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Six things to watch at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

Will Julian Alaphilippe continue Deceuninck-Quick-Step's winning start? Will Mathieu van der Poel dominate? And what can Tom Pidcock do?

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Rejoice, for the cobbles have arrived.

The “opening weekend” marks the start of the classics with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Saturday and Sunday.

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With a swathe of steep climbs and 14 sectors of cobbles, the WorldTour-ranked Omloop makes for a baby Tour of Flanders and a slap in the face to start the classics season. Kuurne may be a lower-tier race, but is equally gritty as most of the Omloop peloton makes the short trip down the highway to race the more sprinter-friendly 1.pro classic the next day.

Here are the five things to watch out for at this weekend’s curtain-raiser of the men’s classics:

Julian Alaphilippe headlines Deceuninck-Quick-Step squad hungry for more

Alaphilippe makes Omloop debut in build toward Tour of Flanders. Photo: Nico Vereecken – Pool/Getty Images

Also read: Julian Alaphilippe sets tone on 2021 with opening-stage attack in Provence

Deceuninck-Quick-Step got off to a hot start in 2021, with Julian Alaphilippe and David Ballerini tearing up the Tour de la Provence, Florian Sénéchal landing on the podium at the Clasica de Almeria, and Sam Bennett punching to victory at the UAE Tour. And now the Belgian team is on home soil, it will want to keep the wins rolling.

With Alaphilippe, Ballerini, Zdenek Štybar, Yves Lampaert, and defending Kuurne champ Kasper Asgreen all starting one or both of this weekend’s races, Patrick Lefevere and Co. mean business with a fully-stacked lineup.

Quick-Step took second and first-place at last year’s opening weekend and that likely wasn’t good enough for the one-day racing powerhouse. With Alaphilippe looking to rip it up in the rainbow jersey and Ballerini wanting to repeat in Kuurne, the “Wolfpack” will be hunting with extra vigor this weekend.

Mathieu van der Poel could dictate the playbook

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne will be a case of the world vs. MvdP. Photo: Nico Vereecken – Pool/Getty Images

Remember those years back when Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert were just two kids riding cyclocross and the classics saw dozens of riders fancying their chances for the win? They’re back – for Omloop Het Niewsblad at least.

Van Aert has opted to sit out both races this weekend, while van der Poel has made the late decision to line up only for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne after his early departure from the UAE Tour.

After the closing-season classics of 2020 boiled down to a game of “how to stop WvA and MvdP?” riders like Alaphilippe, Greg Van Avermaet, and Jasper Stuyven will have glimmers of optimism in their eye as they look to get their classics campaign started with a bang at Omloop. With no Wout or Mathieu to worry about Saturday, racing could become even more aggressive as the classics cohort look to score a confidence-boosting win ahead of the arrival of van der Poel and van Aert.

Contrastingly, van der Poel’s shadow will hang heavy over Kuurne on Sunday. The Alpecin-Fenix ace was unmatchable in winning the reduced bunch kick of the UAE Tour last Sunday, and strong teams will want to do all they can to dislodge the Dutchman early in the flat finale into Kuurne. With Trek-Segafredo, UAE Team Emirates, Ag2r-Citroën, and Lotto-Soudal all having strength in numbers, expect to see some tactical racing as the collective peloton looks to outfox van der Poel.

Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen arrive as new cobblestone threat

Can Van Avermaet end his long quest for Flanders glory this year? Photo: James Startt

Also read: Van Avermaet sees relationship with Naesen unlocking future success

The newly united duo of Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen pose a serious threat to the likes of Quick-Step and Trek-Segafredo this classics season.

After failing to match his monument-winning highs during his two years with CCC Team, “Golden Greg” is newly motivated and looking to finish his career with a final flourish at Ag2r-Citroën. And with long-time training partner and classics nearly-man Naesen at his side, he’s got the wingman to help launch him to victory, and perhaps even capture that long-elusive Flanders victory.

The Belgian pair knows each other inside-out after years of pounding their local training roads in Flanders and have raced against each other even longer. While only the strongest rider wins the grueling classics races, it sure helps if you have a buddy to bounce off.

This weekend could see the first winning flourishes of a Belgian bromance that has been in the making for many years.

Philippe Gilbert is short of time and uncertain about his form

Gilbert has two season left to score his monument sweep. Photo: James Startt

Also read: Philippe Gilbert riding into the unknown as career countdown continues

Philippe Gilbert has just two seasons left before retirement, and he has one major goal still to achieve – a clean sweep of the monuments. The Belgian veteran has won four of the historic, high-prestige races, yet Milano-Sanremo, the toughest race to win of them all, remains uncaptured.

Gilbert, 38, came within touching distance of Sanremo success in 2020 in the post-lockdown edition of the race before losing his opportunity to race through the northern classics after smashing his knee at the Tour de France. The 38-year-old was far from optimistic about the state of his knee this January and has a quiet season so far at the Tour de la Provence and Etoile de Besseges.

With just three weeks between his classics-opening ride at Omloop on Saturday and La Classicissima, Gilbert will be looking for positive signs when he tests his knee over 14 sectors of pavé Saturday. Gilbert will not be racing at Kuurne on Sunday as John Degenkolb leads Lotto-Soudal in the sprinter-friendly race.

Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen want to keep winning momentum

Pedersen and Stuyven are wanting to prove the classics aren’t all about MvdP and WvA in 2021. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Also read: Jasper Stuyven believes time on his side in monument quest on cobbles

Jasper Stuyven ruled the “opening weekend” last winter with victory at Omloop and a close fifth-place in Kuurne the day afterward, while Mads Pedersen scored big with victory at Gent-Wevelgem at the other end of the year.

The two Trek-Segafredo captains are set to start both races this weekend and will be looking to keep the momentum rolling after what were standout seasons for them both in 2020. With sprint-focussed Pedersen and more versatile Stuyven, the team has A-grade contenders for both Omloop and Kuurne, and when you pair the two together the threat tilts steeper than a Flandrien berg.

Both Stuyven and Pedersen came out swinging in their pre-season press conferences last month – for them, the classics are about van der Poel and van Aert.

Now is the time to prove it, and a show of force this weekend will set the tone for the season to come.

Tom Pidcock parachutes into the classics

Pidcock has the swagger and the skills to make waves in the classics. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Also read: No podium but a lot of promise for Tom Pidcock at cyclocross worlds

If Tom Pidcock is the new Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, now is his time to prove it. The 21-year-old Brit will be making his debut appearance at the “opening weekend” this year as he looks to add fizz to Ineos Grenadiers’ lackluster record on the cobbles.

Though the WorldTour rookie isn’t racing at the Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix as he focuses his attentions on the Ardennes classics, he’s got the all-terrain skills and the racing swagger to go far in the classics. He won the junior Roubaix in 2019, and this weekend will give hints at whether he has the legs to take the winner’s cobblestone in the senior race sometime in the future.