Is winter seeming a bit long and bleak? Coronavirus got you down? Well, cycling has the perfect solution for you. Even if you’re Australian and just frolicking in the warm sunshine day after day. Because this Saturday it’s the start of... [ominous music]... [record needle scratch]... the Cobbled F—-ing Classics! [Explosion sounds]
Been living under a rock? Even if you have, if it’s the right kind of rock, then you already know that the Omloop Het
Volk Nieuwsblad is back to kick things off once again, for the 75th time since 1945... or in the case of the ladies, for the 15th edition — which itself is pretty cool. [See “OMG it’s the fourth running of Women’s LBL!”] This year the Omloop not only starts the cycling season proper, it may have the distinction of closing it as well, once it’s discovered that the coronavirus can be transmitted by handlebar tape.
The parcours? Identical to last year, which was slightly altered from the 2018 edition but anyway it’s the third year since the Omloop resurrected the finish of the old Ronde van Vlaanderen, with the Muur-Bosberg-Ninove finish. Forever I’ve been describing the Omloop as the classic that most features the flat cobbled sectors, because it’s fucking true, alright? I mean, other races have more flat kasseien but of the 200km(ish) Ronde warmups, this one is less about hills and more about the pure joy of floating across uneven, slippery stones punctuated with illogical spaces and crevices. But yeah, it’s also about climbing the Muur, still one of the loveliest scenes in cycling (if not all of humanity), and making the mad dash for Ninove and glory.
Here’s the route. Nary a meter is changed from last year, as far as I can tell.
Last year the winning break departed from the Molenberg, which you may remember from such events as the Boonen-Cancellara attack in 2010, and battled til the flat streets approaching Ninove. The Muur is always a place for a winning move to happen, as well as the Bosberg, as well as just about anywhere else. Given the prediction for wet, wintry weather, the chance of the race staying together for a sprint is approaching zero, and we will likely see it more broken up than usual.
Did You Know?
Ninove is a typical old Flemish town, but that name is unusual. Some earlier versions of it include Nineve, which sounds like a shout-out to the Biblical (and real-world) town of Nineveh, currently a suburb of Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh is something like 8000 years old, no lie, and gets mentioned in the Tanakh first as the capital of King Sennacherib, then as a wicked place (Sennacherib was murdered by his sons) which is saved from destruction by the prophet Jonah. Anyway, the various bibles rant on and on about who killed who and did or didn’t repent, but it doesn’t matter because Ninove isn’t named after Nineveh. Ninove is a 9th Century town known also as Neonifus or Nieuwe Weiland or new pasture. The people are sometimes referred to as “wortelmans” or carrot people? Or were before Euskaltel copyrighted it. All of which makes way more sense as an origin story than some semi-obscure Iraqi joint. So there, now you have the answer to a question that maybe only I was asking.
Anyway, it’s also known for a Volkswagen show, and of course for hosting some of the greatest finishes of a classic in world history. Not too shabby.
What Will Mathieu van der Poel Do?
This is how I plan to start my picks to win section for all the classics, since it’s question #1. Unfortunately, the answer this time is “nothing” because he has the flu and pulled out of the race this morning. I’m not totally bullish on him this spring, because if history has taught me anything it’s that I can’t have nice things. But he’s coming, that I know.
The startlist is utterly loaded, but with the usual caveats about how it’s still February. If you’ve watched closely enough (as I have not), you might have detected some signals from the classics guys, but most of the winter races are sprints and stage races, so info on the cobbled dudes tends to be scant.
But we know where to start, at least now that MvdP isn’t here: with Deceuninck Quick Step. Zdenek Stybar, the reigning winner, is back, with his usual loaded assortment of teammates, any one of whom could get the go signal from Wilf or whoever is driving the car. Lampaert and Senechal will be closely watched, but I have my fingers crossed for Kasper Asgreen.
Next I’d turn to Jumbo-Visma, where Wout Van Aert is making his full return after last year’s injury-shortened season, along with that-guy Mike Teunissen, nobody’s pick to win who will nonetheless almost certainly score some points and threaten the front of the race. With a veteran squad behind them they are a formidable and motivated duo, and I would never ever put anything past Wout, especially on home soil.
After these two squads, we have a list of older guys who, if your memory works well enough, might pop into your head as former double-winners. Ian Stannard? Sure, he’s back, five years removed from his pair of victories, with Dylan van Baarle and Gianni Moscon as chief leutenants. The still-just-34 Greg Van Avermaet returns in search of a third win, and not for nothing, as his switch to CCC last year saw him just miss the winning move and finish second. Matteo Trentin is their other face card in this race. Oh, and remember back when George W Bush was president and Philippe Gilbert was winning the Omloop, twice? For FDJ, no less? Boy, you do have a good recall. He’s around, has a new-old team in Lotto Soudal, and a usual-suspects type of support.
Michael Valgren from two years ago is off to NTT Cycling now, with Eddie Boss for help. Last on this list is Sep Vanmarcke, who is kind of a perennial challenger here with one win from way back in 2012. Strangely he is without the support of Sebastian Langeveld, yet another honor roll name, but Jens Keukeleire heads his support team.
The Young Guns category starts with Wout and would have included MvdP, but a couple others are worth highlighting. Reigning World Champion Mads Pedersen heads up Trek, with Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns as support or alternatives for the win. Stefan Kung at FDJ is an established beast on the cobbles. That’s probably it, although Oliver Naesen at AG2R is still only 29, which for this race is no biggie.
Who Ya Got?
Me, I’ll go with Wout. It’s not that logical a choice, which is when he’s his most dangerous. Stuyven and Van Avermaet in there too, plus a Quick Stepper. What say ye?
[If you’re into such things, I once wrote a book about the Cobbles Season. Buy it on Amazon here.]