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Why it’s so hard to predict who can win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

An uneven runway to the Belgian classics and off-season moves see the 2021 edition harder than usual to gauge.

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Milano-Sanremo is historically one of the hardest races to predict on the international calendar. Why? The course isn’t that selective, and with the race packing monument status, there are at least 20 riders at the start line with realistic chances to win. Add the sprint-versus-late-attack tug-a-war, and the Italian classicissima delivers surprises every spring.

Add Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to that list of “hard to predict” races.

The traditional Belgian calendar opener is equally to slim down the pre-race favorites’ list. And perhaps even more so in 2021. Why? Here are a few reasons.

Untested legs, unbridled ambition

Annemiek Van Vleuten won last year’s Omloop, but will race with a new team this weekend. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

First off, several favorites haven’t even raced yet in 2021, including defending champions Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). Van Vleuten is making her high-profile debut in Movistar colors, while Stuyven was scheduled to race at the Volta ao Algarve, but the Portuguese stage race was canceled due to COVID-19.

“I don’t see it as a disadvantage that I haven’t raced yet,” Stuyven told Sporza. “Obviously, I don’t have a reference or I couldn’t gain any self-confidence from a podium here or there.”

Racing anywhere, of course, helps riders with leg speed in race conditions and allows athletes to gauge their form and plan final-hour tweaks to preparation. Not racing also has a few advantages, including reducing the risk of crashes and injuries.

This year is also different in that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic took many early season races out at the knees, forcing riders like van Vleuten and Stuyven to schedule additional training camps rather than to race some of the early season dates. Van Vleuten headed to Spain’s Canary Islands with her new teammates and put in some long training miles.

In contrast, riders like Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) have raced, and in some cases, won already in 2021. That confirmation could play out Saturday.

Who will have the advantage? Our hunch: riders who’ve raced this season.

New teams versus established routines

A new jersey but familiar bike for Greg Van Avermaet in 2021. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images) 

Another twist on Omloop is that another handful of pre-race favorites will be racing with new teammates and on new equipment.

Though the elite of the peloton is professional across the board, any sort of significant changes in teams or equipment will play out in early races. Just look at Chris Froome making his season debut in Israel Start-Up Nation at the UAE Tour this week.

The four-time Tour de France champion is clearly working out the kinks with his new teammates and equipment after racing for more than a decade on the same team and same bike. Froome lost more than one minute to Tadej Pogačar in a 13km time trial and then got popped on his first summit finale in 2021

“For me personally, I am feeling better and better as the race goes on,” Froome said Thursday. “I definitely need more of these race stages, but step by step, hopefully, things are coming together for me.”

Does that mean Froome won’t be a factor later in 2021? No. Is it a contributing factor to his showing this week? Yes.

Froome, of course, isn’t racing at Omloop, but a slow start after a high-profile transfer isn’t a surprise for any rider. Van Vleuten, who had her system wired at Mitchelton-Scott, will be surrounded by new teammates and will be racing on a new bike. Greg Van Avermaet, in contrast, seems to have eased into move to the new-look Ag2r-Citroën with relative ease, and is showing signs that he’s on track for spring classics success without much of a hiccup. Also at Ag2r-Citroën, Van Avermaet is still racing on BMC bikes, upon which he won Paris-Roubaix and some of career-best results.

“I’m usually pretty good at the beginning of the season,” Van Avermaet said. “That’s probably why I’ve won it twice before.”

Several teams have their classics routines down pat, with Deceuninck-Quick-Step dipping into their traditional playbook of multiple options across all races. The Belgian super-team is sure to deploy its tried-and-true strategies this weekend.

Will it be an advantage against riders racing following a big change? Most likely it will.

Experience counts, but no guarantee

Alaphilippe will take to the Start at the Omloop — and it won’t be his season debut. Photo: James Startt

Experience counts for a lot in the spring classics, and riders like van Vleuten or former winners Anna van der Breggen (SD-Worx) or Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) know what it takes to win.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step, the perennial favorite in any spring classic, along with heavyweights Lotto-Soudal or Trek-Segafredo on the men’s side pack the experience and racing acumen to win in the classics.

Perhaps more so than with the established monuments, Omloop is often a launching pad for fringe classics teams looking to punch above their weight or emerging riders to step into the fore. Because the race is still early in the calendar and the top classics favorites are on a slow boil for an April peak, the Omloop can deliver the surprise winner. Think Ian Stannard or a young Michael Valgren. Those riders would later emerge as legitimate contenders but have never broken through to win a monument.

“We have a strong team, and that always helps during the classics,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens, who will line up as a favorite Saturday. “I personally don’t think it makes a big difference [if someone has raced yet]. When it’s your first race, you’re motivated, and you can simulate the race in your training. I don’t think it’s a big difference if you did preparation races for tomorrow.”

Big teams with deep rosters have a big advantage across the classics. Often it’s a numbers game, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step on the men’s side and Trek-Segafredo on the women’s side can play that card better than any team. Having said that, Deceuninck-Quick-Step has won Omloop only once — in 2019 with Zdeněk Štybar — in the past 10 years.

The advantage, at least on Saturday, goes to good legs over a deep roster.

First big test of the classics season

Anna van der Breggen will return as a former winner with SD-Worx in her final Omloop. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Every season starts with a clean slate. What happened in 2020 won’t count for much at the start line Saturday in Ghent.

Sure, van Vleuten might be defending champion, but that doesn’t mean she will have a huge advantage against her rivals Saturday except knowing what to expect. Deceuninck-Quick-Step looks to be on an early boil, but Omloop traditionally is a race packed with surprises.

World champion Julian Alaphilippe, who made his debut at Tour of Flanders last year in an impressive only to be upended in a freak crash, is lining up at Omloop with the intention of making a big splash in the rainbow jersey. The Frenchman isn’t going full Flemish this year, and he will still be racing a heavy Italian schedule at Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milano-Sanremo, but Omloop and Flanders both figure highly in his spring calendar.

“Julian will have another nice shot of showing what he is capable of doing on the Flemish roads, after last year’s De Ronde,” said Deceuninck-Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels. “It will be great to see him ride a prestigious race as Omloop clad in the rainbow jersey.”

The first major races in the season always see heightened anticipation and new hopes. That’s more true for the women, which open their 2021 calendar at Omloop after seeing several early season races canceled or postponed. Van der Breggen, racing in her final Omloop with her new-look SD-Worx team, will have special motivation in every race she starts this year.

Everyone is keen to race, from the newbie pros to the established veterans.

“I think it’s a special season like last year, and a lot of guys haven’t raced yet, and it’s always hard to know where you are compared to the others,” said two-time winner Philippe Gilbert on Friday. “From what I’ve seen from the other races, it’s a very high level this year. Everyone was training really hard this winter because they’re all scared that the season will be shortened again. Everyone thinks this race is the last, and pretty much you take every race as the last one, and you give everything. I have this feeling it’s just really high level.”

What no one knows is who will win. Omloop always delivers surprises. And it always confirms who will be in contention for the monuments looming on the horizon.