First, the name. After being known for 63 years as the Omloop Het Volk, or just Het Volk -- a simple name even to us angelsachians -- it's still hard to get accustomed to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. If you weren't around last year for the changeover, on the surface this was simply a matter of one newspaper absorbing an asset from a failing "sister" newspaper. Though the Omloop was started as Het Volk's answer to HNB's Tour of Flanders, the papers had actually merged in 2000. And last year Het Volk ceased to be. Is there no room in Belgium for "real news with a human undertone?" No, apparently. So instead of being named after "the people," cycling's season opener is now named after "the news paper." I'll go with just "the Omloop."
I liken the Omloop to opening day for baseball in Fenway Park. To the fans, it's a beautiful pageant and a symbol that spring has arrived, to their great relief. For one day, at least, the race -- like early April baseball in Boston -- masks the fact that it still isn't all that nice outside, and after a long winter even a day of pretending is welcomed. The athletes, on the other hand, can be forgiven for holding less charitable views: they've just come from six weeks of sunshine and palm trees, and standing around in scant clothing they are more likely to notice what looks like a snowstorm brewing on the horizon. Every so often nature does the talking for them, smothering the fans' optimism with a few inches of reality and canceling the race or the game. And even if things go as planned, the day's exuberance wears off pretty quickly and gives way to the drudgery of cold-weather baseball, or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
So, when the 65th Omloop goes off this Saturday, enjoy the day's festivities, thank the riders for putting on a good show, and settle in for a long, hard haul. By which, of course, I mean Paris-Nice.
OK, the course: this year's edition is a pretty traditional Omloop, starting and ending in Gent with a clockwise circuit that takes in a dozen climbs in the Vlaamse Ardennen:
- Leberg: 700 meters, 6.1% avg, 14% max
- Berendries: 930m, 7% avg, 12.3% max
- Valkenberg: 875m, 6% avg, 15% max
- Tenbosse: 450m, 6.9% avg, 8.7% max
- Eikenmolen: 610m, 5.9% avg, 12.5% max
- Muur/Kappelmuur: 1075m, 9.2% avg 19.8% max (cobbled)
- La Houppe (Pottelberg): 1300m, 6.5% avg, 8% max
- Nieuwe Kruisberg: 1000m, 6% avg (cobbled)
- Taaienberg: 800m, 7.1% avg, 18% max (cobbled)
- Eikenberg: 1252m, 5.8% avg, 10% max (cobbled)
- Wolvenberg: 666m, 6.8% avg, 17.3% max
- Molenberg: 463m, 7% avg, 14.2% max (cobbled)
All of these climbs are in East Flanders except La Houppe, in Hainault. Also, the Nieuwe Kruisberg is not to be confused with the old Kruisberg, the next road over. Sprinkled around the course are numerous cobbled sectors, including about 6500 meters worth of cobbles in the 15k following the last climb. To wit:
Lastly, the final stretch is no picnic, with a slight incline in the drag to the line. See if you can spot it among the flying carbon tubes and bodies of last year:
Omloop Nieuwsblad 2009 laatste kilometer (via superkrediet)
Power sprint. After 204km, 12 rated climbs and some ridiculous total of cobbles. in somewhat crap February weather. Should be fun. Next up: the contenders. Will I wait til closer to the race to write that piece and build the tension? Probably... not.