Actually I don't fancy taking shots at who will win anything in February, but it's the Omloop. I can't help myself. I even sat down last night to watch the 2009 edition, with the ever-entertaining all-Rabo attack that looked incredibly cool until you really thought about it, or noticed that they barely grabbed the last podium spot for all their efforts. (Thor Hushovd won.)
[Read our Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Course Preview]
Anyway, this year's should be harder, or that's what Peter Van Petegem had in mind. You can't actually make races harder, only the riders can. So if they add an extra climb or two, and the pack delays commencement of hostilities for an extra 10km, then it's all a wash. But, regardless, it will be 200km of swashbuckling good times, if for no other reason than that the cameras will be on. And because, like me, a lot of guys just get excited about racing in Belgium.
One thing we know is this:
Heh. You see what I did there? Anyway, we know this: Garmin-Cervelo come in as the team with the most, erm, interest. Pressure? Maybe, though not being a Belgian team means they don't necessarily know what that word means here. But they had the noisiest offseason, and they hired the Omloop race director as a strategist for the cobbles. They also possess the 2009 winner, Hushovd, who will be re-debut'ing his world championship stripes -- I know, he raced in Oman, but does that count?
[Peruse a startlist HERE.]
The GarVeloMen are bringing their veteran (cough) team: Thor, Hammond, Klier, Van Summeren, Millar, Lloyd, Rasch, and the young(er) Maaskant. Thor could be a very conspicuous decoy here; there will be no shortage of guys on his wheel, and Garmin will struggle to share the spoils this spring, so sending Hammond or Klier on the attack would be a nice distribution of resources. If it's a sprint finish, then Thor's back on.
At least four other teams will come here with chips on their shoulder:
- Sky have defending champ Flecha and Kurt-Asle Arvesen leading the way for this squad which ended 2010 on a down note. Oh, and Edvald Boasson Hagen, a pick to win if he were fully on form, which is hard to tell. You would think after his achilles scotched his classics season last year Sky would maybe take things a bit slower, but I dunno, Eddy Boss doesn't take many races off.
- Quick Step will be well aware that they're expected to do something, even after last year's underwhelming spring campaign. Possibly even more so, as a result. Boonen, Chavanel, Steegmans and Terpstra give them probably the deepest, strongest lineup in the race, on paper. But Terpstra quit the Algarve, feeling weak, so I'd look to one of the others.
- Like Quick Step, Omega Pharma will mean business Saturday, by which I mean Philippe Gilbert will be on hand, by which I mean Gilbert will be attacking for the win. It's not a great course for him, since the last climb where he can decimate the field is about 35km from the line. But he won from 50k in 2008. Hey, whatever it takes.
- VacansOleil are fighting for their licensing lives, and if they aren't angry/motivated by the UCI's plans to "review" their world tour license, then perhaps they don't need one after all. From the looks of their lineup, however, they're coming with guns blazing: Devolder, Leukemans, Marcato, De Gendt, and Bozic in case of a sprint. Leukemans has been off his bike battling a tissue problem too horrible for me to type, so he'll just be getting in his miles. But Marcato, De Gendt and Devolder have all been very active in the past month. And if anyone has a chip on his shoulder during a race in Belgium, it has to be Devolder.
- Rabobank -- Like HTC with duller fangs, the Oranje will be armed and interesting. Lars Boom and Seb Langeveld are the leaders, and Boom has looked strong already.
- HTC -- do these guys ever take a day off? I dunno, but after Eisel it looks like they're sending the kiddie corps for some experience: Rasmussen, Ghyselinck, Degenkolb, Smukulis. Still, it's a great course for Eisel.
- BMC -- no Hincapie, but don't be fooled, the rest of the cobbles squad is here. Burghardt might be the leader, although he's not likely to be on peak form. Greg Van Avermaet is probably the more motivated one, with something to prove to his homeland fans. Kroon and Quinziato will be on hand too.
- Katusha -- another team that just invested in its cobbles squad, and will be anxious to get its name heard over the shouting about Garmin, leopard, etc. Pozzato and Hoste are the leaders, but the depth is impressive: Paolini, Ivanov, Kuschynski, Vandenbergh and Vantomme. Hm...
And some final names not to be missed: Jens Keukeleire (COF), Bobby Traksel (Landbouwkrediet), Jimmy Casper (Saur-Sojasun), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar). Got any others?
My pick to win... Boom. In a sprint with Devolder.