Seeing as the season has already been under way for weeks it might seem confusing to the casual observer why anyone would get giddy with excitement and call a race now a "season opener". But the fact remains, just as our FSA DS competition, the season really does start for real next Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Gent. Maybe this was more true in the days before the outside-Europe early races turned from glorified training camps into fully fledged competitive races but the fact remains, the Omloop is spiritually where things get serious.
Nowhere is this more tangible than here at the Podiumcafe where we pride ourselves with the mission of converting people to the One Truth, that the true peak of the season is not three weeks in July but rather in those days in early April that contain both the Tour of Flanders and the Paris - Roubaix. Omloop signals the starts of that Classics season and while it is still an early teaser with a few weeks until the monuments it is a race that is about as hotly contested as any other on the calendar. After a long winter of speculation around team moves, which riders will make the cobbles their priority, injuries etc. we will finally get some first answers this weekend. And undoubtedly while we get a few answers we will also get twice as many new questions to mull over in the weeks before the big show. That's the beauty of classics-season, it has so much build- up for such a short explosive climax. It's not like the stageraces where if you miss out in one there is another stage the day after and then another race to rebuild for and get a do-over in. If a cobbles-rider doesn't get it right in a few short days there is a long year's wait until the next opportunity as many discover each year. And for fans, the deal is the same, the moment of action is so brief and then it's back to speculating again, and therein lies the thrill
So what are we looking forward to this year?
One year ago the Omloop heralded the arrival of the man commonly regarded as some sort of Belgian demi-god around here, Sep Vanmarcke. In a dominating display not only did he create the race by attentive riding and by forcing the pace at the crucial points in the race but when it came down to a sprint finish he did what we all assumed was impossible and beat Tom Boonen. It's only natural that all eyes will be on him and his new Blanco team in a week but it remains to be seen how committed he is to winning it this year. Last year he came into the early races all guns blazing, not having won a classic before and eager to earn his spot as captain at Garmin. With that win in his account he might do what many of the other bigs in the cobbles game do, hold off on the form a little to make sure he is at 100% for holy week a month later. This doesn't mean that he and Boonen and a few other of the biggest names can't still win this weekend, such is the nature of these races that even on just decent form they can still pull off a win. They just need a bit more luck and the chips to fall in their favor to pull it off. Boonen and Flecha almost did last year but Flecha perhaps lacked that last edge to make a decisive move on the flat cobbles section and Boonen over-rated his sprint, riding as if he had the full power to rely on. A month later at the Tour of Flanders he pretty much did the same sprint to win, that time at peak form, but against a stronger Vanmarcke he was helpless in Gent.
There is no doubting Vanmarcke's love for this race though as was evident in the images after his win and the move to a new team might see him very focused for this year as well. There is probably a pecking order of sorts to be established as well as both he and Lars Boom are both touted future giants on the verge of the major breakthrough and they both come with pretty similar skillsets. Whether that works to their advantage in the end very much depends on the DS's ability to clearly define roles and strategies to keep everyone happy and motivated even if everything doesn't pan out optimally for everyone in any given race. We may see some indicators of the team-dynamics on Saturday. Boom is certainly keen to redeem himself in the Omloop since an ill-advised argy-bargy with Tom Boonen ended his race early and hastily in a ditch at the Taainberg last year. Hopefully for them the flurry of early season wins for Blanco should at least remove the worst of the pressure to win that can sometimes act as a wet blanket on a team.
The British Dilemma
Another one who would also like to get his spring campaign off to a flying start is Sky chief Dave Brailsford. It's clear that he covets success in the cobbled classics almost as much as the Tour de France and it irks him that the results for Sky have so far been comparatively slim. Their biggest win until now was Flecha in the Omloop 2010 but otherwise they haven't gotten that much out of it despite a very competent roster. At the heart of it is the fact that the classics defy almost everything that the Sky strategy stands for. Team Sky are all about working meticulously to cover all angles in preparation and narrow down the number of uncontrollable factors to give the riders a sense of security. A security that the numbers are there for them to win, they have come up with all sorts of clever solutions to limit the element of chance in the outcome But in the end, chance and intangible factors are the very nature of the cobbled classics and in a sense there is no way to prepare for the things that decide these races. Sure you need the form and the right materials but the winner at the end of the day isn't likely to be the one who comes most prepared for all the eventualities but the one who is best prepared mentally to roll with them as they do appear, to see the moments and to seize them. A sudden wind shift, a random crash, a small split that occurs at a moment's inattention, these are the things that can make or break a team's chances and they are not the kind of things you can strategize about or factor into some grand masterplan. Success here comes from embracing these moments, exploiting them when they break your way and not wallow in pity when they don't, but rather fight back into the race. Because sometimes a classic will look decided a handful of times only to come back together, re-align itself and start all over again. When the race is done and things haven't gone your way you have to dust yourself off and not let it get in your head but line up at the next one and throw everything you have at it again, chances are things will turn and break your way (if you're not George Hincapie at Roubaix that is because then you're terminally screwed). Perhaps this will be the year that Sky learn to embrace this? They certainly have all the qualities to dominate the entire spring season and we could very well see Brailsford parading around the infield at the Roubaix velodrome as the king of the classics. If he does he will no doubt attribute it all to the superior masterplan but we will all know better.
New kids on the block
One cool piece of news on Saturday is the appearance of an African team at the start of a classic European bikerace. MTN-Qubeka already got their feet wet this weekend at the Trofeo Laigueglia but this will be the first time we see them on the really big stage. With them they're bringing three african riders too and if all goes as planned we will see an Eritrean bikerider, Ferekalsi Debesay, in the Omloop for what I assume is the first time. MTN of course is not a purely African team, it has ambitions to be a top team with both African and international riders. In the OHN their hopes lie with Gerhard Ciolek who had a promising fifth, winning the sprint from the chase-group, at Laigueglia. Surely all signs point to this being his big season? If you haven't picked him up in he FSA DS competition already, you totally should. In a time when the UCI's forced attempt of mondialisation, the World Tour race-that-never-was Tour of Hangzhou, has gone tits up (again) it's encouraging to see a completely different and organically grown version of internationalization of cycling and one that has much more potential to actually succeed. It will be great to see what MTN-Qubeka can do in the coming seasons.
Also new on the scene are Swiss IAM Cycling who look like a much more traditional type of setup in the mold that we have grown accustomed to in the last years. Affluent backers with a passion for cycling pull together a bunch of quality riders to establish themselves quickly. In this case it looks like a very sensible, stylish, well thought-out unit that starts out in an understated manner without the big bold gestures, in short it looks very very Swiss. For the classics they've invested in Heinrich Haussler and if he gets off to the same kind of start as the rejuvenated Thomas Löfkvist did last week then by god we could see some fireworks on Saturday. The more likely outcome is a decent showing from him and his merry band of moderately exciting cobbles-helpers.
What makes Gent - Gent so special?
While it is tempting to just view the Omloop as a mini Tour of Flanders, shorter and with fewer hellingen, the truth is that it is a race with a very distinctive character of it's own. The race course moves south from Gent into the Vlaamse Ardennen, looping around Geraardsbergen and Ronse before turning back north to Gent again. In the middle section of the race we see a succession of the classic hellingen, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Eikenmolen, Valkenberg among others before the final Molenberg that the riders hit with about 36 km to go. What really gives the Omloop it's special twist though is the multitude of flat cobbled sections, especially the three long decisive sections on the return leg to Gent. Paddestraat, Lippenhovestraat and Lange Munte offer the perfect launch-pad for the strongest in front groups after the hellingen to turn the screws on the weaker and those who have an interest in a sprint finish. This is where Sep forced the final selection last year and also where Flecha and Gilbert have put in the decisive moves in their victories.
With the combination of the climbs and jarring cobblesections (including three passages of the dreaded Haaghoek, a personal "favorite" of the PdC crew who did the Flanders sportive a few years back) the race favors the active rider and will often be decided from a very select group even if one would think a bigger sprint would be likely with such a long way from the last hill to the finish. Instead the big sprint is the more likely in the race on Sunday, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and this is also where we find the big name sprinters like Cavendish, Greipel, Démare , Farrar and Hutarovich all on the startlist with reasonable hopes for a win.
Join us this week as we look more at the teams and favorites for the weekend. There will probably be one or two helpful nuggets of info in there for those who are putting together an FSA DS team. Certainly the comments will be fully stocked with guaranteed sandbagging-free advice for those in need. We'll also have an introduction to the women's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad that runs the same day as the men and is actually a comparatively much harder course for the women. And absolutely do not miss tuning in for the Omloop on Saturday and join us here in the livethread(s) as we celebrate one of the best days of racing of the year.