The real kick-off of the cycling season in Europe is the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, hereafter referred to simply as Omloop. It’s not cycling season until the best riders in the world hit Flandrian roads in the early spring. After weeks of races in warm, exotic climes, ProTour riders will head to Belgium for the first of many one-day Classics races that will continue until April.
None of those six day stages races here. The Belgians would rather have a bare-knuckle brawl, with broken teeth and slumped backs bent in a single day. Over a 200km+ course on cobbles, rough roads and steep, short, unforgiving climbs, the big men and rouleurs will be in their glory. Last year’s winner, Sebastian Langeveld, will return to defend his title but wearing GreenEdge colors in 2012 instead of the blinding orange of RaboBank. The hero of last year’s Classics season, Phillipe Gilbert, has also been confirmed to take part in the first true Classics race of the season. Other Classics men confirmed for Omloop are Tom Boonen, Thor Hushovd (who, along with Alessandro Ballan, will give BMC three options with Gilbert), Lars Bak, and Michael Barry. Barry’s teammate for SKY, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, will likely miss Omloop because of illness.
After an impressive showing and overall win in Qatar, Tom Boonen is a smart pick for the win at Omloop. Really any Belgian is a pretty safe pick; only for foreigners have ever won at Omloop. One of them, however, is in this race. Juan Antonia Flecha, an outstanding Classics man, will be a main option alongside Michael Barry for Team SKY against the numerous Belgians looking for home glory.
This year’s route features many of the same climbs as the more famous and prestigious Ronde van Vlanderaan, with the infamos Eikenberg climb perhaps the most well-known. The Moleberg climb, however, tends to be extremely decisive and serves as a launching pad at 39 km to go. It would be shocking to see a group of more than twenty or so riders together by the top of that ascent. Teams have spent the past few days surveying the course on recon rides, including Lotto, pictured above.
Omloop is a messy race. Mud, grit, and more than a bit of guts are sprayed liberally along the roads. Classics races like this are the best opportunity to see the big men succeed and even the very best suffer like dogs for the win. It’s painful. It’s agonizing. It’s the type of race you’d do anything to race for yourself one day.
Omloop coverage will begin early Saturday morning. As always, check here for a livestream link, and follow @kolotc on Twitter for all the action.