It feels like Christmas Eve, the stockings hung high waiting for Old Saint Nick to fill with cobbles. Yes, the opening salvo of the cobbled classics of Belgium lands on Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (or Ghent-Ghent if you're old fashioned). It's also the *real* start to the season - forget those silly races in Australia and the Middle East. A few years ago we were so excited we even had a countdown clock till the Omloomp started. Personally, I'm stoked, even if I'm sad to see cyclocross over for another eight months.
Actually, scratch that. I'm really freaking excited, way more so than I have been in years.
It's normal, right? It's been a harsh winter for a lot of us and the racing in Qatar and Oman was more subdued than usual, so both our pent up excitement to get outside and yearning for good racing have us chomping at the bits and oh so eagerly awaiting Saturday's loops around Ghent. And if you're like me, you'll start thinking of what the results on Saturday mean for the next month and a half of racing in one of the sport's heartlands.
But, does the Omloop tell us much in the grand scheme of things? In the late 1990s, the same names that were on the podiums in Flanders and Roubaix - notably Peter Van Petegem and Johan Museeuw - won the race multiple times. But, while the recent list of winners - Thor Hushovd (2009), Juan Antonio Flecha (2010), Sebastian Langeveld (2011), Sep Vanmarke (2012), Luca Paolini (2013), and Ian Standard (2014) - is full of notable names, victory in Gent has not been associated with true success in the April Monuments. Sep Vanmarke's 2012 victory comes closest to predicting impending success, but his second place at Paris-Roubaix wouldn't come until the next year. Instead, a win in Het Nieuwsblad can be a sign of future cobbles success, but isn't necessarily so.
The poor predictive quality of the Omloop is due part to its place in the schedule, and perhaps to its route as well. Coming in late February, the race is six weeks from the biggest races - E3, Ghent-Whelvelgem, Flanders, and Roubaix - and six weeks from the best riders' top form. In their place are the opportunists whose form is timed , either intentionally or by accident, to arrive early so they can poach a win before everyone else is on point. The Omloop is a place to learn how to race on the cobbles, and perhaps to win, but Flanders and Roubaix are different beasts and the specialists who have potential to win in April have long known that they are better served playing things conservatively until late March so they can have the power to learn - or even win - in the monuments.
The route is weird, too, as far as the cobbled races go. The Omloop isn't a sprinter-friendly race with token cobbles and bergs in the middle of the race like Ghent-Wevelgem or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. But, it doesn't represent one of the monuments in the same way that E3 is designed to be a shorter, but no less hard, version of its older brother the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Instead, the last climb - the iconic Molenberg - comes some 35 kilometers from the finish. After passing over the 11 bergs (6 of which are cobbled) and the few cobbles sections that interspace them, the parcours thunders across three flat and rough cobbled sections. The Padderstrat (2.300m), Lippenhovestraet (1.300m), and Lange Munte (2.500m) cobbled sections come in quick succession between kilometers 170 and 180, leaving 20km of relatively smooth roads before the finish. The lower distance, fewer climbs, and long run to the finish does not make for a route as selective as the cobbled classics to follow, but that opens up the door for more opportunistic racing by guys who will be B- or C-level favorites in a month's time. That said, the racing over the last three cobbled sections is usually pretty great.
The weather, though, can be at least as selective as the final cobbled sections. Last year was an abysmal march through cold rain that left riders so depleted Ian Standard beat a normally much quicker Greg Van Avermaet in a two-up sprint. The race itself was cancelled in 2004 due to snow. In 2013 the race went on, but Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was cancelled the following day due to snow. It's February, for goodness sake, and in Belgium, the chances of atrocious weather are high.
That said, things look relatively decent for the weekend. The forecast calls for highs around 8 degrees celsius (46 fahrenheit) and partly cloudy skies - nice enough, right? But, the forecast also calls for winds around 31kph in the middle of the day, so can we say ECHELONS? It's a good thing these guys have been racing in Qatar recently.
Want to talk favorites? We could do that, but it's going to be hard. Tom Boonen is looking sharp these days, but this is the race to let lieutenants chase in order to eek that extra bit of work from them come E3, Flanders, and Roubaix. So, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Etixx-Quickstep) and Heinrich Haussler (IAM) have good chances of making it onto the podium. Hauler is inching back towards his storied form of 2009 when he nearly won Milan-Sanremo and finished second in the Tour of Flanders and Van Keirsbulk is a huge motor with a decent enough sprint built in the mold of Boonen. Maybe you disagree? Let us know in the comments!
As you've picked up on by now (or know by heart, if you're like some of us), there are two races this weekend. On Sunday we have Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, which is the much more sprint-friendly of the opening cobbled races. That is, when the weather isn't barely above freezing, raining, and the wind blowing over 50kph as it was in 2010. That was ridiculous. But, in drier conditions like should prevail on Sunday, Kuurne is a kinder race with no climbs or tough cobbles in the final 50 kilometers. As much as we may hope, nothing that happens on the Oude Kwaremount stands a chance of sticking to the finish over an hour's worth of racing away. Look for a hearty sprinter like Alexander Kristoff to take the donkey trophy (yes, for real) home. But hey, it's still racing in Belgium, not the middle of a desert, so that's awesome in its own right.