cap to Dylan Teuns for making that final group in Omloop and surviving the explosive attacks over the Muur and the Bosberg. I expected to see him get dropped at some point, however, he outlasted even Daniel Oss in that front group. A ride like that does not guarantee future success at these races, of course. Still, chapeau to him for racing alongside riders of a higher caliber.

Spencer: I was surprised by Sep Vanmarcke at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad — in a bad way. EF Education First did well to get Alex Howes in the early break. Vanmarcke looked to be riding well as the peloton approached the final cobbled climbs. And then, by the Belgian’s own admission he “just exploded.” He still has a few weeks to sharpen up his for the big cobblestone showdowns in early April. I hope he can get things on track and be a factor in the winning break, right alongside guys like Stybar and Van Avermaet.

Andrew: Owain Doull’s second place at Kuurne was impressive enough against a top field. The 25-year-old Sky rider is making steady improvement and won a stage at the Herald Sun Tour, proving that the early season successes bode well for the opening rounds of the spring classics. No surprise there. All three podium finishers respectively at Omloop and Kuurne — save the cagey veteran Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) with third Sunday — scored wins early in 2019 before this weekend.

Former world champion Chantal Blaak was brilliant in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Early on in the women’s Omloop, Canyon-SRAM looked good. What should they have done differently to stand up to the perennially dominant Boels-Dolmans team?

Fred: When Boels-Dolmans puts three of its marquee riders into the front group, there’s just not a lot that any team, Canyon-SRAM included, can do. Perhaps they should have saved some efforts to try and stack the final move with more than one rider. But again, asking a team to win against the current and last year’s world champion is asking a lot.

Spencer: I didn’t understand why Canyon-SRAM was doing so much work ahead of the Muur. Sure, they are one of the top teams in the peloton, but I think everyone should be looking to Boels to control the front of the race. If Canyon-SRAM could have saved at least one rider, perhaps they’d have a teammate to join Katarzyna Niewiadoma in that decisive breakaway to back her up on the Bosberg.

Andrew: It’s going to be hard to beat Boels-Dolmans this spring, but aggressive racing is the way to do it. Canyon-SRAM played its cards early but Boels-Dolmans came up aces with two of three podium spots.