Any sane and rational person who looks at a startlist for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will conclude that this is of course not the best the cycling world has to offer. Stars are missing, resting up for bigger races down the line, and all too many have left parts of collarbones and skin on the desert roads of the middle east. And still there is no race that offers the same amount of Christmas Eve jitters as the Omloop. Apart from the whole "the season starts now" schtick it's because we really have very little idea of what to expect and that uncertainty makes it great.
What do we actually know for sure?
We know that these are the difficulties the riders have to navigate on their journey from Gent to Gent. Don't ask for a profile because there is no publishable one, you'll have to read the roadbook.
As Chris already mentioned it's the usual suspects minus the Molenberg which is usually the final hill but is closed to roadworks. Something called Boembeke takes its place and it looks a lot gentler than Molenberg which is gnarly and has the cruel false flat plateau that works well for attacks. But it shouldnt make a world of difference as it is the following flat cobbles stretches that are the real decider in OHN anyway. But it might hurt a few of the more attacking riders and maybe give the sprinters a bit more of a chance to make the finish.
Then we know who isn't here and there are a few notable absences. The whole Giant-Alpecin team to begin with, who had to opt out and focus on Kuurne when they were hit in training. Not sure Degenkolb would have shown up for this anyway but that is some quality lost there. Verandas Willems who take their spot aren't quuuuiiite as loaded, let's leave it at that. Also missing is Dimension Data who no one really took note when they didn't get an invite but after the spring Boasson Hagen has had it seems a pity they won't be here.
Then there are big names that are opting out, electing to keep their powder dry for April:
- Fabian Cancellara. Never been much for the Omloop. It's a minor flaw in his otherwise fine character.
- Sep Vanmarcke. You're breaking our hearts Sep! But more seriously it is a smart move for a guy who already has an Omloop win to his names and a pretty urgent need to finally have some luck and get a good result in the really big races.
- Ian Stannard. Last year's Etixx-slaying champion has chosen not to try and extend his two year winning streak, much like Sep looking to win bigger races. He's had a tendency to fade in the monuments after strong starts before so delaying the form seems a very very clever plan.
- Zdenek Stybar is the Etixx ace sitting out. I suppose someone has to be out of the rotation at some point so everyone gets their chance?
- Yves Lampaert cracked a sternum and won't take his place as the third Supertalent-Musketeer in Gent. We'll get to the other two musketeers later.
- Matti Breschel. It is a shock I realize but we will have to try and enjoy the race even without him, hard as it may be. Cannondale(Slipstream) have never been big on Omloop I think? Or it's that they can't race any important races until they have finished putting up their 2016 website?
Ian Stannard finalizes his humiliation of Etixx-Quickstep in 2015
What do we think we know?
We think we know that Peter Sagan will be pretty lethal with his spiffy new support crew. Bennati is looking golden again this year and reuniting with Oscar Gatto could be Sagan's best move toward a big classics win. Gatto might be a contender himself on Saturday but even if he isn't he looks to make a great signing for Tinkoff. Blythe is another potentially great addition and maybe just maybe Sagan will have the support he deserves for once? If so..... this could be the year he is as scary in the classics as people have predicted for years.
We think we know that Alexander Kristoff will once again be the hot favorite for a classic. Smooth as silk preparation in the desert with a train that looks scarier than a Katusha-doctor's medicine chest there is no reason to think he won't be the man to beat. The train might serve him better in Kuurne but he's fully capable of handling Omloop by himself too if he just opts to ride a bit more actively than he has in the past. Others may be delaying their form and Kristoff certainly isn't as strong as he plans to be in April but he looks to be plenty competitive as he is. We could see another Norwegian victory, following up Hushovd's sprint win in 2009.
We think we know that Greg van Avermaet will finish on the podium but not win. There is no real reason to doubt this. He is looking well on target this spring and he will race impressively right up until the point where fate intervenes to land him in his designated just-below-the-top-spot. Or he could shock the world and actually win his first really big cobbles victory, it has to happen at some point and OHN feels like perhaps a likelier place than in the Monuments. I dunno though, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it comes in E3 and not here. Definitely E3. Next year.
Ian Stannard finalizes his humiliation of Greg Van Avermaet in 2014
What can we suspect with some certainty?
That it will be all about the kids. It is no secret that plenty of spotlight will be on the young Belgian supertalents. With all of Belgium acutely aware that The Age of Tommeke (sadly) is coming to a close the nation will be turning their cobble-crazed eyes to the two revelations of 2015, Edward Theuns (24) and Tiesj Benoot (21). It's hard to fathom exactly how tantalizing their combined results were (not for those lucky enough to have them in the FSA DS of course but to others). Benoot visible in practically every race topped by an insane fifth place in De Ronde while Theuns racked up placings in every race with a sprintier finish including second places in both Dwars and Scheldeprijs. Any optimism on the part of Belgian fans is well founded and the Omloop is he perfect venue for that type of riders to get their first big classics win on the boards. Vanmarcke did it in 2012 and even if the big follow up has been absent for a variety of reasons it still heralded a new contender. Philippe Gilbert showed he would be one of the bigs by winning in 2006 (and 2008) and now it might be time for a new Belgian superstar to get in the history books.
How the two will handle the pressure really remains to be seen, Benoot is so young and has somehow been thrust into the forefront of a Lotto team that still boasts more proven guys like Roelandts and Debusschere and chances are the result can't keep ticking in as regularly as they did in 2015. Is that a sign perhaps that people are losing trust that those two have a top-top result in them? That fifth in Flanders might also have him setting his own sights a little too high for a 21 year old. Omloop should perhaps be his main target but he sounds as if he has his sights set on April too already and I think it could lead to heartache.
Theuns is the more stealthy one. He has made what looks like a very clever team move to Trek-Segafredo where he will act as Fabian's sprinter shield later this spring but here he should be free to ride as he likes. He has more racing under his belt than Benoot so I think he is the safer bet for a solid 2016 and he has exactly the type of team and the type of support that he needs to take the next step as Trek look really solid now, even if I still have some major question marks around Dirk Demol's qualities in the team car.
Overall I rate Theuns highest of the two on Saturday. Bold prediction: Benoot fades out of the action fairly early due to a mechanical or some bad placing/bad legs while Theuns rides strongly to a top 5 or 10 a bit behind the winning move or in a bigger groupsprint at the finish.
We also suspect that this is the final call for a guy like André Demare. If he is going to be the star that Madiot wont regret building his team around he needs to start producing in races like these. The course is perfect for him really and I think we are all waiting for him to really take a step forward, wit all that unreleased potential. FDJ is also a team that should be doing well in this part of the season and maybe now's the time.
What have we no freaking idea about?
We have absolutely no earthly idea why Tom Boonen will never win Omloop? Is it because he became a star so soon and started focusing on monuments right away or has it all been an elaborate passive aggressive protest since 2009 against the change of name from Het Volk to Het Watchamacallit? Either way, when he failed to win the sprint against Sep in 2012 I think we all recognized that it is never going to happen. So once they get passed the inevitableTaaienberg-spectacle lets all focus our attention on the other Etixxians. Which one exactly is another thing we have no idea about, we only know at least one of them will be contesting the win. Boonen will not, at least not successfully.
In particular we have no freaking idea what to expect from cobbles (almost)debutant Tony Martin. Etixx obviously have high hopes of turning his ginormous TT-engine into a cobble-crushing machine but who knows. Me personally I have my doubts, the guy has steered clear of Flanders for a long time for a reason. I mean if you don't like frites you don't like frites. It's unlikely you're just going wake up one year and feel a yearning for some samourai-sauce-dipped goodness just because your friends (or bosses) think it would be a good idea. I'm going to bet my money that the end verdict on Tony's Wild CobbleSpring Adventure is going to be: Anonymous. Despite all the power. And don't use a lucky day against a TdF peloton of cobbles-posers as evidence that he will do well. I mean he might, but let's not pretend we know based on anything he did last July.
But we do know who wins, right?
Of course we do, what kind of Mickey Mouse operation do you think we're running here? Philippe Gilbert is once again gong to crush it on the Lange Munte to put the competition check mate. Or something. It would be fun to see Gilbert back to his best on the cobbles anyway. He is too good to waste his life in pursuit of Ardennes glory.
- Ian Stannard 2015 DAVID STOCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images
- Ian Stannard 2014 BENOIT DOPPAGNE/AFP/Getty Images
- Philippe Gilbert 2006 Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport via Getty Images