It’s full-steam ahead for Belgium’s “opening weekend” later this month, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (February 27) confirming its wildcard invitations for the elite men’s race Wednesday.
Alpecin-Fenix and Arkéa-Samsic were already assured a starting spot based on rankings, so the wildcards went to the French teams B&B Hotels and Total Direct Energie, and to Belgian teams Bingoal WB and Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise. Officials also confirmed that all 19 WorldTour teams will be starting.
Officials are optimistic the both the men’s and women’s races will be able to be contested despite coronavirus worries across much of Europe. Conditions seem to be easing slightly in many nations, raising hopes that the opening races in Belgium will be allowed to be held.
Health authorities will have the final say, but right now, officials are expecting to receive the green light. Race officials from Flanders Classics, organizers of most of the big Belgian one-day races including the Tour of Flanders, confirmed this year’s events will likely be held “behind closed doors.”
“It’s not great, but the most important thing is that there is a race,” Flanders Classics CEO Tomas Van Den Spiegel told De Morgen last month. Van Den Spiegel said the race organizer is already making contingency plans for its fleet of races in 2021 to be contested under strict safety measures, with the likelihood that no fans will be allowed to attend the races in person.
“There will be no fans,” Van Den Spiegel said. “This is how we will be working throughout the spring classics.”
Racing without fans is less than ideal, especially for riders like Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), who told VeloNews last week that riders are missing the energy and thrill of racing in front of rowdy fans lining the roads.
“Especially for me, I am always better when there is a lot of public, because I like this atmosphere,” Gilbert said from the Étoile de Bessèges last week. “I think a lot of riders cannot give these extra watts when there is not this public next to the roads. As an athlete, this is also what we like, and it’s going to be another ‘special’ year.”
Defending champion Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) said he hopes his sweep of the Belgian opening weekend, with Omloop in 2020 and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2016, will position him for a run at this year’s monuments at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“[Winning Omloop] doesn’t change my expectations,” Stuyven said last month. “I go every year with the ambition to have a team that performs. I think I am capable of winning Flanders and Roubaix. Will I be unhappy if I win Omloop again, and don’t win Flanders? Not at all. Will I be extremely happy if I don’t do any results and win Roubaix? Yes, of course. The goals remain the same, and the ambition is there, and we will try to win one of the classics. An ideal scenario is that Mads [Pederson] and I each win one, and a perfect scenario is we win more.”
Annemiek van Vleuten to debut in Movistar colors
The women’s race — also set for February 27 — is expected to draw such names as defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten, debuting in Movistar colors, Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), and Jolien D’Hoore (SD Worx), whose team will show off its new jersey.
Following some cancelations and postponements, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will be the first major race on European roads in 2021 for the women’s peloton.
The start list for the men’s race is expected to see the cream of the classics field. One question mark will be Peter Sagan (Bora–Hansgrohe), who was expected to race in Belgium’s opening weekend for the first time in years but was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week.
Other top names expected to start include defending champion Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën) and Gilbert. Intermarché Wanty-Gobert Matérieaux will be racing on home roads as a WorldTour team for the first time.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, held the following day on February 28, complete’s Belgium’s “opening weekend.” Race officials are expected to release more details on that race in the coming days.
The peloton is hopeful that if the Belgian opening weekend can be contested with success, it will pave the way for the remainder of the Belgian spring calendar on their traditional dates.