The first cobbled Classics come around this weekend and we've taken a look at some of the riders who will be looking to do well at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
His eyes are firmly set on Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders in April and having underperformed in the Monuments in recent years, the Slovakian returns to Het Nieuwsblad for the first time since 2010.
Sagan is pretty much a ‘one to watch’ in any race he enters, but he will undoubtedly go into the race on Saturday as the strong favourite.
Luckily for Niki Terpstra, he won’t have to come face to face with Ian Stannard at Het Nieuwsblad this year. Last year the Team Sky man embarrassed Terpstra and two of his teammates by outfoxing them when in a three-on-one situation at the end of the race.
A former Paris-Roubaix winner, Terpstra knows what it takes to win challenging one-day races and he’s been around long enough not to let last year’s bad experience bother him.
More at home in the hilly Ardennes Classics, BMC‘s Philippe Gilbert didn’t look out of place when he finished eighth at OHN last year. He’s reportedly harboured hopes of riding the big cobbled races for a few years, and indeed finished third at the Tour of Flanders in 2010, but has taken a back seat to Greg Van Avermaet in recent years.
If they work together Gilbert and Van Avermaet could both pose a threat in Ghent, although he will still probably play second fiddle to his Belgian teammate.
With Stannard choosing not to defend his title, Luke Rowe has the task of trying to claim Team Sky’s third victory in as many years.
Ninth last year was a precursor to eighth at Paris-Roubaix, so Rowe is no stranger to challenging in the cobbled one-day races. He won’t have the strongest team, when compared to the likes of BMC and Etixx-Quick Step, but his experience should help him place well.
He may be 35, but you can never overlook a man with the experience of Tom Boonen. Four Paris-Roubaix titles, three Tour of Flanders wins and a few Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurnes are in the bag but he’s never stood on the top step at OHN.
Last year he was part of the Etixx trio left for dead by Stannard, but like Terpstra he won’t let that get in his way of challenging again for an early-season win.
Greg Van Avermaet
Van Avermaet has been remarkably consistent in one-day races in recent years without winning one. He’s finished in pretty much every position in the top 10 in the big races except for first.
Last year he came sixth at OHN, third in both Roubaix and Flanders and then fifth at the Amstel Gold Race. He’s got to win one sooner or later, so this could well be his year.
Edward Theuns will have his work cut out to actually win the race this year, but having finished 14th with a Pro Continental team as a 23-year-old last year it’ll be interesting to see what he can do with a WorldTour team backing him.
Second at Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Scheldeprijs last year was part of the reason why Trek-Segafredo snapped him up, and with Fabian Cancellara retiring at the end of the year it’ll be interesting to see if the Belgian can step into the Swiss’s shoes.
Of course, it’s not just the men’s race on Saturday, the women are set for a cracking showdown as well, with four former scheduled to start. Lizzie Armitstead has never won OHN, finishing third in each of the last two seasons.
It’s a huge year for the Brit, starting her season in the world champion’s jersey at OHN and building up to her World Cup defence and shot at the Olympic road race.
Wiggle-High5 go into the race with two former champions in their midst, with Johansson winning in 2010 and 2011. Although now 32 years of age, the Swede proved last season that she’s still a threat in one-day races, finishing fifth in the World Championships and claiming a host of other World Cup top 10s.
Anna Van der Breggen
Anna Van der Breggen was perhaps the best female cyclist of 2015, winning one-day races, stage races and narrowly losing out to Armitstead in the World Championships.
One of her wins, though, was ahead of Armitstead and Ellen Van Dijk at OHN in her first race of the season, so she’s certainly one of the favourites for Saturday’s race.