Five things we learned from Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

The Belgian cobbled semi-classics have certainly whetted our appetite for the bigger one-day races that are yet to come.

Two British winners was something few of us could have predicted before the weekend, but Ian Stannard and Mark Cavendish delivered the goods for Team Sky and Etixx-Quick-Step respectively.

Here are five things we learned from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

1. Never underestimate your opponent

Ask 100 cycling fans who they think would win in a sprint between Ian Stannard and Niki Terpstra and the numbers would likely be unkind to the Brit. But the Team Sky rider defied the odds for the second year running to pip a classics specialist on the line.

Last year BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet was the conquered foe; this time Terpstra felt the force of a Stannard sprint. And when Stannard sprints I expect Team Sky’s wheel and pedal providers are wincing as the rider hammers their product to within an inch of their lives.

Ian Stannard wins the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Watson)

Ian Stannard wins the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Watson)

Terpstra sat on the Brit’s wheel for much of the last three kilometres, essentially riding his teammate Tom Boonen completely out of contention by forcing the speed higher.

When it came to the final metres the Dutchman clearly thought he’d have beating of Stannard by going ahead of him in the lead-up to the line. Even cheekily pushing Stannard towards the barriers wasn’t enough as the Sky man simply sat down and sped past Terpstra at the last minute.

Terpstra admitted his mistake later on Twitter. He’ll have one eye on Stannard on the future.

2. Donkeys are a big deal in Kuurne

Give a map of Belgium to a non-cycling fan and the chances of them picking out Kuurne on it are quite slim. When testing my own knowledge I plumped for a place to the east of Belgium before realising it would be a 400 mile round trip to Brussels and back.

Actually, Kuurne lies in West Flanders, close to Kortrijk and the people who live there are affectionately nicknamed ezels, which translates to ‘donkeys’.

According to the historically accurate Wikipedia, the name comes from when the Kuurne traders would set off for Kortrijk market with their ass-drawn carts at the crack of dawn.

They took the nickname to heart, apparently, creating Donkey Beer, Donkey Cake and Donkey bread rolls to name but a few, and even named Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ‘the Donkey Race’.

That explains why Mark Cavendish was clutching a toy donkey on the podium on Sunday, which I’m sure his kids will enjoy more than the traditional winner’s flowers.

Mark Cavendish and his strategically-placed donkey (Watson)

Mark Cavendish and his strategically-placed donkey (Watson)

There you go. A little history for you. I feel like Paul Sherwen talking about 15th Century castles…

3. Ian Stannard is still a machine

That’s right, the hyperbole about Stannard doesn’t end there. His bear-like strength has led to the nickname Yogi in the peloton, but even bears wouldn’t go out of their way to cause themselves more pain.

The photo by Graham Watson below could go down as one of the year, as Stannard proved his power by hitting the cobbles while all of his rivals at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne wimped out on the dirt at the side of the road.

Ian Stannard in the 2015 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (Watson)

Ian Stannard in the 2015 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (Watson)

His exploits at Het Nieuwsblad the day before clearly gave him a taste for cobbles and pain and hopefully his Classics season won’t end up in a ditch at Ghent-Wevelgem again this year.

4. Never write off Mark Cavendish

“Mark who?” I hear you say. The lesser-known sprinter from the Isle of Man won a race on Sunday ending a barren run of two whole weeks without a win.

Granted, the Manx Missile had not entered a race in that time and had been out with his Etixx-Quick-Step chums recce-ing the Poggio for his crack at Milan-San Remo at the end of March.

While the famous Italian climb comes 6.2km from the finish line, the sprint to the line at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne builds up for about 50km, with organisers managing to find a pan-flat circuit in Flanders.

Mark Cavendish wins the 2015 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (Watson)

Mark Cavendish wins the 2015 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (Watson)

It takes Cavendish’s win tally to five on the young year, a feat which took him until April as he jetted off to the heralded Presidential Tour of Turkey to feast on the rich pickings on offer.

Dominating the races where none of the mainstream sprinters turn up is somewhat of a hallmark of Cav’s former HTC teammate Andre Greipel, but the Manxman cannot be accused of that this year.

Greipel may have cried off with a sore throat, but Cavendish still beat out Milan-San Remo rival Alexander Kristoff and Team Sky’s Elia Viviani in a more-than respectable field.

His biggest challenge, on paper, will come next week, however, as he faces off for the first time this season with heir apparent Marcel Kittel at Tirreno-Adriatico.

Cavendish got his Classics season off to a great start, but he will undoubtedly not be satisfied with just a KBK win on his palmares this season.

5. Cycling is not a numbers game

If you found yourself sitting through France v Wales in the Six Nations rugby on Saturday evening you will have heard Welsh great Jonathan Davies continually shouting “Numbers!” as he commentated on the action.

It wasn’t a bout of Tourette’s that caused Davies to do that, but merely stating that Wales had a numerical advantage over the French when they passed the ball out wide.

Hours earlier, in the final stages the Etixx-Quick-Step support car must have been making the exact same cry as Boonen. Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh found themselves outnumbering poor Stannard.

Ian Stannard follows three Etixx riders in the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Watson)

Ian Stannard follows three Etixx riders in the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Watson)

In Vandenbergh the Belgian team even had someone who could beat the Brit in stature but not, as it turns out, in power.

As Stannard powered along on the front of the decisive breakaway, Terpstra inextricably clung to his wheel to virtually eliminate his teammates.

It’s all hypothetical, but had Terpstra not taken the bait and chased Stannard, it’s likely the Brit would not have kept the hammer down for so long, which could have brought the Etixx boys back into contention.

>>> The inside story of Ian Stannard’s incredible Het Nieuwsblad win

Stannard admitted that Etixx’s attacking gameplan helped him to victory, but even the Essex-born rider couldn’t have dreamed of just how terribly executed their tactics were.

A similar thing occurred in the women’s race, as Lizzie Armitstead’s Boels-Dolmans team took three of the top four spots, but failed to win the race. Rabo Liv’s Anna van der Breggen took the title, beating out Boels’ Eleonora van Dijk, Armitstead and Chantal Blaak.

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