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Pros recon new Omloop finale ahead of classics opener

Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad marks the start of the 2019 classics season.

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Top favorites are hitting the pavé for recon rides ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this weekend as anticipation builds for the opening of the 2019 classics season.

Several big names are putting their finishing touches on preparation for the beginning of the highly anticipated classics calendar. With the prestigious Omloop set to get things going Saturday, followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday, most of the top favorites are already in Belgium.

Teams are using this week’s good weather as an opportunity to preview important changes to the Omloop route, as well as make final tweaks to equipment and tactics.

Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven, a winner of KBK in 2016, was among the riders retracing key points of the 200km Omloop course this week.

“It’s always good to remind yourself of the route,” Stuyven told Het Nieuwsblad. “There are some changes that have been made to the finale compared to previous editions, and that can influence how the race can play out. It never hurts to recon these races, especially one as prestigious as Omloop. With a recon, you can eliminate any chance of a surprise.”

Stuyven was among a handful of riders and teams out surveying the Belgian countryside this week ahead of the race. Others hitting the pavé included CCC Team, with two-time winner Greg Van Avermaet, as well as Mitchelton-Scott, with the on-form Matteo Trentin expected to be a favorite across the weekend.

“We hope to play a decisive role in the Omloop with Trentin,” Mitchelton sport director Lorenzo Lapage told Het Nieuwsblad. “He already has three wins in his pocket, and we’ll play Luke Durbridge as our second card. The passages at Haaghoek and Berendries near the end of the race will be crucial importance.”

The 74th edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad — formerly called Omloop Het Volk before its name change in 2009 — carries special prestige inside the Belgian cycling fraternity. It’s the opening race of the classics cobblestone calendar and every major Belgian star tries to win it at least once.

The 200-kilometer route takes in some of the famous bergs featured in the Tour of Flanders, including the Bosberg and Muur van Geraardsbergen. The finale, which was moved out of central Gent last year, will now be at Ninove. Gent still hosts the start, while the Muur and Bosberg remain the final hurdles ahead of the finish line.

Good spring weather is forecasted for the weekend, with temperatures in the high 50s and a slight chance of rain for Saturday’s race. That’s in sharp contrast to the sometimes-horrible weather the race has seen in late February, including cancellation of the 2004 edition due to snow and ice.

A key factor could be winds, expected to be blowing from the southwest, meaning it could be tailwinds coming back for the finale.

The race sees a quality starting lineup, with returning champion Michael Valgren leading Dimension Data in what should be a big year for the budding Danish superstar.

“Winning Omloop was huge for me last year,” Valgren said. “It gave me that confidence boost I needed to know I could win a big Belgian race.”

One name missing is three-time world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who is skipping the Belgian opening weekend for the second year in a row. Instead, Sagan is using this week as a training block and will return to racing at Tirreno-Adriatico.

A few other favorites, especially for Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, are also missing due to a calendar conflict with the new weeklong UAE Tour. Among those racing there who could have been favorites Sunday include Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Emirates) and Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).

For classics stalwarts like Van Avermaet, Omloop is an important milestone of every racing season. The two-time winner is putting a special focus on the Tour of Flanders (April 7) and is downplaying his chances Saturday.

“I hit the bergs a few times,” Van Avermaet told Het Nieuwsblad. “That always makes you stronger. Now I can rest up a few days before Saturday.”