Raced on the same day as the men it has quite a different parcourse. The only common denominators beside start/finish in Gent are the finale and the basic principle that the flat cobbled sections are perhaps more strategically prominent than the climbs. In raw numbers: the women race 121kms to the men's 200km, 8 climbs where the men climb 11, 6 flat cobbled sections to the men's 10. The only shared climbs are the Wolvenberg and Molenberg. The finale from the Molenberg 35 kms from the finish and with 3 dreaded cobbles sections on the run-in is identical.
The crucial point in the race is halfway in when they hit the Cote de Trieu and then Paterberg within a few kilometers. After that point the race is doubtlessly smashed to pieces and the winning move is quite often established. The weak have been weeded out and the strong riders unlucky or not attentive enough to be in the front group will find it tough work to rejoin the front. This year could see some interesting dynamic with more teams than ever with multiple strong options. Brute strength has often ruled Het Nieuwsblad but there looks to be more potential for tactics and gameplaying now that several team have both strong sprinter options and stronger climbers/rouleurs who may not make it should it come down to a sprint in Gent. That could open the door for a slightly different race perhaps. Teams may not simply be satisfied to let their riders contribute in groups where they are likely overpowered.
Teams & Riders
Looking at the first big startlist of the year it really strikes you what an interesting season we are in for. There are teams with some massive depth and it's not just one or maybe two. Before the one or two powerhouses where pretty predictable and then there were individual strong riders on other teams. This year Rabobank, Boels-Dolmans, Velocio, Bigla, Wiggle and maaaaybe even Orica look really strong and multifaceted. For Omloop only three of the really big names are absent. Rabo/Liv are without Vos (injured) and World Champ Ferrand Prevot who has her mind on MTB at the moment. Hitec will be without their big new signing Kirsten Wild, who is just coming off a successful Track World Championships, but this has never been her race anyway so that might not be much of a loss in reality. The same could be said for Vos who has never been able to make OHN a priority as she usually is in the rest and buildup phase between her CX and road seasons.
Top favorite for Saturday has to be Lizzie Armitstead who brings the Boels-Dolmans juggernaut that dominated Qatar and it's now even strengthened with Evie Stevens and Megan Guarnier (who managed second here in the brutal 2013 edition for chrissakes). It's almost ridiculous how strong that team is. If speedy Lizzie doesn't have the day chances are Ellen van Dijk or Chantal Blaak are up there. Last year the Armitstead/van Dijk duo had a good cooperation going and if the DSs manage to get the same kind of cohesiveness among all their stars there's no telling how many wins they could take in a season. Easier said than done in reality though so chances are this could be a band of superstars squabbling over who gets to be the chief, while no one wants to be the workers, which would be a pity. But funny (if we get some public polemica).
Behind Boels is the whole band of superstars. Johansson is always great this early , Pieters who won last year was anonymous in Qatar but she is made for this race. Cromwell is another old winner who is on track for a great season start and her "new" Velocio team has quality to bring to the race with Brennauer and more. Wiggle have both the sprints covered with D'Hoore and Bronzini and the long game with Longo Borghini and so does new kid on the block Bigla. Shelley Olds can take anyone in a sprint at the end of a race like this and Annemiek van Vleuten is coming from a long training camp at altitude in Tenerife. There is no doubt that she is intent on making the most of her chances on a new team and healthy from her long injury period and she might jus be the single biggest favorite after Armitstead.
Bigla's gain in luring away van Vleuten is Rabo's loss but luckily they have riders queuing up to take the leader role. This weekend it's probably Anna van der Breggen and Lucinda Brand who will fly the flag for the dutchies. Both of them have the offensive qualities to win OHN and van der Breggen especially will be great to follow this year on a team with so many opportunities up for grabs. Will she be the super-superstar we are hoping for and can she turn all that strength into victories?
For those of you looking for outsiders, or potentially mouthwatering picks for the FSA VDS competition where you haven't entered a team yet (which you totally should by the way) here are some names for you:
Katarzyna Niewiadoma. Ridiculously talented up and comer on Rabo. She's a climber but if Cromwell could win here who knows...
Sophie de Vuyst. Killer consistent in the smaller Belgian races last year, older rider getting stronger.
Gracie Elvin. She always seems to strike when least expected and she and Spratt could be useful tools in an Orica tactical gameplan.