So, the course of Omloop het Nieuwsblad, as you might have heard, has been given quite a substantial change-up, with the old route, the final climb being the Molenberg, axed in favour of a new course which takes heavily from the old version of the Tour of Flanders. Namely, it pretty forcibly rips out the combination of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg, putting them close to the finish. I think this route will please a lot of fans, it draws from what was largely agreed to be a great Flanders course and it makes use of historic and challenging cobbled climbs in such a way that they may decide the race. It’ll be a stern challenge to start the classics season, it will no doubt lead to a selective event, maybe more selective than previously.
Oh yeah, and I absolutely hate it.
Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no issue with the Muur. It has its place in the classics. But that place is the Tour of Flanders. Please, if you would, cast your mind back to the last Omloop, the one before that. All of them were thrilling races that broke apart with at least fifty kilometres to go, usually on the Taaienberg and Eikenberg, ages from the finish. I will remind you that this led to a thrilling final fifty kilometres, as the three-or four riders who broke away fought to maintain their advantage on the flatter roads and tried to ward off a sprint. It was this that led to the exciting finale of the 2016 race, as Boonen and Terpstra, tired from a fifty kilometre-per-hour team pursuit, dropped off the pace and let Ian Stannard win against all the odds. It was this which gave us the first fight of 2017 between Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. To me, it simply did not need to be changed.
I fear that this change will not be a positive one, or even simply neutral. Am I spoiled, when I say that I expect a fifty-kilometre assault to be what’s necessary to win a cobbled classic in order for it to get the Internet Forum Person seal of approval? Yeah, maybe I am, but in that case it has been Omloop that has spoiled me. Maybe the race I foresee on Saturday then will be just recompense for my presumption.
What do I foresee? Well, let’s deal with the concept of the Big Name Hill (BNH). This BNH is a concept that is as old as cycling itself. It is not always a game-changer, but the calendar is full of races with BNHs. Milano-Sanremo has the Poggio. Flèche has the Mûr du Huy. And what the BNH does is dominate the race to an extent that it’s hard to imagine the race being won anywhere else but on that hill — that’s just where it’s won. The Muur has a history of being a BNH in the Tour of Flanders, and dropping it in sixteen kilometres from the finish instantly makes it into the major spectacle of the route.
I don’t really like it when a route has a major spectacle, I must confess. I liked Omloop last year because, while you thought something might happen on the Taaienberg, you really weren’t sure where the race would be made. Here, while of course we don’t know where the big move is going to happen, all eyes are still drawn to the Kapelmuur and it’s a braver rider who attacks from far out this year than last. The race is harder, which you can certainly call a positive if you want, but if an attack is made on the penultimate climb this year, there will be fifteen kilometres left after the summit. Last year, an attack on the second-last climb, the Leberg, would leave an exciting forty-one kilometre pursuit which has not disappointed in recent years. Really, the change in course is turning the Omloop from an interesting preparation race in its own right to a second, shorter version of the Tour of Flanders, which looks a little like appeasement of the people who build shrines to Tom Boonen and have an IV slowly dripping Duvel. Which I understand is a fairly important demographic.
Anyway, maybe I’ve been too strong about the course — there’s nothing really wrong with it, per se. I simply didn’t see any reason to change it, and I do think that the alteration will lead to a worse race. Will it be terrible? No it won’t, it’s the Omloop, it’s barely capable of being terrible. I just sense that in gaining the rockstar finale which it has gained, it is losing some of its own identity as Gent-Gent. And yes, pressure on it to leave Gent there may have been. I still feel such a radical change may not be a positive one.
Perhaps I am moaning unnecessarily however. This course is less risky, in a way, for the reason that I can personally guarantee every reader of this piece that at the very least, the last twenty kilometres will be completely action-packed, and that the strongest rider has a very good chance of winning. I’m not sure, however, that either of those things should be sought. I’ve never seen any reason why the strongest rider should win a race. Was Stannard the strongest rider in 2016? Very possibly not. Did he deserve to win? As much as anybody. The disdain for riders who win despite not being the strongest is something I simply cannot comprehend — if someone sneaks on the back of a move that goes sixty kilometres from the line, wheelsucks all race and goes on to win, more power to them, I say. Being able to get other riders to do your work for you is as much of a skill as being able to outsprint those riders. For that reason, a course that leads to all-out attacks in the final kilometres never really strikes me as the best way to run a classic.
This stuff will probably all turn out to be academic anyway — I’ll have sent a thousand wasted words your way all thanks to Greg Van Avermaet, who won twice on the old course and really looks quite like winning on the new. I can very easily see a Van Avermaet attack on the Muur just dispatching the competition and proving that the course will have essentially no effect on what we remember from the race, especially since Sagan has, in his infinite methods of annoying me, decided not to turn up. Outside of him, it’s all kind of uninspiring if you ask me. Matteo Trentin perhaps? Yeah, let’s go with that. Quick prediction, Greg Van Avermaet wins from Trentin. On a course that will be a backward step, but in the end, who’s really going to care?