After the fly-away races that start the year, the Belgian season begins this weekend with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne double-bill (February 26 & 27).
Gone are the soaring temperatures and high humidity levels; the riders will be expecting the cold, wind and rainy conditions that the Flanders region is best known for.
Although lacking the stature of the Spring Classics, these races often give a good indication of who will be the men to beat come April.
There is plenty of British interest in both races, with Ian Stannard (Team Sky) looking to repeat his impressive third place finish at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne twelve months ago.
However, despite their back-to-back positioning on the calendar, Stannard is just one of three Brits taking the start in both races.
Interestingly, no rider has won Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in the same year – or triumphed at Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders in one season.
However, Eddy Merckx (1973), Franco Ballerini (1995) and Johan Museeuw (2000) have achieved the Het Nieuwsblad – Paris-Roubaix double.
Race radio issue flares up
With the UCI ban on race radios now extending to all 1.HC and 2.HC races, this weekend will be the first time these semi-Classics have been held without the controversial devices.
Despite this, Rabobank have told the Dutch press that they plan to ignore the restrictions and ride with radios. Lars Boom added that several other teams were planning on doing the same, in protest at the UCI’s decision.
In reply, UCI president Pat McQuaid has stated that the race will be cancelled if this happens, with the results being nullified.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad course has been modified slightly to make the racing both harder and less predictable.
The 203km race takes in nine climbs, starting with the Tenbosse after 76km. Four of the other climbs passed – the Taaienberg, the Wolvenberg, the Leberg and the Molenberg – also form part of the Tour of Flanders.
A new cobble section at Haaghoek has been added, and the riders will tackle this three times. After they pass it for the final time, the route takes them up the Leberg and Molenberg.
It is here, the organisers hope, that the race will become more selective, even if there are 35km to go from the top of the Molenberg to the finish in Ghent.
With no more listed climbs, the race heads along three more cobbled sections – the last of which, the Steenakker, comes with 3km remaining – before reaching the finish line.
While the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne route is not quite as tough, the race has recently been more at the mercy of the weather than its more prestigious brother. In freezing conditions, only twenty-six riders finished last year – even after the 176km course was shortened by twenty kilometres.
The route has also been modified for 2011, with the organisers – seemingly undeterred by last year’s inclement happenings – extending it to 193km.
Eight climbs line Sunday’s route, with the Oude Kwaremont coming after 108km. Having already passed over the Edelareberg, La Houppe, the Kanarieberg and the Kruisberg, many expect a decisive split will happen here, on the day’s fifth climb.
The final three climbs of the Cote du Trieu, the Tiegemberg and the Nokereberg come within 25km of each other, before riders complete three laps of a pan-flat 13.5km circuit around Kuurne to finish.
Coming at the back end of the winter, the traditional Belgian double bill has a history of inclement weather conditions.
Het Nieuwsblad was not held in 1986 and 2004 because of snow, and the 1955, 1974, 1988 and 2005 editions were held in snowy conditions.
Last year, storm-force winds, rain and hail greeted those competing in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. The conditions were the worst since 2003 when, once again, only twenty-six riders completed the race after gale force winds and constant rain forced over 130 riders to pull out.
Although the temperatures are forecast to be higher than last year, rain is scheduled to fall on Saturday afternoon for Het Nieuwsblad.
Despite taking the start at both races, Tom Boonen (Quick Step) declared this week that he is not riding to win.
The Belgian was victorious at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2007 and 2009, but has never crossed the line first at Het Nieuwsblad. He is the only former winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne competing on Sunday.
Team Sky continued the fine start to their debut season at these races last year, with Juan Antonio Flecha becoming the first Spanish winner of Het Nieuwsblad, after controversially losing out to Nick Nuyens in 2005.
Flecha will lead Team Sky on Saturday, with Edvald Boasson Hagen seemingly being their man for Sunday’s race. Ian Stannard gives them another strong card to play.
Along with Flecha, Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) are the other previous winners of Het Nieuwsblad who will be looking to take the title once again.
Surprise winner of last year’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Bobbie Traksel will not be defending his title; double Tour of Flanders winner Stijn Devolder will lead the Vacansoleil team in his absence.
There will be seven British riders in both races, though only Stannard, Sky teammate Jeremy Hunt and Garmin-Cervelo’s Dan Lloyd will ride the two events.
For Het Nieuwsblad, Russell Downing is the third Briton lining up for Team Sky, while Lloyd is joined by Roger Hammond and David Millar. Adam Blythe (Omega Pharma- Lotto) completes the British contingent.
Stalybridge’s Hamish Haynes (Colba- Mercury), Andrew Fenn (a former winner of the junior Paris- Roubaix), Mark McInally (both An Post- Sean Kelly) and James Spragg (Donckers Koffie-Jelly Belly) are all scheduled to ride Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
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
2000 – Johan Museeuw
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
2000 – Andrei Tchmil
Flecha wins Het Nieuwsblad
Dutchman Traksel wins epic Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Stannard confident ahead of Belgian season openers
Classics 2011: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index
Juan Antonio Flecha wins last year’s Het Nieuwsblad
Ian Stannard leads the key breakaway in the 2010 edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne