Road

Preview: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad favors opportunists

The classics season's first major test is an unpredictable blend of punchy climbs, shorter overall distance, and potentially bad weather.

It can be wet, cold, and miserable, its cobbles slippery, and its short climbs relentless. It can finish splintered into groups of one or two, or as a heavily trimmed bunch sprint. It is, to many, the first real race of the season, the start of the classics, a mud-splattered crystal ball into the early form of the stars, and a peek at the challengers lining up to take their place.

The mini Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) that is Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which takes place Saturday, includes many of the same cobbled climbs as its longer sibling, including the Kruisberg, Taaienberg, and Mollenberg, as well as the old Flanders stalwart, the Muur. It tackles 11 hellingen in total. But it offers 65 fewer kilometers of racing — Omloop will be 200.2km this year, to Flanders’ 265 — which changes the dynamic quite dramatically.

If anything, Omloop’s usefulness as a crystal ball for the races that come after it is confined to foretelling who won’t be winning come April.

The faces of Flanders do tend to find themselves at the pointy end when things get heated in the final 40km or so. But over the last 10 years, the Omloop winners have not once gone on to take the flowers at Flanders. That extra 65 kilometers, and a few weeks, make all the difference.

The men looking to fly at Flanders are still off their peak. That leaves Omloop open to the opportunists, those nipping at the heels of the classics greats, and to the rouleurs with a kick. Look out for the next Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), who surprised in 2012, or perhaps Frenchman Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr). Among the fast finishers, the type is less Erik Zabel than Thor Hushovd, who finds his modern equivalent in Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). Big men with fast sprints, who may mix it up in bunch gallops but prefer to win out of a medium-to-small group.

The caveat to this, because in the classics there’s always a caveat, is the weather. Last year saw Ian Stannard (Team Sky), not renown for the spring in his step, take a two-up sprint over Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). Put a man through six hours of chilling cold, and the legs react in inscrutable ways.

The forecast for Saturday calls for a high of 46 degrees with a chance of rain in the evening, a similar forecast to the one we saw prior to last year’s cold, miserable, wet slog.

The man to beat: Alexander Kristoff
He’s on flying form. Four wins already this season, three at the Tour of Qatar and one in Oman, prove that. He’s bested desert echelons and top field sprinters. We know he can go the distance, thanks to his sprint win at Milano-Sanremo in 2014. The only question mark hovers over his Katusha team — if the race splits, will he be left alone, drowning in a sea of Etixx?

The team to beat: Etixx-Quick-Step
Tom Boonen won’t be the man to watch on Saturday, though his mere presence affects how the race will play out. Instead, his lieutenants may get a chance to shine. Etixx is bringing an incredible team in Zdenek Stybar, Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandebergh, Matteo Trentin, Iljo Keisse, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, and Nikolas Maes. If the weather is bad, Vandebergh, second behind Luca Paolini in 2013, may be let free. Keisse can sprint well from a small group. But the point with Etixx, really, is that any of them is a danger if allowed up the road.

“We are at the start with a strong team, with riders in good condition that can be a part of the actions and play a part in the final. So we are pretty confident in our abilities to be a protagonist. The last time we won this race was 10 years ago with Nick Nuyens, but the finish was still in Lokeren. Tom Boonen was second that day. Now we hope after 10 years that we can do a good race and try to get a win,” said sport director Wilfried Peeters in a team statement.

Chip on his shoulder: Greg Van Avermaet
The king of second place opened his sterling account last year behind Stannard. He doesn’t need any more silver. He desperately wants a win and has two-time winner Philippe Gilbert, as well as strongmen Marcus Burghardt and Michael Schar at his side. If Gilbert is on form, and these days that much is never as certain as it used to be, BMC Racing has a formidable one-two punch.

Keep an eye on Rick Zabel as well. The young German looks built for the classics, and Omloop is just the sort of race where he may be allowed a little space to run.

VeloNews’ dark horse pick: Arnaud Démare
Tenth last year, the Frenchman on team FDJ.fr sprinted well at the Tour of Qatar and is well suited to Omloop’s combination of shorter length and punchy climbs.