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Preview: Cobbles kick-off at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Omloop Het Nieusblad is the official start to cobbled classics season, and it looks to be a good one.

Sure, WorldTour racing officially started last month in Australia, but “opening weekend” in Belgium still has its traditional charm. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad gets underway on Saturday, heralding the arrival of cobblestone racing. On Sunday, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne will serve up a second helping of Flemish fun.

After a long stretch as a UCI 1.HC, the Omloop received a welcome upgrade to WorldTour status last year. It still doesn’t have quite the start list draw as De Ronde — Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff are among the classics stars skipping the action this year — but plenty of familiar names will be in attendance to kick things off with a bang this weekend.

Route revives old Flanders finish

The Omloop always offers the bumps and lumps befitting of a cobbled one-day, but organizers made some alterations to the route this year to spice things up a bit.

The race will start in Gent as usual, but it won’t finish there. Instead, the line awaits in Meerbeke after 198 kilometers. Along the way, the peloton will officially take on 13 climbs, a few of them repeat ascents of the same climb. A number of the climbs on tap are cobbled. There are also some flat stretches of pavé for the pack to navigate.

After setting out from Gent, the Omloop peloton will ride for a little over an hour before hitting the first of the day’s topographical challenges. Following the Haaghoek sector flat cobbles, the Leberg rises up at 64.1 kilometers into the race. Everyone should get well acquainted with the Haaghoek-Leberg pairing on Saturday, as it will reappear later on in the day.

The riders will enjoy a bit of respite after the opening salvo as the day’s second climb doesn’t appear for another 30 kilometers or so. Once things heat up again, however, they won’t cool off until the final run to the line.

Cobbles just after the 90-kilometer mark will warn the pack of the danger ahead. Just before the 100-kilometer mark comes the Den Ast climb. From that point on, it’s almost all up and down.

The difficulty ramps up as riders tackle familiar challenges like the Molenberg and Valkenberg, as well as two returns to the Haaghoek-Leberg double. It all leads up to a climactic visit to the Muur van Geraardsbergen. A kilometer in length with a 9.2 percent average gradient, the classic cobbled climb kicks up well into the double digits at its steepest.

The finale revives the old Tour of Flanders finish, which was discontinued after 2011. After the iconic Muur, one final cobbled ascent awaits, the 1.3km Bosberg. From the top, it’s just 10 kilometers to the finish. Mostly flat, the final run-in opens up some interesting possibilities.

Attacks will fly on the last few challenging climbs, but they’ll need a bit of breathing room to fend off the sprinters in the pack.

Van Avermaet headlines the list of contenders

BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet is the defending champion and the bookies like his chances to repeat. He’s got just the right skill set for the lumpy profile with a possible reduced sprint finish on tap. He’s also showing strong form in the early goings of the year. Jurgen Roelandts should be a valuable lieutenant for Van Avermaet, or possibly a stealth second option.

Plenty of the usual classics suspects will be in attendance to challenge BMC. Former teammate turned resurgent rival Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) will be one of them. He showed last year that he can’t be ignored on the cobbles. Gilbert also happens to helm a super-stacked squad, with Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert, and Fernando Gaviria offering viable options for practically any scenario

Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) has yet to turn classics talent into big results but he did win this race back in 2012. AG2R La Mondiale’s Oliver Naesen would probably prefer a more challenging finish, but if he can get clear on one of the late climbs, he’ll be a huge threat as well.

Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven has the finishing kick to be in the mix even if a small group comes to the line if he can make it there with heavyweight classics stars. Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot are dark horses to go long, while Edward Theuns and Michael Matthews give Sunweb a powerful pair of sprinting options if things come down to that.

Bora-Hansgrohe’s Daniel Oss could shine with team leader Peter Sagan opting to train instead of racing the Omloop. Astana’s Magnus Cort Nielsen and Alexey Lutsenko, FDJ’s Arnaud Démare, Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Bahrain-Merida’s Sonny Colbrelli are all outsiders to watch come Saturday.

Whoever comes away with the victory will also earn a healthy morale boost heading into the busy weeks ahead. The Omloop is not the biggest cobbled one-day on the calendar, but the classics specialists will be hungry to get the 2018 campaign off to a good start in Flanders.