Van Aert is the man to beat this spring
So much for any doubts about Wout van Aert’s form. Despite claiming prior to the race that this year he’s intending to build his form gradually towards his main targets later in the spring to not risk peaking too soon, the Jumbo-Visma rider was already operating on a whole other level to everyone else riding at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, blowing everyone else away with an attack just prior to the Bosberg, then motoring up that climb and to the finish for victory.
If this is him performing under his best level, it’s frightful to think how strong he’ll be when he peaks.
Van Aert was also assisted by an excellent performance from his Jumbo-Visma team, especially Tiesj Benoot. Benoot instigated a select move on the Berendries climb, and then gave every other rider a carrot to catch when he set off alone prior to the Muur-Kapelmuur.
Benoot seemed to relish the role as decoy and team-mate to Van Aert, and could find a new lease of life after his career stalled a little during his two years at DSM.
With Nathan Van Hooydonck also looking very strong at both Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day, Jumbo-Visma look much improved in the classics this season, and look capable of giving Van Aert significant support this spring — something he has arguably lacked in previous spring campaigns, and that would make him an even more fearsome competitor.
Van Vleuten proves she can sprint when neccessary
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) is used to winning races with solo attacks in which she drops every other rider, but her victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday proved that she can sometimes pull out a sprint when necessary.
Heading towards the finish in Ninove, all signs pointed to her fellow escapee Demi Vollering (SD Worx) winning the race. She’s known for having a quicker sprint than Van Vleuten, had spent the past 15km glued to her wheel, and was clearly happier with the situation than Van Vleuten, who remonstrated with her a couple of kilometres from the finish for not taking any turns.
Yet it was Van Vleuten who triumphed in the finale, sprinting like a woman who had been fired up and was drawing strength from her frustration towards Vollering.
Nothing was orthodox about Van Vleuten’s sprint, from the way she launched it early around a corner to the way she got a second wind just when it looked as though Vollering was about to pass her, but it was devastatingly effective nevertheless.
The result confirms that Van Vleuten is in no way slowing down despite having turned 39, and leaves her rivals scratching their heads — if she’s able to get the better of a finisher as fast as Vollering in a sprint, then how can she be beaten?
New SD Worx line-up, same tactics
It was a new-look SD Worx that lined-up in Belgium on Saturday for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but they played by the same tactical rulebook that has given them so much success over the years.
Their strategy was based around making the most of their strength in numbers, with Marlen Reusser forming part of an early breakaway group along with Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo), Liane Lippert (DSM) and Anna Hendersen (Jumbo-Visma), and therefore forcing other teams to chase, while Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky followed wheels.
After the final climb of the Bosberg had been completed, SD Worx appeared to have engineered a perfect scenario. Vollering was attached to Van Vleuten’s wheel without being obliged to take any turns due to the presence of Kopecky and Reusser behind, who in turn weren’t obliged to do any work due to the presence of Vollering ahead. It seemed that whatever was to happen from this point on, an SD Worx rider was going to win.
But it didn’t turn out that way as Van Vleuten instead surprisingly got the better of Vollering in the sprints.
Given how the team had won three of the previous six Het Nieuwsblad editions, twice at the hands of Anna van der Breggen, you can’t help but wonder — would the result today have been different if Van der Breggen was still riding? Their performance today was still very strong, but they still face a big challenge of defeating Van Vleuten now that her old nemesis is no longer riding.
Jakobsen rescues weekend for QuickStep-AlphaVinyl
Mere seconds before the end of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, it seemed QuickStep-AlphaVinyl were doomed for a terrible start of the spring classics season.
Usually so dominant in these races, they were strangely subdued at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where they missed out on most of the big moves, and only had Florian Sénéchal in the final selection.
Then the following day at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, it looked increasingly likely that they’d blown the chance for the on-form Fabio Jakobsen to sprint to victory, as all the efforts of their star domestiques weren’t enough to
All that changed when the break was finally brought back within sight inside the final kilometre, and Jakobsen burst out of the peloton with another lethal acceleration to win the sprint, ensuring the team off to a winning start after all.
The result continues Jakobsen’s fine run of form, and reiterates his status as a contender for the sprinters’ classics — in the post-race interview, he highlighted Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs and Milan-San Remo as targets, which based on his ability to remain in the peloton over yesterday's tough climbs all look realistic.
But the team will nevertheless be concerned with how the rest of the line-up performed. Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert were constantly forced onto the back foot and were unable to make the kind of inroads you’d expect them to while chasing, while Zdenek Stybar was well off the pace in both races.
There’s a long way to go until the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and many races to come before then, but the early signs are that the line-up looks weaker than in previous years — even if Jakobsen’s sprint finish will go some way to making up for that.
Unheralded names shine, while stars make slow start
With Kuurne Brussels Kuurne ending in a bunch sprint, and only one rider successfully breaking clear in Het Nieuwsblad, not much separated the top classics riders during Opening Weekend. Yet there were nevertheless some signs of which riders are looking in good form as the spring classics begin.
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) picked up from where he left of at Paris-Roubaix last autumn, sprinting to second-place at Het Nieuwsblad having earlier shown great strength to follow Benoot’s move on Berendries, and then playing a key role in bringing back Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers) at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Those three riders were arguably the stars of the weekend with their heroic effort and near miss — especially Van der Hoorn, who had amazingly good legs considering he had been out in the break all day. Although not a household name, he’ll be one to watch for the rest of the spring.
Likewise, Victor Campanaerts (Lotto-Soudal) continues to improve in the classics, and somehow managed to finish fifth in the sprint at Het Nieuwsblad despite having to deal with multiple crashes and mechanicals earlier on.
Other, more established names weren’t so impressive. Tom Pidcock admitted to making "too many mistakes" across both races, leading to him not registering a result despite making the selection in both races. And Peter Sagan (Total Energies) currently looks alarmingly far away from his best form, finishing several minutes behind the main peloton in both races, as he continues to recover from catching Covid-19.
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