This weekend marks for many the ‘official’ start of the cycling season (despite that not being in any way an ‘official’ designation). It brings the first pair of this year’s tough Northern European one-day races, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne on Sunday. Both are Belgian races, both are littered with climbs and cobbled sections, and both will act as testing grounds for some of the more prestigious ‘Monuments’ that lie ahead: Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, and the Paris-Roubaix.
The Omloop is Belgium’s first major race of the year, and so the weekend in general tends to draw out the crowds (despite the February weather). The Omloop course runs from Ghent out through the region of the Flemish Ardennes, before returning to Ghent again for the finish. It’s around 200km, with thirteen short, sharp climbs, or ‘bergs‘, with which to contend. It’s also a dress-rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders, which takes place on much of the same terrain. The KBK is, as the name suggests, one long loop (around 192km), although it doesn’t, as the name also suggests, make it all the way to Brussels. It’s also got fewer hills to tackle, and, with around 50km of flat before the finish, it tends to be a bit more sprint-friendly than the Omloop. It’s also worth noting that no one in the history of these back-to-back races has ever ‘done the double’ and won both the Omloop and the KBK. Both races suit strong, punchy riders who go well in the less clement climate of late-winter Northern Europe, but KBK is certainly the race that draws in more sprinters. There’s a few standout names this year, surrounded by constellations of plausible outsiders. To help you through the opening classics weekend, here’s our roundup of the likely candidates.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Given that the Omloop features a range of leg-sapping climbs over a long distance, coupled with the treachery of cobbled roads, the selection of possible winners is kept fairly wide. Additionally, the last climb of the day, the never-before featured Boembekeberg, occurs with only 32km remaining. This means that there’s a very high chance that the race will dissolve on the climbs into an elite group, one that is unlikely to be caught by a sprinter-laden peloton. This should set the stage for a late solo attack, or else a greatly-diminished bunch sprint in Ghent.
Naturally, one of the names on everyone’s lips at the moment is Peter Sagan. Sagan hasn’t been up to much so far this year; he rode the Tour of San Luis and managed a best place of second to Fernando Gaviria. But the man from Slovakia has arguably just been stretching his legs so far, in time for the more serious racing that lies ahead. And, wearing his fresh white and rainbow striped World Champion’s jersey, he’ll be hungry for an early-season win. The big question will be whether he’s holding something back for Milan-Sanremo and the other monuments, but you can bet he’ll at least have a go on Saturday, and, with the likes of Oscar Gatto, Daniele Bennati, and Adam Blythe there to back him up, he’s looking good for a podium spot
Etixx have, as ever, a super-strong classics-style team drawn up for the Omloop. Joint leadership will go to Belgian hero Tom Boonen and experienced classics man Niki Terpstra. Last year, Boonen and Terpstra, along with Stijn Vandenbergh (who will also be present), were part of the three-pronged Etixx attack in the final stages that somehow still lost out to Sky’s Ian Stannard. You can bet there will have been serious talks coming from the team coaches ahead of this year’s event, and expect them to come in with a tight gameplan. Undoubtedly part of whatever that plan is will be Tony Martin, the man with the biggest engine in the peloton and the man who can singlehandedly tear a race apart, if he times his attacks well on the cobbles or in a strong headwind. Whatever happens on Saturday, expect Etixx to be involved in the final.
A major piece of news concerning the Omloop is that Sky’s Ian Stannard won’t be racing. Stannard won this race the past two years, in what must be called sensational style, and his absence this year might be welcome news to Boonen and Terpstra. The Sky plan is to keep Stannard’s form back for the monuments, when he’ll test his motor against the gruelling cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Instead, Sky are pinning their hopes on the young Brit Luke Rowe, who rode to a ninth place finish in last year’s Paris-Roubaix. He’ll be looking to take advantage of the space left by Geraint Thomas in the core of Sky’s classics team, as ‘G’ turns his focus instead to week-long stage racing.
Another extraordinarily powerful team this year will be BMC, who are lining up two captains: Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert. The duo finished sixth and eighth respectively last year, and were never far from the head of affairs until the race disintegrated in the last 10km. Gilbert’s having a fine 2016 already, with a win in the Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia. But Van Avermaet’s season has been nothing short of brilliant, despite his failure to hit the top step of the podium. He’s hit second twice, and had a handful of high rankings, but taking third overall in the Tour of Qatar bespeaks the consistency with which he’s been riding, and he’s been tackling uphill finishes just as capably as flat-out sprints. The rolling terrain in Belgium puts him as the bookies’ favourite going into Saturday’s race, and with backup from the likes of Jean-Pierre Drucker and Daniel Oss, this could be a great opportunity for GVA, who was pipped on the line by Stannard in 2014.
There are a handful of other names well worth the mention. Lotto Soudal are lining up the duo of Tiesj Benoot and Jurgen Roelandts, a pair who could really do some damage this weekend. Benoot is pretty handy on this sort of terrain, with a fifth place in the Tour of Flanders last year, and he’s been steadily gaining form this season. We can’t forget Alexander Kristoff for Katusha, though he’s already shown this year that he suits the powerful flat sprints much better than hill work — but more on Kristoff below. FDJ have their man Arnaud Démare, who’ll be getting good support from stalwarts Yoann Offredo and Johan Le Bon. However, Démare hasn’t quite managed to deliver since taking his World Under-23 win in 2011, and it would be surprising to see him hit the top spots here. A more handsome outsider bet would go towards Edward Theuns, who has excellent pedigree in this sort of event, and comes with the highly impressive support of Giacomo Nizzolo and Boy Van Poppel. LottoNL-Jumbo are not quite living up to their reputation as a classics squad, and are placing their hopes on riders like Moreno Hofland, who has a handful of decent and recent result, and Mike Teunissen. Giant-Alpecin, however, are not back on their legs after the recent crash at their training camp, and have withdrawn their team from the startlist altogether.
…For some taller odds and some real outsiders, it would be worth looking to the following riders, who will all be looking to get involved: Orica-GreenEdge’s Jens Keukeleire, Direct Énergie’s Sylvain Chavanel, ONE Pro Cycling’s Yanto Barker, Stölting Service Group’s Gerald Ciolek, and Topsport’s Amaury Capiot.
Picks for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
James’s pick for this one is Tiesj Benoot. Benoot will be looking to build on his performance in Flanders last year, on similar roads to the Omloop. If he out-performs Jurgen Roelandts early in the Belgian races, he’ll no doubt earn his right to ride as team captain for Lotto in the bigger races down the line. With some good recent performances in the Trofeo Pollenca-Port de Andratx and Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana, as well a the taking the best young rider in the Volta ao Algarve, it might be a big ask for Benoot to win here, but it certainly isn’t beyond his powers.
Andy likes Greg Van Avermaet for this one. GVA’s form has only not brought him big wins this year because he excels on exactly the same sorts of terrain as Edvald Boasson Hagen, who has cleaned up in their head-on-head contests. With no EBH to be seen, and plenty of sharp climbs and tough cobbles to digest, this year’s Omloop suits GVA’s build, and his current form could bring him within reach of his first big win of the year.
Chris is backing Peter Sagan for this. Sagan is cunning enough to keep up with the moves that Etixx will no doubt be making, and he’s got the time-trial powers to bridge gaps, the strong arms and legs to haul himself over the many bergs and cobbled sections the race throws at the riders, and, crucially, the almighty kick that could throw him over the line first. This could be the start of a beautiful classics campaign from our World Champ.
N.B., none of us has picked an Etixx rider this year. This may be something we go on to regret.
Thankfully, KBK is a much easier race for which to pick out favourites. With over 50km of fairly straightforward, cobble- and climb-free road leading in to the finish, we are almost certainly going to see a proper bunch sprint once the riders get back to Kuurne. Given what we’ve seen so far in the season, and looking at the names on the startlist, this gives us some obvious candidates.
First off, though he might not be in the top tier for the Omloop, it’s hard to look past Alexander Kristoff for the Sunday race. In fact, you can bet he’ll take it relatively easy on Saturday to conserve some power for the Sunday sprint. He must surely be prime pick, given his extraordinary displays this year, including five stages won in conditions not unlike the arrival to Kuurne. The desert in the weather might have been significantly milder, but Kristoff also tends to go well in the damper, cooler races.
The other all-out power sprinter is Andre Greipel. There have been doubts cast over Greipel in the past year, as he, along with Mark Cavendish, has had to make room for a new generation of masterclass sprinters. He has already been beaten in a sprint by Marcel Kittel this year alone. However, he’s also won two of the Spanish Trofeos, too, and he swept past Alexander Kristoff to win in last year’s late-season Vattenfall Cyclassics. However, Greipel suffered a fractured rib in the recent Volta ao Algarve, and he is not yet, at the time of writing, officially lined up to race Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne. If he feels fit enough to sign on, though, you can bet he’s fit enough to make the podium.
Another good bet is Peter Sagan, who will be up there amongst the best of the sprinters on Sunday however he decides to ride on Saturday. Sagan’s reputation for always coming second in the pure sprint finishes doesn’t indicate that Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne will be his for the taking, however, we’d be surprised to see him land anyway short of at least the top five.
Behind those three superstars are a range of other talented sprinters. Nacer Bouhanni is a rider we might have once picked to win this sort of race in the past. But results have been few and far between in the last year, and he’s building more of a reputation for temper tantrums than he is for sprint victories these days. He’s already been beaten by Greipel once this year, and, despite a solid win in the Vuelta a Andalucia just a week ago, Bouhanni will have his work cut out to topple Kristoff’s might or to stay on Sagan’s wheel. Meanwhile, Etixx are pinning hopes on Tom Boonen. Boonen’s not a terrible pick for this kind of race, but we’d expect him to expend a lot of energy on the Saturday, meaning Sunday might be a harder race for him than for others. Sky have got Elia Viviani, who is a much better choice to make podium, we think, than either Boonen or Bouhanni. With the support of Luke Rowe and a lead out by Salvatore Puccio, Sky have got a good, well-drilled team together for the KBK. Greg Van Avermaet will also be riding both races, and is likely to feature in the top ten, but perhaps not much better. And we can also expect strong performances from Trek’s Giacomo Nizzolo, FDJ’s Arnaud Démare, IAM’s Matteo Pelucchi, and Wanty’s Roy Jans (who has shown exceptional form in the recent Arabian tours). But for a truly fine outside pick, look no further than Orica-GreenEdge: their man Caleb Ewan is looking great for the more sprint-friendly classics this year, and he has, in the past year, out-sprinted some of the real heavyweights of the peloton. KBK might be a great start to Orica’s spring campaign, and they’re supporting Ewan with seasoned classics rider Jens Keukeleire and the hard-working Matthew Hayman, so he should be one step ahead of all the late moves and will at very least be around to contest the sprint.
Picks for Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne
James was first to make a pick, so got dibs on Alexander Kristoff. Kristoff’s form is undeniable, and the flat, wide run into Kuurne means it will be a real surprise if Katusha aren’t leading the race towards the finish line. James thinks that Norway’s finest will undoubtedly be adding to his already impressive tally of wins on Sunday.
Andy isn’t perturbed by all the talk of Kristoff and Greipel, and is picking Sky’s Elia Viviani for the sprint. Viviani headed an all-Italian podium on Stage 2 of the Dubai Tour this year, and Andy hasn’t forgotten his three stage wins in the Tour of Britain at the end of last season, when he each time outfoxed Cavendish and Greipel. This looks like a great chance for another display of canny manoeuvrability and smart positioning from the Italian.
Chris is counting on Kristoff losing his line, Greipel not suffering from injuries, and the door being left wide open for none other than the World Champion, Peter Sagan. Yes, Chris is backing Sagan to be the first person to pull off the Omloop-KBK double. He’s currently seeing odds of around 55/1 at the bookmakers, but remains faithful.
Note: An earlier version of this article suggested the Omloop is a World Tour race; it is in fact rated 1.HC in the UCI Europe Tour, not the World Tour. The article also incorrectly suggested the race ended in ‘Ardennes’, rather than it being raced through the Flemish Ardennes region.