Saturday not only marks the start of the season proper for the men's peloton,this is the first major race for the women as well. While we have heard news of a lot of races in trouble the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is alive and well, organized under the flandersclassics umbrella along with the other major flandrian (men's) races. Hint,hint, nudge nudge to other organizers out there. Women's racing can and should thrive in co-existance , not be squeezed out.
Find out more about the start of the women's european season on the flip.
Whereas the men's race has been around since the end of WW2, this is only the 5:th edition of the women's race. Starting last year, the races are now also held on the same day and share the same start and finish. The courses for the two races differ quite a lot tough so the women's race is not merely a shorter version. The change made in location of the finish has shortened the women's race this year by 3 km to 126 km but that should have little impact. What they have done is basically leave the parcourse from last year unaltered and simply eliminated a few km's within the city of Gent. If anything the new finish is better suited to the traditional sprinters and less to the powerhouse-riders who preferred the uphill dragrace.
The women's route take them over these 7 climbs.
Moregemplein, Kluisberg (not to be confused with the cobbled Kruisberg used by the men) , Cóte de Trieu, Paterberg (cobbled), Edelareberg, Wolvenberg, Molenberg (cobbled).
The longest of these is the 1000m, 8% Kluisberg and the nastiest no doubt the 360m 12,9% Paterberg well known from the Tour of Flanders. For those that don't remember - 90 degree right turn straight onto an almost vertical cobbled wall followed by carnage. Does that jog your memory?
As with the men's race the last climb comes quite far from the finish, about 35 km. Eventhough there are some cobbled stretches, most notably the Paddestraat and Lange Munte, on the run in to the finish the women's race has generally ended in a largish group sprint. The parcours definitely appears slightly less selective than the men's.
As for favorites for the race, the Queen of the Omloop is Dutchwoman Susanne de Goede who has won here 2 of the 4 times the race has been held,the inaugural race in 2006 and last year. In 2008 the race was won by the current world no. 2 Kirsten Wild and in 2007 by danish supertalent Mie Bekker Lacota. Lacota at age 19 sadly walked away from what looked like a magnificent career shortly after winning the race, citing motivation issues and being burned out after competing at a high level from an early age. By the time she retired she had already amassed quite a list of results both on the road and the track.
Apart from De Goede who this year rides for the Nederland Bloeit (Marianne Vos's team), and the top sprinter Kirsten Wild on Cervélo some other favorites include:
Red Sun's Emma Johansson and Ludivine Henrion, who have both done well here before. Henrion is the current belgian champion
Martine Bras of the Dutch National Team looked impressive in the Ladies Tour of Qatar and was fourth here in 2008
Chantal Blaak of Leontien.nl is the current European U23 Champion and finished just off the podium last year.
Local Topsport Vlaanderen girl Kelly Druyts is coming off a good winter on the track and was third here already last year at age 19. She is perhaps the best bet for a popular flandrian win?
Teamwise the OHN has a slightly weaker field than the higher ranked WorldCup races. The most notable absence is the HTC -Columbia powerhouse and the startlist contains a number of local teams. Most likely to dominate the race is Cervélo who not only have Kirsten Wild for the sprint but also the strong Sarah Düster and veteran Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel along with strong support.
Unfortunately, as exciting as it may be, we will with 99% certainty not be seeing any live images from the race.