Just getting back from a post-FSA DS ski holiday, and as of this writing, with just the ceremonial return flight left, my knees hold a presumptively insurmountable lead over grim reality! Anything can happen on that final stage though, so I don’t plan to celebrate until it becomes official and I can turn the pedals over on my (checks weather) indoor trainer tomorrow.
[UPDATE: Anything can happen, apparently, because the airline has extended my trip by two days. So my knees are not yet out of the woods.]
But the timing is perfect, IMO. Taking a ski trip is a good way to get skiing over with, when you have adolescent male children, as opposed to the never-ending drip of local ski outings. And though I love skiing, largely because it helps me love winter, I am so, so ready to get on the bike for real. Winter may have four weeks remaining but I would like to free my psyche from its snowy, icy grip.
This matches well with the rhythm of being a cycling fan, because this weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the not-so-literal but kinda perfect opener to the cycling season. To me it’s like my morning latte: nothing of value happens before it, it doesn’t define the entire rest of my day, it’s not even my actual breakfast. But it does signal whether things are about to get real.
[* Speaking of morning rituals, can we just admire how great it would be if you could use “nieuw” in Wordle?] [Also I am up to three unnecessary bracketed sidebars and the season hasn’t even begun.]
There isn’t much different about this year’s race — just the addition of the Molenberg in place of Marlboroughstraat on the climbing side, and the Lange Munte substituting for the Huispontweg cobbles. The weather will be dry and typical of late winter. The World Tour teams are all here along with the top squads from the Pro Conti world, especially the ones with Belgian ties. The race remains a slightly nostalgic re-running of the old Flanders course to Ninove, with less at stake but plenty of attacks anyway. Nothing but fun.
- Noticeably absent from the startlist are the Yin-Yang classics boys, Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, who will wait for next week’s Strade Bianche to join battle again, but after that it’s a deep field. Van Aert and the recuperating Michael Valgren are the only active former winners not making the start Saturday. If you don’t feel like looking it up, that would be a reference to Davide Ballerini, Jasper Stuyven, Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. Other Bigs include Paris-Roubaix winner Dylan van Baarle, who takes over for Van Aert as Jumbo’s co-leader with Tiesj Benoot; ex-Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen; former P-R winner John Degenkolb; and past Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff. There’s double-Dwars winner Yves Lampaert; a guy he beat in Mike Teunissen; curiosities galore like Jonathan Milan, Fred Wright, Stan Dewulf, ... I could go on and on. But all the talk is about Tom Pidcock.
- Pidcock is rightly a favorite, with a couple podium places on the cobbles, plus a Brabantse Pijl win, and generally coming off form hardened by the Cross season. Your guess at who will actually win is as good as mine, but he’s a bettor’s favorite right now. Except his most newsworthy moment this week might end up being his Instagram post explaining how this video was simply the work of a trained professional and we should all maybe calm down.
In fairness, this is not about Pidcock doing anything too odd for a cyclist. Descending is one of his primary skills. No, it’s more about people maybe not fully appreciating how insane cyclists are, all the time. All of them.
- Is the Omloop a referendum on Sep Vanmarcke? Other than Avermaet (whose referendum failed two years ago), nobody here has made this their signature event the way Sep has. Forever a cobbles combatant, Vanmarcke has been on the scene since he wheeled past me at the 2010 Gent-Wevelgem (yes, I am the hero here), hours before taking a shock second place behind Philippe Gilbert. But for all his time spent among the Bigs, as the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix was being decided, he has only the one Omloop win from 2012, outsprinting no less than 2012 Tom Boonen, the guy who went on to win every other cobbled classic, capped by (if memory serves me) a Paris-Roubaix win where he attacked solo from Compiègne. He has been second and third in the monuments, second and third in G-W and Dwars, fourth in E3... and that win in the Omloop. Not only that, but he’s added three more podium placings and two more top fives there, the last third place in 2021. At 34, Vanmarcke is hardly done, but he’s slipped out of the World Tour with Israel-Premier Tech, and it’s natural to wonder where he is headed. But before you go too far down that road, he scored a terrific sprint win in the Maryland Classic last season, showing he can compete at the top level, or close to it anyway. So who is Sep now? Should we still be interested in his Cobbles campaign? I think we will get an answer Saturday.
- I can’t say too much that means much about the women’s race, apart from the bland observation that Annemiek van Vleuten either will or won’t blow the field away — something she has only done twice (in the last three years). But this week the story came out that Flanders Classics — operators of de Ronde, Dwars, the Omloop, Gent-Wevelgem etc. — will pay equal prizes to the winners of its men’s and women’s events, a landmark moment in the sport. For years women athletes and teams have complained about the disparity between men’s and women’s prizes, and FC is stepping up to right the wrong. They are doing so with support from KPMG, the Dutch accounting behemoth, to the tune of EUR1.6m. And there’s probably someone out there who will explain why even this step is a far cry from where the sport needs to go. But it sure seems like a huge step forward.
PICK TO WIN: Arnaud De Lie
I have a hunch that this edition might not end up getting blown all over the road, though even if it does, that hardly rules out De Lie. Anyway, in a closer race the sprinters could have a say, and he’s the top pick in there. Just think he has something to prove, that his breakout season, largely in smaller races, was no fluke.
Who do you have?