It's quite a testament to the beauty and fun of the Tour of California that I nearly made it to Wednesday before even mentioning that the spring cobbles season kicks off this weekend with the Omloop Het Volk Nieuwsblad. It's the moment we have all been waiting for, so it's time to crack up the collective-obsession-O-meter. By Saturday, the 2009 Cycling season will be officially underway.
First, a little history: the Omloop Het Volk was started in 1945 by the Het Volk newspaper, with an aim to creating a rival race with Het Nieuwsblad's Tour of Flanders. Mission not exactly accomplished, and obviously it didn't save the newspaper either, as Het Volk closed its doors last year. With Het Nieuwsblad taking over the race too, I suppose that battle was a rout. But I won't try to insert myself into Flemish circulation wars; the bottom line is that Het Volk etched its place in the spring cycling season as the traditional opening event, and the show goes on.
What matters most to fans I suppose is the sight of the peloton, including many of the local heroes, bouncing over the cobbles of Flanders. As for the riders, it's still a little early to be sending messages, but the similarity between this race and De Ronde means that it's not a bad time to get the cobbles sensations going in the legs.
Like last year there are 11 bergs (hills) and another eight sections of cobbles. The only notable change is that they have eliminated the Grotenberge at km 73 and replaced it with... the Muur van Geraardsbergen, arguably the most famous climb in Belgium. Now, the Muur comes with 100km left to race, but the succession of the Leberg-Berendries-Valkenberg-Tenbosse-Muur is basically the conclusion of this year's Ronde, minus the Eikenmolen and Bosberg.
And that's really the point of the race: a pretty meaty opening act to the Greatest Show on Earth, the Cobbles season. Barring the occasional snowstorm (lovely weather predicted this year), the Omloop is part sneak preview, part dress rehearsal, and its own special act. More on the Omloop's honor roll tomorrow.