OK... Omloop Het Nieuwsblad time! I love this race more than certain members of my family (primarily chickens, particularly the ones that don’t lay eggs anymore). Not because it’s the start of the cycling season, though of course it is, but because we can finally start having intelligent conversation based on something we just watched, as opposed to most of the preseason when whatever we just watched is terribly misleading if we noticed anything at all.
Did you know! “Omloop” just means circuit, and for bloody once, it’s an accurate description of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, unlike, say, Dwars door Vlaanderen (“Straight Across Flanders”) which meanders across the map like a drunken housefly, or Gent-Wevelgem, which doesn’t start in Gent. Of course, the Omloop wasn’t always an accurate name, like the 12 years when the race started in Gent and finished 20km to the east in Lokeren. But that’s been swept under the rug.
The Omloop is the start of the Cobbled Classics (along with Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Buurne), if you want to get super technical about it, but in my opinion (detailed in a certain book) their separation from all the rest of the cobbled races doesn’t make them part of a coherent “season.” Like, it’s not technically summer if you have one hot day in late June, then another month of cold rain, then a gradual warming period. Well, except in Seattle, and probably Scotland, and a few other places, but you see my point.
Did you know! The course director, Peter Van Petegem, traditionally shaves just before the start of the race, but by the first crossing of the Leberg he has the beginnings of a thick beard?
A lot of you already know the course well, and that it doesn’t change very much. Its distinguishing features is that, for a Flemish race, it’s a lot like Paris-Roubaix. OK, no Flemish race is really like Paris-Roubaix, unless you were to take a pile driver to the Haag Hoek. But the Omloop’s last climb is at km 163, 36km from the finish, making it not exactly decisive when it comes to the final selection. No, if there is to be a final selection before Gent, it’s likely to happen on any one of the three closing sections of flat cobbles...
The Paddestraat (2300 meters):
The Lippenhovestraat (1300 meters)
The Haaghoek (2500 meters)
Do those cobbles look anything like this?
No, they do not. Because in Flanders the cobblestone streets maintain at least some pretense of being an actual road. Still, the race favors the strong over, say, the climby-strong, and the lack of hills in the finale underscores that fact a bit. As does the Hell of the North.
Did you know! The final climb this year is the Molenberg. Last year it was the Boembeke, which I would ridicule for its paltry 5% gradient, but that also appears to be the name of a beer, so I’ll leave it at that. Anyway, the Molenberg is back after a brief hiatus and takes on the role of last climb in the race. As I said above, that only leaves 36km and about 7km of flat cobbles remaining. Anyway, the Molenberg’s name means mill hill, and you shouldn’t make a mountain out of a mill hill, so it’s good that there are other features remaining to decide the race. Personally I think of it as the tiny street with really cool cobbles and tall hedges, where Cancellara and Boonen said goodbye forever to the Ronde peloton in 2010. But “hedge” is “Haag” as in “Haaghoek” which from the photo above you can tell does not have any hedges.
There are two other features not to be missed. One is the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen, which I write a story about every time it gets mentioned in the news, or even not in the news, because I like it a whole lot. There are a lot of reasons to like the Muur, but some of those reasons predate the Year of Our Lord 2012, when we were forsaken by our Lord who somehow allowed the Ronde van Vlaanderen to remove the Muur van Geraardsbergen from the race in exchange for lots and lots of money. I don’t want to keep picking that scab, and I’m not really all that mad at the organizers for removing it, because they did have reasons. Some people are undoubtedly still mad enough to have a funeral for cycling or their souls there, or maybe for the Muur itself, though the hill is still there and will feature for the 50th time in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The other course feature is the finish line. It used to be in Sint Pietersplein, a large cobbled square in the center of Gent, which is kind of cool considering how so many of the world’s great races don’t bother going to city centers (also for good reasons). Like, for example, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which as of last year no longer bothers going to the city center. The problem last year was, I don’t remember, but whatever it was, they moved the finish about 1km south, or less into the middle of town, from Sint Pietersplein, along a pretty little park but with a very big, boring N-road for racing on. Another problem is that the race was won by Greg Van Avermaet of BMC, and Belgium, and when he wins the race on a certain course, Belgian people don’t set out to make a lot of changes to it. So it might be a while before they go back to Sint Pietersplein.
Did you know! The record for most wins at the Omloop Het Whatever (formerly Volk now Nieuwsblad) is three? That’s not a lot for a race that’s been in existence since the end of World War II. Van Petegem shares the record with Joseph Bruyere and Ernest Sterckx. Sterckx isn’t terribly notable (to me; I’m sure his family like him very much) but Bruyere was a decent classics guy riding with Eddy Merckx as his teammate, which was a valuable thing for quite some time. Merckx actually did win the race a couple times, before Bruyere took over the duties. One of my favorite notables was Fons De Wolf, who in addition to having a cool-sounding name to my English-speaking ears was billed as the “next Eddy Merckx.” It turns out, being labeled the Next Eddy Merckx was just about the worst thing to happen to a guy, and De Wolf spent more time winning big races in Italy than in Belgium. Anyway, he won two Omloops, one less than Bruyere, which goes to show that if you can’t beat Merckx, you’re better off joining him.
Did you know? There are two riders taking the start on Saturday with a chance to join the all-time winners’ circle: Ian Stannard and Philippe Gilbert. Gilbert would make for a somewhat interesting winner, if somehow he could pull it off, because he’s now in Quick Step colors. His two victories came in the colors of Francaise des Jeux, which are somewhat similar colors, albeit arranged very differently. Anyway, a third win would be remarkable for not taking place in the colors of the BMC team (red and black, mostly), who paid him a not very small fortune over several years to win races like the Omloop, only to have Van Avermaet save face for everyone last year after half of BMC crashed out. Gilbertalmost certainly won’t win this time, but you never know. Stannard is a realistic threat to win, particularly since he has a really good Sky team around him, except that it might be a bit too good as far as the presence of Luke Rowe is concerned. Rowe finished fourth last year, at the back end of the winning group.
The record for victories on the women’s side is two. Wait, backing up, there’s also a women’s race! And it’s really the first important race of the season for the ladies. The race broke out of its male hegemony in 2006, and unlike the men (where guys who probably won’t win many other races do well here) the women’s palmares are pretty stellar. The reigning winner is Elizabeth Armitstead, who pipped Chantal Blaak last year and got to show off her rainbow jersey in the process, unlike Peter Sagan, who also had a rainbow jersey (still does!) but finished second last year. Anyway, Armitstead is now knows as Lizzie Deignan, and isn’t coming to defend her crown (it’s February), but her Boels-Dolmans team features the current world champion, Amalie Dideriksen, who probably won’t win unless there’s a big sprint, but Blaak is their real contender anyway.
Did you know! The Sport Vlaanderen - Etixx squad features Kelly Druyts, Demmy Druyts, Jessy Druyts and Lenny Druyts, cycling’s greatest-ever sister act? They have two other riders -- Kelly Van Den Steen and Valerie Demey — which is good, in case it’s like Mrs. Druyts’ birthday and 75% of the team has to go to the party instead of racing.
The women, or vrrrrrouwen, face 123km of racing with eight notable climbs (five fewer than the dudes) but a finishing stretch that is pretty similar, in that they hit the Molenberg with 36km to go, and catch three flat cobble stretches on the way home, though they use the Lange Munte in place of the Haaghoek. The Lange Munte is 2500 meters and hard work, so it’ll still be a tough day in the saddle.
OK, who you picking to win?