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The cobbled classics season is now underway with the big kickoff at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Saturday in Belgium. The race featured a thrilling, down to the wire finish with a surprise win by Michael Valgren who indicated Astana’s potential for the spring season. Plus, the race featured the historic Muur/Bosberg finish that defined the Tour of Flanders for many years. So what did we learn from this first stop on the tour des cobblestones? Let’s roundtable!
What impact did the new (old) Muur/Bosberg finale have on the race?
Fred Dreier @freddreier: The new finale boosted my love of Omloop, that’s for sure. Watching the group attack over the Muur and the Bosberg brought back tons of good memories of Sunday mornings spent watching Tommeke and Fabian battling at Flanders. In my mind, it elevated Omloop to a whole new level of excitement, and chapeau to the management for making this decision. As far as race action, having those climbs that close to the finale shook up the action — the strong headwind stifled any chance at a solo finish.
Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: This finale is nice, but I have to throw a little cold water on the Muur lovefest. This two-climb combo is a bit overrated, especially when it comes at the end of a short(er) race like Omloop, which was 196.2km — the guys just weren’t gassed enough. I bet we would have seen a simliar group come to the line if it had been a different finale.
Andrew Hood @eurohoody: Kudos to organizers that yet again are not afraid to throw tradition to the wind, and spice up these races. The Muur is iconic in Flanders as Alpe d’Huez is in the Alps, so the more racing there, the better. The new finale certainly proved decisive and helped Omloop’s prestige in the process. Oop! Oop! Omloop!
Dane Cash @danecash: The cobbled combo helped make things selective enough that no one team had enough firepower to reel Valgren back in. In that respect, including the pairing was a big success for fans of exciting racing. The attacks on the climbs themselves may have come to naught, but then, so have a hundred other Sep Vanmarcke attacks. They’re still fun to watch, and there’s always next year…
Is Astana a classics team now? How did they pull that one off?
Fred: Astana’s key to victory was having Gatto, Valgren, and Lutsenko in great position going into the Muur, and then not lose too much time over the top. None of the three has the chops to win from that group as a solo rider, but put all three in there, and they have the advantage over someone like Greg Van Avermaet. Are they a classics team? Insomuch that they have three decent classics riders, yes.
Spencer: Nah! they were just racing hard because Vinokourov put their feet to the fire, saying the team was in danger of losing its funding. It’s all about motivation!
Andrew: Some cagey racing, no doubt. Strong legs mean strong tactics in the northern classics. Astana had that numerical advantage, but as we know, that doesn’t always guarantee success. Valgren attacked at the right and only moment to win the race, revealing some racing acumen for the promising rider. More than anything, Astana’s success reveals how more and more teams are dedicating resources across the peloton to the northern classics. Not every team has the depth or budget to do it, but it’s no longer a Belgian-dominated niche discipline anymore.
Dane: Astana has some very talented up-and-comers in Valgren, Magnus Cort Nielsen, and Alexey Lutsenko, and savvy veteran Oscar Gatto is another underrated card to play. All that said, don’t expect anyone in baby blue to match peak Sagan or Van Avermaet in the thick of classics season. Valgren got away once, but it won’t be so easy next time. Give it another season or two full of success before heaping too many expectations on Astana’s classics riders.
How could the final group have neutralized Astana’s numerical advantage?
Fred: The only way was for the group to chase down every attack. But that tactic mean towing Sonny Colbrelli to the line, and he has the sprint to beat everyone. So in truth, there wasn’t much that solo riders like Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, or Zdenek Stybar could do.
Spencer: The group should have been more patient after Vanmarcke and Stybar went on the Muur. Force Astana to chase because they had the numbers, then you might see Van Avermaet ride clear.
Andrew: More riders could have followed a few of those late surges by Vanmarcke, or made their own, hoping for some company. Astana rode it smart, marking the moves, and by the time it was cat-n-mouse, the game was up. What looked obvious was that some of the top riders in the group simply didn’t have the legs to burn everyone off their wheels.
Dane: That’s a toughie. The only real way for most of those guys to triumph in that scenario would have been to beat Valgren to the punch. A few of them tried to attack and failed, of course, so that’s easier said than done.
What lessons should Lotto-Soudal learn from its fruitless day?
Fred: The “Danger Twins,” Tiesj and Tim, need to cool their jets. My guess is that both of those guys could have survived the Muur in the front group, and with a numerical advantage, they could have spiced up the finale. Instead, they burned their matches with 30k to go.
Spencer: Maybe check the weather report a little more carefully? Sending Benoot off the front into a headwind before the decisive Muur seems like a risky proposition. He’s a great rider, but he doesn’t have the TT chops to stay away like Fabian Cancellara used to.
Andrew: Every winning tactic looks genius when you’re first across the line, just as a botched play looks obviously wrong when it doesn’t pan out. These early races are just as much about who’s on form as any tactical game. The strongest legs win it, but sometimes firing at the wrong time miss the mark as well.
Dane: In hindsight, the obvious answer is: “Slow your roll.” Sometimes, however, long-range attacks work out perfectly and you look like a genius. Plus, it’s not like Benoot or Wellens have a chance of out-sprinting anyone. Throwing those Hail Mary passes is usually their clearest path to success. As such, I’ll steer clear of trying to monday morning quarterback those failed attempts. It’s one race, and it’s still February.
What are three random things you learned heading into classics season?
Fred: Sep Vanmarcke is beastly strong and very motivated, and EF have support riders to put him into position to win. Greg Van Avermaet perhaps isn’t as strong as he was last year, based on his huffing and puffing over the Muur. Daniel Oss could be a game changer for Peter Sagan.
Spencer: The ‘cross kids are for real — world cyclocross champion Wout van Aert made that final selection and was riding great until the bunch caught them in the final kilometer. Paging Mr. van der Poel… It’s time for you to take road racing seriously. I also like Vanmarcke’s form, but I’m a little worried that he’s got an itchy trigger finger. Seems like he was the strongest guy but didn’t play the tactics right with the headwind. And third: Sonny Colbrelli is my pick to win Milano-Sanremo.
Andrew: Oss will be on fire again this spring. Naesen looks good for a major monument win. Dylan Groenenwegen is a beast.
Dane: Quick-Step’s Fernando Gaviria needs some seasoning on Flemish turf, but he should keep at it. The talent is there. It’s not easy going from racing in Argentina and Colombia to making your Omloop debut in frozen northern Europe.
Lukasz Wisniowski (Sky) is worth watching. He’s always shown up at Kuurne — and he did once again this time around — but his Omloop second place was his first ever notable result in a WorldTour race.
Sonny Cobrelli (Bahrain-Merida) will be a serious contender this spring. We’ve known the Italian has speed and some punch for quite some time. So far this year, however, he’s showing terrific form and looks capable on the cobblestones. Put all that together and you’ve got a rider who is a threat from Strade Bianche all the way through Flanders.