Omega rolling confident into Ardennes week

Omega Pharma is traditionally thought of as a cobbled classics team, but this year the Ardennes may show another side to the Belgian squad

SITTARD, Netherlands (VN) — Omega Pharma-Quick Step is fresh off a Paris-Roubaix victory, and has an ace in hand for this week’s hilly classics. It’s good to be an Omega rider right about now, and it could get even better soon.

The Belgian powerhouse team, which salvaged its classics campaign on the wings of Niki Terpstra’s dazzling solo effort last week in the velodrome, enters the second phase of spring races with Michal Kwiatkowski as an outside favorite in the hilly Ardennes races — and a deep roster with many riders capable of striking.

“I know I can do it well, Amstel Gold Race,” Kwiatkowski told reporters on Friday. “We go into the race very motivated. As for me, I’ve had more results this year leading into Amstel. So, because of that there is perhaps more pressure, but until now nothing has changed.”

Indeed, this season has shaped up nicely for Kwiatkowski. He’s finished first and second at the Volta ao Algarve and Tour of the Basque Country, respectively, and won Strade Bianche, where he smashed Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in the final, steep kilometer. The 23-year-old has become the next hottest thing in cycling, and certainly enters into races now with expectation and a bit more pressure, two things that come quickly for young riders taking major results. And even with undisputed talent and form, winning one of these Ardennes races is a tall, tall order. Kwiatkowski must butt heads with the likes of Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), and Joaqium Rodríguez (Katusha).

“I can say much more after the race. I have to save a lot of energy until the last climb on the Cauberg. It’s not easy to stay in front all day of a 250km race. If you want to save energy, perhaps some people will think it’s better to sit in the back of the group. But, it’s always better to sit in the front,” Kwiatkowski said. “You have to do that. Don’t use energy to be there. You have to know where to be before the climb and on the climb. That’s why the recon and experience of this race is so important and I am happy we’re well prepared. I know the parcours really well, as does the team.”

Kwiatkowski said the race tends to boil at about 70 kilometers to go, adding that he will be weary of attacks. “There are a lot of good riders who are explosive on the climbs. Philippe Gilbert, Joaquim Rodriguez, or Alejandro Valverde for example. This race is unpredictable, so it’s difficult to give a true prognosis before the race,” Kwiatkowski said.

Omega boss Patrick Lefevere is bullish on his rider. And why wouldn’t he be?

“Michal last year was also competitive in these kinds of races,” Lefevere said. “This year, the riders around him have become stronger. We have experienced riders like Pieter Serry, Jan Bakelants, and Wout Poels, who is racing at home. We’ll also have to see how recovered Zdenek Stybar is from Paris-Roubaix. As for the race, it typically is very nervous. There are a lot of curves. They announced crosswinds for the race, so it will be even more tough.”

Poels, coming off a stage win at Pais Vasco, said he feels up to the task of Amstel — a race that seems to feature every hill in The Netherlands, comprising its 13,000 feet of climbing.

“I feel really good,” Poels said. “Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco was a really nice victory, and race in general. I feel really good, so I hope we can do a nice job at Amstel Gold Race. It means a lot at my home province. It’s a really nice race, and a nice public here at my home. I’m looking forward to it. I feel the team really likes this race. We have climbers in the team who can also do well in a one day race like this.”

Another Omega rider looking forward to the climbs of the region is Jan Bakelants. The 28-year-old Belgian soared to prominence last season when he held the yellow jersey at the Tour de France for stages 3 and 4 after a stage win on the second day of the race.

“The upcoming two races, Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, are really important races of my season,” Bakelants said. “I look forward to competing in them. Clearly I am eager to do them and hoping to do well for me as well as the team. Amstel Gold Race is not typical because it’s all about short, uphill, almost sprinting efforts. One sprint is not enough to get to the top though, so there’s a mix of endurance and efforts that go into the lactic acid. So, this parcours is a nice challenge. As for the team, OPQS has a strong team this year with 30 strong guys. No matter which race we come to, we have always eight really competitive riders.”

That much, he’s certainly right about. Amstel begins on Sunday in Maastricht.