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Opening Weekend Preview

What can we expect from the teams?

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A strange experience, this, sitting down to write a cobbles preview without Cuddles. He was last seen trying to persuade a pile of gentrified mosaic cobbles outside a Seattle coffee shop to unionise, and I believe there was some confusion over his references to children’s heads, beer, and broken collarbones. Anyway, he is several thousand miles away from my home and loved ones, which is excellent news generally but writing without my partner will be strange indeed.

In his absence, I’ll take a quick look at the state of the big teams, and try and assess expectations. Then have a quick look at some possible winners. Once we get into the comments, you can all point out the riders I’ve missed (who’ll inevitably dominate the race) and get some pre-emptive trash talking in about your FSA-DS teams. Oh, and I’m genuinely sorry not to have had time to add a women’s preview, but we got to 2800 words just on the fellas. I think Lotte Kopecky wins on Saturday as a new beneficiary of SD-Worx’s excellence, and that Lorena Weibes will be fastest on Sunday.

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The big squads

Quick-Step – Alpha Vinyl

Season to date: Well, this is QS, so they’re topping the victory list already, led by Mark Cavendish and Fabio Jakobsen in the sprints, but with Fausto Masnada and Remco Evenpoel chucking in some wins on harder terrain.

Last year: They kicked off with a win in a strangely sprinty Omloop (Davide Ballerini) and added wins in E3 and Ronde (both Kasper Asgreen) and Brugge – De Panne (Sam Bennett). They were prominent in all the races and won a monument, none of which was remotely surprising.

Opening Expectations: This is spring, and this is Quick-Step. Expectations are justifiably sky-high. Julian Alaphillippe (aiming for the Ardennes, alas) is missing, and so is Ballerini, but otherwise this looks like their best available classics team. Florian Senechal, Yves Lampaert, Zdenyk Stybar and Asgreen are all potential winners at Omloop, with Asgreen taking Sunday off and Jakobsen stepping into the team in case things get sprinty. There’s a live question over which riders will be fully tuned up but it is hard to see this team being shut out of the podium on both days, and at least one win is likely.

Ineos Grenadiers

Season to date: A few wins, beginning with Luke Plapp in the Aussie Nats, and taking in a few time trials, a sprint (Elia Viviani) and an uphill finish (Magnus Sheffield, who is bringing his cracking early-season form to Belgium for the weekend).

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Last year: Tom Pidcock grabbed a podium in Kuurne and wrapped up the cobbled(ish) season with a win in Brabantse Piji. Dylan van Baarle won Dwars door Vlanderen. In not-spring, the Astana-bound Gianni Moscon almost took a win in Roubaix. Taken in the round, it was a decent performance, with Pidcock proving that his cyclocross and mountain biking brilliance made him a coming force in road classics racing.

Expectations: You don’t need me to tell you that Ineos have their priorities all wrong, and that they care more about stage racing later in the year. However, they’ve often been had the best of their spring at Opening Weekend and have won Omloop three times (Stannard, Stannard and Flecha) and Kuurne twice (Cavendish and Sutton) as a team who are often firing early. This spring they’ll go as far as Tom Pidcock can take them, and he can expect to replace Mathieu van der Poel as the de facto cross-to-road rival to Wout van Aert. This weekend will be the first chance to see if he’s good enough to be mentioned alongside those two. Also, don’t sleep on Ethan Hayter, who has a devilish sprint as part of an all-round package. He didn’t do much last spring but has cut back his track season and is a former KBK Junior winner. I’d expect them both to be tuned up for an opening assault this weekend.

Jumbo-Visma

Season to date: A quiet start, with Rohan Dennis’ Aussie TT win the only one they’ve grabbed so far. Most of their big names are waiting for later in the year and they haven’t looked in dreadful form.

Last year: Wout van Aert pretty well was the classics team, and he didn’t do badly, with a win at Gent-Wevelgem and a top ten in Flanders. He skipped Omloop and the team did nothing in his absence, and they didn’t ride KBK.

Expectations: For the spring, expectations are high, with Wout once again among the favourites for all the big races, and a strengthened support crew. Mike Teunissen missed last spring and Tiesj Benoot has come over from DSM, and both offer far more help than WvA saw last year. For Opening Weekend, all three are opening their season and with bigger targets ahead it is hard to see them burning too many matches. Still, one never knows.

Trek-Segafredo

Season to date: A couple of wins, Mads Pedersen in Besseges and Matteo Moschetti in Valenciana. Ho hum. Pedersen’s second in La Marseillaise is probably their best result thus far and Giulio Ciccone looked sprightly enough in Valenciana. Biding their time.

Last year: Pedersen looked like he might justify the off-season hype (yes, I was guilty of it) with a win in KBK a day after the whole team missed the key breaks in Omloop. The spring was great because Jasper Stuyven won MSR, but in pure cobbles terms his fourth in the Ronde was the highlight once we got through the first two days. It was a solid season but not quite what they’d hoped for on the roughest roads.

Expectations: This team are worth mentioning because it appears they have belatedly learned a lesson and won’t be working too hard too soon. Pedersen misses Opening Weekend altogether and this is Stuyven’s team to lead. He is kicking off his season here, and in the years when he’s had Opening Weekend success he’s done plenty of work before coming home. So don’t expect too much just yet, but hopefully that means they’ll be more competitive in the biggest races. Ryan Mullen has defected to Bora, but otherwise it is a similar team to last year.

AG2R – Citroen

Season to date: They’re winless, and looking pretty ordinary to date. Still early days, but you’d hope to see a spark from somewhere pretty soon. Stan Dewulf got a podium in Andalucia, which is promising. He rides on Saturday but not Sunday.

Last year: As the reinvention of AG2R as a major classics unit continues, they were solid but unspectacular. An aging Greg van Avermaet took third in Ronde which was probably the highlight. Oliver Naesen had a spring that must have disappointed him but he did manage 4th in E3. Meanwhile, Stan Dewulf’s breakout came later in the season but he’s been a cobbles stud as a junior (including an U23 Roubaix win) and is one of Belgium’s brighter talents.

Dewulf pack. No, I’m not done with that joke yet
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Expectations: As I say, they could use a spark. You can probably tell that I’m leaning towards Dewulf emerging as a third threat alongside Golden Greg and Naesen. All three have racing in their legs and I think that they are going to be working harder for a performance this weekend than much of the competition. Whether they can achieve it is, of course, another matter.

UAE

Season to date: Fernando Gaviria and Alessandro Covi have each grabbed a couple of stage wins and are part of the squad for the weekend. For the rest of the team, Tadej Pogacar won the first mountain stage of the UAE Tour and whilst it is too soon to say he’ll win the overall… he will win the overall. So they’re off to a lively start.

Last year: Matteo Trentin was there or thereabouts on a few occasions (fourth in KBK, third in Gent-Wevelgem and Brabantse Pijl). That was about it, with Fernando Gaviria’s spring severely curtailed by, if memory serves, one of his bouts of Covid.

Expectations: This is a team that increasingly approach every phase of the season with high expectations and whilst they aren’t a cobbles powerhouse, the spring is no exception. Trentin is getting into the “wily veteran” stage; he knows this roads, is climbing better and better, and still has a good finish on him. On his day, Gaviria can look as quick as anyone and whilst it has been a disrupted few years he has some good spring results in his past and shouldn’t be ignored. I’ve chosen to write about this team, though, because of Covi, who hasn’t got much of a track record on cobbles but looks the sort to thrive – he’s a tough puncheur who can climb and sprint and is on hot form early. With just the tiniest experience on cobbles I might have picked him to grab a surprise win, but unless you count fourth in the Flanders U-18 race in 2016, this is all new. Still, watch him closely.

TotalEnergies

Season to date: Well, they’re bossing the Tour du Rwanda. No wins elsewhere but for a smaller team they’ve been nicely conspicuous, with Pierre Latour, Cristian Rodriguez and Eddie Boassen Hagen among those in decent early-season form.

Last year: Anthony Turgis was second in KBK before exposing the flaws in VDS scoring by grabbing lots of top tens without ever threatening a win. Damien Gaudin chipped in with second in Nokere Koerse. Niki Terpstra… started to look his age.

Expectations: They rose pretty significantly when the team went out and brought in Peter Sagan. Thirty two he may be, and coming off a couple of quieter years, but the team will be expecting big things. He’s slated to ride a full cobbles season for the first time since 2019 (11th in the Ronde, 4th in Roubaix). He hasn’t ridden Opening Weekend since 2017. Lots of things were different then, but he won KBK and came second in Omloop. Hard to see why he stopped riding it, frankly. Back to 2022, and he had an anonymous pipe opener in the Tour du Var as was. It is genuinely difficult to know how much hunger he has to succeed but there’s no reason to think he can’t still ride with the very best if he’s fit enough. Support is decent, with Turgis and Terpstra joined by longtime Sagan accomplice Daniel Oss. Probably another team to watch for later in the spring, but the clamour for results will be real. Also for KBK, I haven’t forgotten Chris Lawless’ sprint even if, apparently, everyone else has.

Unrelated: Sagan’s ex-world, current Slovakian champ, TE jersey is hideous
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Team DSM

Season to date: Somewhere in a Netherlands hotel, Rudi Kemna wakes with a start. “Oh God, what time is it? What day? February the what? We overslept!” By which I mean, they’ve been flitting between anonymous and atrocious so far. Romain Bardet’s 6th on the mountain stage of the UAE Tour is probably the highlight of 2022 to date.

Last year: Arguably a better cobbles team with Benoot still in the stable, at least on paper. He was 12th in Flanders and that might be the best they managed. It wasn’t great, guys.

Expectations: The last team I’ll cover in detail, it is easy to forget about DSM and hard to know whether that’s okay or not. I mention them in part because they were so poor last spring and have been so weak to start the season that they must be determined to get some forward momentum. Jon Degenkolb is the main man and this might be his last hurrah, but he’s got seven top-10s between Flanders and Roubaix, including a Hell of the North win in 2015. He was below his best last spring but showed plenty later in the year and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was prominent again this year. Soren Kragh Andersen is probably the better bet for Omloop as he’s had some racing this season already and has a better early-spring record. The coming man is Nils Eekhoff who is a Roubaix espoirs winner. He barely finished a race in a bitterly disappointing spring last year but it is too soon to give up on him.

Other Squads

It is, terrifyingly, ten years since Sep Vanmarcke won Omloop. He’s been prominent in plenty of Opening Weekend races since and was in decent form in Provence, so although there’s limited depth at Israel-Premier Tech he cannot be forgotten. Bahrain-Victorious earn a mention by bringing back Sonny Colbrelli, reigning Roubaix champ, and someone you’d think would enjoy these two races, but it is the start of his season and probably one for later in spring. Astana will base their team around Moscon and Omloop is his first race, too. One in better form is Tim Wellens, who made the podium the last time he rode Omloop and is part of an intriguing Lotto Soudal team with Philippe Gilbert and Florian Vermeesch, separated in age by 17 years but mighty keen. They also bring in Caleb Ewan on Sunday. Alas, Lotto’s classics teams often flatter to deceive.

Remember this?
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Add Nils Pollitt (Bora), Stefan Kung and Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ), Alexander Kristoff (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert) to the long list of riders who’ve performed at these events in previous years and will be hoping to kickstart the classics season on a high. EF-Education First have history in these races with Owain Doull and Michael Valgren, and have once again cobbled together an intriguing mix of reclamation projects, veterans, and youngsters with plenty of chances. Movistar are here because they have to be but I still believe in Johan Jacobs, and Ivan Garcia is a man nobody will want to tow to the finish.

Alpecin-Fenix come in without Mathieu van der Poel, meaning their best chance is probably Tim Merlier sprinting in Kuurne (which is a pretty good plan B, to give them their due). Uno-X Pro Cycling made some noise last spring and have a few riders who could compete, but this might be too hot. Rasmus Tiller is probably their best shot. Cofidis, BikeExchange – Jayco, Arkea (in particular Hugo Hofstetter) and the remaining Pro-Continental teams have some riders who could hope for breakaway miracles or top tens but are probably outclassed for anything more this weekend.

What are they facing?

I can’t imagine anyone new to the sport has waded through that pile of names, so we don’t need a full preview of the races – we all know the score by now. There are a few things to note, however. Saturday sees a very similar Omloop parcours to previous years – we’re going 4km further than last year crossing one named climb fewer, but finishing with the Muur-Bosberg combination of blessed memory and the same fast run into Ninove. Also, as one of us remembers to say every year, don’t sleep on the “flat” cobbled sections in Omloop, which are tougher than in most of the Belgian races.

Sunday sees a Kuurne-Brussels_Kuurne course with more changes, though it seems unlikely to me that they’ll change things significantly. We see Oude-Kwaremont coming out and a few new climbs coming in. The riders are heading further south and Le Bourliquet (1.3km at 6.8%, ramps of 15.3% and narrow) will be the new challenge. However, there’s still a long flat run-in and it is clear from the team selections that DSs are still expecting a bunch finish. That’s been the case for about 50% of recent KBK editions so it is a decent bet, but if the race splinters or the weather is dreadful, there’s no guarantee it’ll come back together.

Having moved back to England’s south-east I’m very close to the start and can confirm that the weather is currently appalling. It has been incredibly windy, today (Thursday) has been marked with torrential rain and some sleet, and all in all it has been great conditions to watch cycling, but awful to race. The riders will get what they want by the weekend, though, with chilly but sunny conditions and wind at a much more moderate level. I don’t think there’s enough to make the sprinters worry.

Who wins?

There probably are worse races to try and pick a winner in. I’m just not entirely sure what they are. It is so hard to judge form, motivation and energy, and just as hard to judge the shape of the race. Ineos have a good record here and I’ll take tuned-up fastman Ethan Hayter to spring a semi-surprise, winning a 15-odd rider gallop ahead of not-yet-tuned-up Wout van Aert and always-ready-early Tim Wellens.

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On Sunday I’ll be very boring, and say that Fabio Jakobsen wins a sprint ahead of Tim Merlier and Fernando Gaviria.

From a VDS perspective, I’d love to see a Quick-Step domination as I’ve got Asgreen and Senechal on my squad as well as Jakobsen. Add in Covi, Stewart, Politt, Pidcock, Wellens, Johannessen (possibly, but I can’t keep up), and van den Berg and I’ve come loaded for bear. The thing is, I know you all have too, because at long last it is time for cobbles riding at Podium Café. Who’ve you got? And who wins?

COBBLES! ARE! BAAAAAAAAAACCCCCCCCCK!