Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
It’s been a fine opening weekend for the spring classics, with fireworks set off in both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and in Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne. Let’s take a look back over the action in Belgium.
The Omloop, unlike Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, wasn’t being billed as a race for the pure sprinters; even so, favourite for the win with the bookmakers was Alexander Kristoff. The race was going to come down to how the thirteen bergs were ridden — it was up to Kristoff’s Katusha to annul any attacks on the climbs and cobbles, and to control the pace till the finish. And, for teams with stronger classics-style riders, it was their duty to split the race apart well before the flat 30km section leading all the way to the finish. There was also one other key question being asked before the start of the Omloop: was Sagan up for this? Or was he hoping to ride into form in time for the later, harder monuments?
On the day, a break went early and showed mixed quality, but amongst them was Alexis Gougeard for Ag2r, whose 2011 second place in the Paris-Roubaix Juniors made him one to watch, and who worked hard and took long turns on the front from the word go. The gap quickly drifted out to over 5 minutes, where it hung for a while, ahead of an Etixx-controlled peloton.
The riders began ticking the climbs off their list without much change in the pace, but disaster struck for Tosh Van Der Sande, Magnus Cort Nielsen, and Dennis Van Winden on the Kruisberg. A crash in the peloton, probably due to a touch of wheels from some cagey riding, brought the trio down and depleted the numbers in Lotto-Soudal, Orica-GreenEdge, and LottoNL-Jumbo’s ranks. The race rolled on towards the Taaienberg with 60km remaining.
The racers were twitchy, with everyone expecting big things to happen on the Taaienberg — Etixx had even highlighted it on the race schedule painted onto their stems. But, strangely, no Etixx attack came. Even Tom Boonen, who has made it a tradition of his to light up the race here, showed no real interest or motivation. Instead, it was Sky’s Luke Rowe who found a clean line in the run up to the climb, which allowed him to breeze out of the pack and set a blistering pace on the ascent. The narrowness of the climb helped him, and only a handful of riders got across to him: Tiesj Benoot, Greg Van Avermaet, and Peter Sagan. Wait a minute… weren’t those precisely our predictions in our Omloop preview? In fairness, Daniel Oss also made it across, but was almost immediately dropped thanks to another kick by Sagan. The race rolled on.
The four quickly gained ground on the much-depleted group of breakaway riders, and found themselves opening up about a minute on the peloton as they pursued the last of the escapees. Etixx immediately put their full force on the front of the group, recognising the threat to be found in Rowe, Sagan, GVA, and Benoot. But as they threaded their way out of a cobbled country lane and back onto proper tarmac, a muddy smear across the road caught out their strongest asset, Tony Martin. The big man fell hard as his tyre came out from under him, and, though he got straight back up, he lost valuable time. Etixx didn’t wait up for their man Martin, but the chase still lost momentum, plus its largest engine. This was exactly the opportunity the leaders needed, and they made the most of it by upping the tempo at the head of the race, and joining and working with the remnants of the original break.
Into the final 30km, it looked like a done deal for the breakaway, and discussion centred around who would have the best sprint on them when they got back to Ghent. The peloton were chasing still, but gained fewer than ten seconds over more than 15km. Right into the last 15km, the gap held at around 50 seconds. But going into the outskirts of Ghent, there was a sudden surge in the pack thanks to Katusha, who were looking out for Kristoff — who had had an unfortunate mechanical issue with 35km to go — and showing signs that they believed there could be a sprint finish after all. The gap began falling at a tremendous rate, and the riders, going into the last 5km, were down to fewer than 20 seconds; motorbikes were pulled out of the gap, riders worked furiously at their pedals, the audience held their breath.
Despite the increase in pace, and the speeding peloton now visible behind them, the depleted escapees held on. Into the final kilometre, the game of cat and mouse began, but all knew they couldn’t mess around for two long. Van Avermaet opened the sprint first, from a long way back, and the early effort caught the others by surprise. Sagan and Benoot latched on, but Benoot couldn’t quite hold the pace, and Sagan couldn’t find enough road left to get past Van Avermaet. GVA took his first Belgian classic for BMC, which will be some recompense for the fact that their more experience classics-man, Philippe Gilbert, had also taken a tumble earlier in the race. Sagan got second on the day, and Benoot completed our triptych of predictions by coming in third. It’s worth thinking about what that means for a moment: it’s a significant achievement for Benoot, and bodes well for his spring campaign. The Welshman Luke Rowe came in fourth, meaning Sky, and Great Britain, narrowly missed out on the podium. Etixx, though, were once again outfoxed in the Omloop.
As stated above, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne was, on paper, a sprinter’s feast, and the stage was set (we thought) for a showdown between Kristoff and Sagan. Andre Greipel, meanwhile, had indeed not been able to sign on for the race, given his recent injuries.
There was no hurry to chase the eleven-strong morning break, and the gap peaked at over eight minutes before it began to shrink again. (It was good to see Yanto Barker for ONE Pro Cycling make the break; it was the British squad’s debut at the classics this weekend, and, with Kristian House also in the previous day’s breakaway, they were showing they were up for it). By the time the pace was put on in the peloton, there was less than 80km remaining, and the day’s climbs were well underway. The famous Oude Kwaremont was hit at speed, which put a further dent into the break’s lead. Peter Sagan attacked, and took with him the eventual race winner Jasper Stuyven for a brief spell up the road. This was to prove a decisive shift in the action, as many riders couldn’t hold the pace. We had to say goodbye to one of our predictions, Sky’s talented sprinter Elia Viviani, who would not make it back to the front groups for the remainder of the day.
The climbs weakened other riders, too. Race favourite Alexander Kristoff looked like he was coping badly, swaying from side to side on the climbs, and relying heavily on team support to keep him in contact. And it wasn’t long until Sam Bennett, who has not had much luck this season, retired from the race altogether. But Sagan was going from strength to strength; he was going hard on the climbs, trying out little opportunistic digs every so often, and generally riding with confidence and with what looked like joy. However, he was leaving behind his entire team during the process, and that would cost him later. He was the only Tinkoff rider who would finish the race at all.
With the gap now hanging at 2 minutes, and into the final 65km, there was a large chasing group which featured Sagan, Kristoff, Caleb Ewan, and Nacer Bouhanni. The chase at this point was led by Lotto-Soudal, who were guarding Jurgen Roelandts, and the likes of Katusha were happy to coast a bit for now. Lotto put in amazing work in a particularly windy section, and threatened to split the race altogether — but the riders behind clung on. The next major move didn’t come until around 48km to go. Sagan and GVA, between them, were trying to repeat the trick that got them on the podium the previous day; they rode hard, and split the race up significantly. They found themselves ahead of the peloton but behind the breakaway, in the company of Salvatore Puccio, Jurgen Roelandts, Jasper Stuyven, and Julien Vermote (apart from Vermote’s canny move here, Etixx were quiet for much of the day). Thanks to hard work and further digs by Sagan and Vermote in particular, they soon found the leader, and were heading the race.
But again, this was not Stuyven’s winning move. The group quickly came back together as one 40-man peloton — with the exception of one or two riders from the morning break about to be caught — with many big sprinters still represented. Into the last 40km, new attacks at the front fatally tore the race apart. Debusschere and Bouhanni had missed the moves and were in the rear group, and so was Caleb Ewan. Despite the fact that Orica had got a man in the front of the race (yesterday’s casualty, Magnus Cort Nielsen), their numbers formed around Ewan. It was up to them to chase down the attack.
Also at the front were Omloop’s winner Greg Van Avermaet, Tom Boonen and Julien Vermote for Etixx (Vermote had been busy all day), Sky’s Luke Rowe, and the seemingly ever-present Jasper Stuyvens. There was no sight of Peter Sagan in any of the lead groups now, and his KBK was over. The first incident with a moto of 2016 occurred minutes later, with Lotto-Soudal’s Stig Broeckx getting floored by a medic bike. Broeckx has been hospitalized but is said to be doing well; we do not yet know what words are being exchanged between Lotto and the race commissars.
The race came down to a tense last 15km, in which time gaps stubbornly held, despite a frantic chase. 15km to go marked the final lap around Kuurne before the finish, and it was just into this lap that Stuyven went long. He had about 15-20 seconds on the nearest chasers, whilst the much-depleted forces behind were a further 30 seconds back. It looked like a plucky but ultimately ill-fated move, with a long ride left to the line.
But Stuyven held on. Working well on his own, he powered away and solidified his advantage, at a crucial point in the race when the chasers, including Greg Van Avermaet, were all looking at one another. Tired legs and tired minds behind him meant that Stuyven could sneak his way into a more comfortable 40 second lead over the nearest men on the road. It was touch and go, especially as the newly motivated Katusha-driven peloton were sweeping up the rest of the break, but Stuyven came up to the line with enough empty road between him and the chase to luxuriate in the win. Hands off the bars and held over his head, and a grin from ear to ear, he saluted for the cameras as he came across the line, for a well-deserved win. There was a sprint for the minor places, with Katusha proving their man Kristoff was the best sprinter in the race, even if it hadn’t ended the way they’d wanted. Bouhanni took third, but we have to look down to seventh place to spot Sagan. Luke Rowe, who’d been in the front group with Stuyven but began to suffer inside the last 10km, finished in 84th.
A note to say that our man James had tried to persuade us to put more emphasis on Jasper Stuyven, a winner of Paris – Roubaix Juniors in 2010, as a good outsider in our preview. We’re sorry we didn’t listen! See you all at the Strade Bianche.