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Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Cobbles Served Cold, Muur Served Hot!

The venerable Classics opener goes big time

Patrick Verhoest

Welcome to the Classics Season! Or the Road Season! Or all of the above!! Yes, it's Omloop Superbike time...

[Warning: I wrote this a bit ahead of the race, so please add updates, e.g. startlist changes, in comments.]

Typically this race has been about the stones and the weather. That's an ancient pairing in Flanders, but more specifically, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, nee Omloop Het Volk, has forever flirted with winter's last gasp, as well as the formidable flat cobbled sections that make up so much of the racing action in the spring.

Ohn_mediumNotice I said flat. To me, what makes this race unique is the strategic use of the non-berged kasseien, the truly bone-shaking stretches of stones that remind riders of Paris-Roubaix as much as anything else. More on that in a moment.

Ultimately, this race's calling card is its place on the calendar, which is a double-edged sword. If your goal is Flemish Nirvana, you don't want to peak in late February. But... those cobblestones... those crowds... must... resist... attacking...

Happy season opener! [And don't forget to turn in your FSA DS team, like yesterday.]

What's New?

I wanted to make this preview all about the flat cobbles, but something got in the way. Yep, the Muur is back.


Granted, it occurs early on in the race, at the 81km mark of a 200km race, but this will get plenty of headlines. And it may cause a rather early thinning of the field, if the riders decide it should. There's a reason the Muur was so famously the key piece of the Tour of Flanders all those years: because it's a hellish climb.

So that's what's new and news-worthy. As to what's new and strategically significant, there's this little collection of cobbled sections:

  • 138km Taaienberg, 533 meters, cobbled, max 16%
  • 143km Eikenberg, 1200 meters, cobbled, max 9%
  • 146km Wolvenberg, 800 meters, tarmac, max 17%
  • 147km Ruiterstraat, 800 meters, moderate cobbles
  • 148km Karel Martelstraat, false flat, not awful
  • 149km Holleweg, 1500 meters, beastly cobbles
  • 154km Haaghoek, 1700 meters, hell

That's a murderer's row, and it's hardly the end of the hostilities.

What's Interesting?

Again, this is Flanders' chance to show off the flat sections of cobbles, the one day where they steal the show from the hellingen. Riding flat cobbles in Flanders varies from relatively easy -- where sections have been made over recently -- to the horrible bouncing, leg-draining madness found in and celebrated by Paris-Roubaix. It's well known that the Flemish cobbles, at their worst, are not as terrifying as, say, the Arenberg Trench, but strategically speaking they are close enough. Watch the strongest riders wait for the final troika, the Paddestraat-Lippehnovestraat-Lange Munte stretch, beginning with about 35km to go. See what they do when they get there. In some ways the attacks on the flatter sections are more telling than the hills, where a short power burst will get you separation, as long as you don't give it right back on the inevitable descent.

And then there's the weather. Twice snow has postponed the race, including as recently as 2004 and almost again last year (when they ran the Omloop but canceled Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day). Another time the race was postponed. Several other times snow threatened cancellation and decorated the peloton, though the race soldiered on. This suspense, plus what any lousy weather will do to tactics, is always something to watch for. Winter being winter, yo.

Where Will the Race Be Won?

My guess, the Paddestraat will set things up. And then a small-group sprint in Gent will decide it. With Boonen being strong, that will increase the chance of the race not breaking up entirely.

Who Do I Need to Know?

Early startlist here. Like any opener, the key rider is... everyone. So many plotlines. But as to who can win, early-season form is the limiting factor, along with an ability to excel in the cold. Boonen and Phinney are two guys who started well. Andre Greipel will stay close in case of a bunch finish. Of my teams to watch, Trek, Cannondale, Lampre and Tinkoff aren't here, since this isn't a World Tour event. No Cancellara or Sagan. One storyline for us Yanks is whether Tyler Farrar is flashing any form. This would be a good race for him if he were flying, and after a couple down years, it's getting to now-or-never time.

My Pick to Win

Ian Stannard.