The windswept roads and bergs of northern Belgium will once again play host to the spiritual curtain-raiser of the professional road season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this Saturday, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day.
The weather may have turned distinctly arctic in recent days but as the chip pans across Flanders fire up and the collective fingers of Flemish cycling fans get ready at the ring pulls of their cans of trappist ale, Belgium’s ‘openingsweekend’ means spring is on the way.
And what better way to kick off the season than with a cruel wind off the North Sea and temperatures that will barely nudge their way above zero all weekend.
Sky’s classics campaign begins
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will be the first chance to see the much anticipated classics challenge from Team Sky, who have spent the winter trying to re-write the rulebook about how to prepare for an assault on the one-day races as they did for the Tour de France in 2012.
Brits Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas will be the ones to watch on the 200km out and back route from Ghent, which in recent years has finished with a small group fighting it out to the line.
Will Sky’s approach pay off on the lottery of the cobbles and crosswinds? Or will the tried and tested methods of classics super-team Omega Pharma-Quickstep prove too strong? Tom Boonen may not be quite on form after his elbow surgery earlier in January, but look out for his lieutenants Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra.
Mat Hayman leading the escape in 2011
Look out too for three Brits on NetApp-Endura – Russ Downing, Erick Rowsell and Johnny McEvoy.
There is plenty of British interest in the women’s race, which also takes place this Saturday. Lizzie Armitstead, tenth last year, will lead her new Boels-Dolmans team that also includes Emma Trott while Jo Rowsell will make her debut for Wiggle-Honda.
Lucy Garner will likewise ride her first race for Argos-Shimano, while a young Breast Cancer Care squad will feature Ciara Horne, Kayleigh Brogan, Eileen Roe, Elinor Thorogood, Penny Rowson and Anne Ewing.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2013: Top picks
Ian Stannard (Sky): will want to win in a mud-splattered national champion’s jersey.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM): first in 2010, second in 2011 and third in 2012. Should come fourth.
Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco): last year’s winner has a strong team around him.
Niki Terpstra (OPQS): rode like an ox for Cavendish in Qatar.
Taylor Phinney (BMC): looking strong after dragging his team around the desert earlier this month.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2013: Previous winners
2012: Sep Vanmarcke
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
Sprint showdown in Kuurne
Despite being held just down the road in Kortrijk, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne tends to be a very different race. Two laps of a flat 16km finishing circuit have provided two bunch sprints in the past two years, one win for Chris Sutton in 2011 and another for Mark Cavendish last year.
This year Cavendish and his main rival Andre Greipel should be set for a showdown and their two strong Belgian teams (Lotto-Belisol and Omega Pharma-Quickstep) will do their best to engineer a bunch finish.
Cavendish on top in Kuurne as world champion
Not only will the winner be one step closer to 100 professional wins, but they will also get their hands on one of the best prizes in cycling: the Kuurne cuddly donkey.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne 2013: Top picks
Mark Cavendish (OPQS): buoyant, on form and defending champion.
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol): a strong man with a strong team.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky): Sky have delivered pitch-perfect leadouts in the past two years.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp): could he muscle in amongst the sprint heavy-weights?
Adam Blythe (Blythe): Sheffield’s fast finisher could be one to watch.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne 2013: TV
British Eurosport will be showing live coverage on Eurosport 2 at 2.15-4.15pm
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne 2013: Previous winners
2012: Mark Cavendish
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