By Robbie Broughton
Let’s leave the deserts of the middle east and the sun-soaked southern hemisphere of Australia for some traditional, attritional, hardman cycling. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad rolls out on Saturday and with it heralds the arrival of the long-awaited spring classics. Expect: cobbles, short and sharp climbs, rain, sleet, mud and pure grit. It’s time to go into battle.
This is bike racing for the powerhouse one-day specialists who are able to beast it up quick climbs, power their way through rough terrain and still have enough in the tank for a sprint finish.
Billed as a mini Tour of Flanders Het Nieuwsblad features the spectacular Muur van Geraardsbergen, a twisty cobbled ascent of some 475 metres maxing out at a gradient of nearly 20%. That will set the heart racing. But there are thirteen ‘hellingen’ (climbs) in total, three of which are on cobbled sections.
Omloop (meaning circuit) can trace its history back to 1945 when the Flemish and left-leaning Het-Volk newspaper wanted to start a new race to rival the Tour of Flanders which had been seen as close to the Nazis during WW2. It became Het Nieuwsblad when it merged with a rival newspaper in 2009.
It has become the opening event in the Belgian cycling season and its countrymen have dominated the race for decades winning 56 out of its 63 editions. Often affected by cold and wintry conditions, these tough guys of northern Europe have doled out lessons to less hardy riders in how to cope with the cold, the wet and the cobbles.
For the riders it’s a chance for them to test themselves after winter training. For the fans, well, who isn’t desperate to see the first battles of the year unfold on the cobbles?
The Classics often produce some truly exciting and memorable bike racing – as one day races they’re all-or-nothing encounters that powerful teams are unable to smother. Any rider with serious ambitions has to make their move at some point. Sit back and you’ll be left behind. That’s why we’ve seen some classic mano a mano battles over the years that require the winner to show the traditional qualities we all admire and love: grit, determination, suffering. It’s the one with the fiercest burning flame of desire who usually comes through as victor.
Last year saw Greg Van Avermaet win Het Nieuwsblad for the second time after a Brit, Ian Stannard, had the impudence to steal victory in 2014 and 2015. If Van Avermaet repeats his stunning classics season of last year (as well as Het Nieuwsblad, he won E3 Harelbeke, Gent Wevelgem, not to mention Paris Roubaix) he will be the first ever rider to win it on three consecutive occasions.
Philippe Gilbert, who won this all the way back in 2008, will also be a hot favourite, while his teammate at Quick-Step, Fernando Gaviria, will be looking to take a Spring Classic trophy back to his native Colombia.
British hopes will rest with an inexperienced and young line up of Owain Doull, Chris Lawless and Jonathan Dibben. This is a great opportunity to impose themselves on a world class field and make names for themselves.
The next day we have Kuurne – Brussels-Kuurne to savour – although it’s seen as an easier course, less hilly, and likely to favour an out and out sprinter, weather can play havoc, disrupting a bunch sprint. There’ a respite from the wintry north on 17th March with Milan San Remo. But then it’s back to the windswept lowlands for E3 Harlebeke on 23rd March, Flanders on 1st April, Paris Roubaix on the 8th. Liege – Bastogne – Liege closes the classics season on 22nd April.
Bring it on. The season has well and truly started!
Eurosport will be broadcasting all the events live.