The Belgian classics season kicks off this weekend with a double dose: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday. Team Sky has proven strong in the races over the last two years and is a favourite once again.

“We have quite a few strong classics riders. In a race like this it’s good to have numbers at the end,” Ian Stannard told Cycling Weekly. “If everything goes well, I expect to be right at the front coming into the finish” of Het Nieuwsblad.

Stannard finished third in Kuurne two years ago in “atrocious” conditions one day after team-mate Juan Antonio Flecha won Het Nieuwsblad. Last year, Flecha placed second on Saturday and Sky’s Chris Sutton won Kuurne on Sunday.

With Edvald Boasson Hagen ruled out with illness and after a good showing in the Tour of Oman, Stannard is leaning more towards Het Nieuwsblad. He will likely be one of the leaders with Flecha, Mathew Hayman and Bernhard Eisel.

The team faces BMC Racing with Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd, Omega Pharma with Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel, and other top teams. Most of its riders arrived back from Oman on Monday to make their way to Belgium. Stannard arrived yesterday, but others are still to arrive and the team opted not to preview the course in favour of an extra recovery day today following Oman. Stannard rode for a few hours and tested equipment.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad starts and ends, after 200 kilometres, in Ghent and includes 10 climbs and nine cobbled sections. The final climb is the Molenberg this year, followed by 36 kilometres and four cobbled sections.

Even with climbs like Oude Kwaremont, the 195-kilometre Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne usually ends in a sprint. Sky’s World Champion Mark Cavendish arrives and will race alongside defending champion Sutton.

“These races are very unpredictable anyway; anything can happen on the cobblestones and bergs. Weather conditions, wind condition… it all plays a massive part in it,” added Stannard. “It’s kind of thinking on your feet and making the best of the situation.”

Weather is expected to be 12°C and sunny for Saturday and Sunday, but wind off the North Sea could tear the races apart.

Top picks for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Tom Boonen (OmegaPharma-Quick Step): Looks to be back to his best
Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky): Experience will pay
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): Two-time winner
Matti Breschel (Rabobank): Ready to prove after hard 2011 year
Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing): Will play off of Gilbert

Top picks for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Mark Cavendish (Sky): World Champ off to hot start
André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol): Ready to return after Qatar miss
Tom Boonen (OmeganPharma-Quick Step): If not Saturday, will revenge Sunday
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda): Getting closer to first win this year
Chris Sutton (Sky): Defending champion and will play off of Cavendish

Recent winners
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

2011 – Sebastian Langeveld
2010 – Juan Antonio Flecha
2009 – Thor Hushovd
2008 – Philippe Gilbert
2007 – Filippo Pozzato
2006 – Philippe Gilbert
2005 – Nick Nuyens
2004 – Race not held
2003 – Johan Museeuw
2002 – Peter Van Petegem
2001 – Michele Bartoli

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
2011 – Chris Sutton
2010 – Bobbie Traksel
2009 – Tom Boonen
2008 – Steven de Jongh
2007 – Tom Boonen
2006 – Nick Nuyens
2005 – George Hincapie
2004 – Steven de Jongh
2003 – Roy Sentjens
2002 – Jaan Kirsipuu
2001 – Peter Van Petegem

Chris Sutton wins the 2011 edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne


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