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Something magical happens when you line up about 250 of the world’s best cyclists to race across 200 kilometers of rough, rural Belgian roads, as spring begins in Northern Europe. The action becomes frantic, unpredictable. The fans turn out in droves, Jupiler beers in hand, to cheer on their favorite riders (and to throw a party). It is hard to find a cycling fan who doesn’t love spring classics, and we couldn’t be happier to kick off the season this weekend with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Saturday and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Sunday, both in Belgium. So what can we fans expect to see? Who are the favorites to win? Let’s roundtable!
What is the biggest storyline in pro cycling as we head into the opening weekend of spring classics?
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: It feels like every year there is some huge storyline hanging over the entire sport. Last year the big story was Chris Froome’s adverse analytical. In past years, we’ve had the threat of looming battles between ASO and the UCI, and the shakeup caused by shrinking rosters. That’s what’s so great about 2019. So far — knock on wood — it feels like the biggest storyline this year is … bike racing! I can’t wait to watch Peter Sagan battle Deceuninck-Quick Step and Greg Van Avermaet on the cobbles. I want to see whether the new finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège makes the race more compelling. The lineup of stars for the Giro d’Italia is stacked. The Tour has the Geraint Thomas vs. Chris Froome story. This year is all about bike racing, and I can’t wait to get rolling.
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: I’m not so sure if I agree with Fred. There is one worrying storyline overshadowing the start to the European classics season: Team Sky’s sponsor situation. I have no idea how that will play out on the business side of the team as Brailsford tries to close a deal. On the other hand, I think we can all tell how this will play out on the road. Already, Sky riders have won four races this season. I’m hoping for more aggressive riding from this team as they try to woo potential sponsors. What better stage for that than the cobblestones?
Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: The biggest storyline IS the classics themselves. These are the races that evoke the passion and intensity among the racers and fans like no other events of the year. The grand tours are all about measuring your efforts, controlling your rivals, and saving the matches for a short, decisive, strategic cuts. In thrilling contrast, the classics are an all-in, no holds barred street brawl all the way to the line. Tomorrow obviously doesn’t count in one-day racing, so the classics deliver the raw emotion that today’s fans crave. The other storylines — who’s the best team, which rider is dominating — are just the sub-plots set against the annual blank page of the classics. Who will write their masterpiece? We cannot wait to find out.
Which is your favorite edition of either Omloop or Kuurne in recent years, and why?
Fred: I liked the 2016 Kuurne when Jasper Stuyven attacked out of the group and powered away for the solo victory. It was just a really audacious move that brought back memories of Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen at their peak. I’d like to see more of that aggressive riding out of Stuyven this year.
Spencer: Our readers might give me grief for calling out Team Sky twice, but that 2015 edition of Omloop was exceptional. Sky’s Ian Stannard, the defending champion was isolated in a group of three (three!) Quick-Step riders, including Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra. Stannard was forced to chase down an early attack by Terpstra. Then — what pluck — he counterattacks! And Stannard did so with such power that he shed Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh. Terpstra had a shot at beating the Brit in the end, but he inexplicably led out the sprint, and Stannard didn’t miss the opportunity to sprint to two in a row.
Andrew: You gotta go with Juan Antonio Flecha’s win in 2010 and his famous “arrow-shot” victory salute. He countered behind a surge by a very young Philippe Gilbert and soloed home to take his lone classics win of his career. Flecha loved the cobbles, but this was his only major one-day victory on the bumpy roads of Belgium.
For the second year in a row, classics king Peter Sagan will skip this first weekend of cobblestones — how do you feel about that?
Fred: It’s too bad. I also loved the battle between Greg van Avermaet and Peter Sagan in 2017. That’s the race that gave us the “I think it’s normal if you have to use the toilet” line from Sagan. But hey, Sagan has his own season program that works for him, so who am I to tell him what races to do? Do what you need to do to be ready for Flanders, Mr. S.
Spencer: Yes, I understand why he skips this often-cold opening weekend of cobbles racing. (Hoody will give you the full explanation below if you need it.) I also get that an Omloop win pales in comparison to a victory in Sanremo or Roubaix, or Liège. But as a fan, this feels like watching the first game of the NFL season with only backup quarterbacks on the field. I’ve been waiting all winter for this. Give me Sagan!
Andrew: Peter does what Peter does. He and his coaches have determined that the Belgian opening weekend just doesn’t quite fit in the larger arc of his season. His approach is similar to what he did last year, with a busy block of racing in Australia and South America, followed by altitude and intense training in late February and early March. It worked like a charm last year with the big Roubaix victory, which was the target all along. This year, Sagan is hoping to extend his classics campaign from San Remo all the way through the new-look Liège. These weekend races lose a bit of their luster without him, but Sagan is being more judicious as he gets older. Only the monuments count now.
Who are your picks to win Omloop and Kuurne, and why?
Fred: I think Sep Vanmarcke has a good chance at Omloop. He just won Haut Var, which shows he’s on form. For Kuurne, I have my eyes on Matteo Trentin. He already has three victories this season, which shows he’s on great early season form.
Spencer: After watching Zdenek Stybar win the final stage of Volta ao Algarve in Portugal, I think he’s going to win Omloop, animating on the Muur or the Bosberg to draw out a small breakaway, which he will out-class. In Kuurne, I agree with Fred that Trentin will be hard to beat — he won two stages at Algarve. But for variety’s sake, my pick is last year’s winner Dylan Groenewegen. He’s a beast in the bunch sprints, and probably a better true sprinter than the Italian Trentin.
Andrew: I will go with youth in both, simply because there are so many young, talented riders coming up. At shorter-than-monument distances, the races are not as formidable as Flanders or Roubaix, so younger riders can be in with a shot, even if it’s a long-shot in the prestigious opening weekend. I’ll go with Jasper Philipsen (UAE-Emirates) at Omloop. With good weather, it could be a select group coming in, and he should have the legs to be there in the finale. What could be better classics opening for the “new Tom Boonen?” And at KBK, I’ll go with Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuncinck-Quick-Step). He packs an impressive finishing punch, and will have the Wolf Pack protecting him on the team’s home roads.