Though there have already been races in Australia, the Middle-East and Asia, most cycling fans consider Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Saturday, March 1) to be the real start of the season. The Belgian race marks the beginning of the spring classics, and will come as a shock to the system to rider who have so far built up their form in the warm roads at the likes of the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Oman.
With the spring classics come poor weather conditions and cobbled roads, making for the kind of tough cycling conditions that the Belgian public adore. Fortunately for those less averse to riding in cold and rainy conditions the weather is unlikely to be as cold as in 2013’s freezing spring, but rain is still a possibility and could make the cobbled roads even more treacherous.
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Though considered by some to be something of a warm up for some of the monuments held later in sprint – the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – Het Nieuwsblad is still an important race in its own right. For fans of the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen mourning its removal from the Tour of Flanders route have a chance to see the peloton tackle the climb at Het Nieuwsblad, where it is situated 84 kilometres into the race.
The real racing however begins at the Taainberg, 60 kilometres from the finish. This is the climb where home favourite Tom Boonen traditionally takes to the front of the race to confirm his status as the patron of the classics. After this climb the peloton tackle the Eikenberg, Wolvenberg, Leberg and Molenberg, all of which present an opportunity for riders to form a breakaway group or distance their rivals.
For Sky, Geraint Thomas does not ride, but fellow Brits Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe will take part alongside Edvald Boasson Hagen. With big names Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert missing, Het Nieuwsblad presents an opportunity for lesser names to make a name for themselves while the phony war between the big names commences.
Meanwhile in the women’s race, Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead will ride seeking to improve upon her 10th place finish in 2012, while 19-year-old Lucy Garner begins her second season in the pro peloton.
Ones to Watch
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)
There are two inevitabilities to Tom Boonen’s early season; that he will win a stage of the Tour of Qatar, and lead the peloton over the Taainberg at Het Nieuwsblad. He’s already achieved the former these this season, and with a strong team behind him should fulfil the latter on Saturday. Het Nieuwsblad remains the one major spring classic missing from his palmares, but despite his record he goes into the race as favourite.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky)
Now 26 years old, the talented Norwegian is due a big season. With a quick sprint and strength over the cobblestones, the Sky rider is well suited to the race, and victory would both mark one of the biggest achievements and act as a statement of intent for the rest of the season.
Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin)
Vanmarcke made a name for himself by winning here in 2012, and has since gone on to finish second at Paris-Roubaix. Still only 25 years old, Vanmarcke is considered the next big hope of Belgian cycling, so the pressure is on for him to deliver another big result.
Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling)
For the first time in years Chavanel begins the classics season as captain of his team. The Frenchman moved from Omega-Pharma QuickStep to Swiss outfit IAM Cycling in the winter, and it will be intriguing to see whether, at 34 years of age, Chavanel can translate the kind of form he showed riding for Boonen at his previous team into race-winning rides.
Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol)
Eighth here last year and third at the Tour of Flanders, Roelandts has hit the ground running in 2014 with second place finishes in stages at the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Qatar. He’ll be hoping to translate that into a first for his team Lotto-Belisol, who are desperate to bridge the gap between themselves and their Belgian rivals Omega Pharma-QuickStep.
Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)
Cyclo-cross sensation Stybar finally made a successful transition into the road discipline last season with an impressive ride at Paris-Roubaix, a stage win at the Vuelta, and the overall at the Eneco Tour. Though he will ostensibly be riding for Boonen, Stybar will likely be given some freedom to go for the win himself should Boonen not feel on top form.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2014: TV schedule
No live coverage of the 2014 race on British TV channels, but Sky Sports will be broadcasting highlights early on Sunday morning:
Sunday March 2, 01:00-01:30, Sky Sports 4, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlights
Sunday March 2, 07:00-07:30, Sky Sports 3, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlights
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Previous winners
2013: Luca Paolini
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
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Last year’s top 10 (2013)
1. Luca Paolini (Ita) Katusha in 4-52-14
2. Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep s.t.
3. Sven Vandousselaere (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise at 1-13 secs
4. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky
5. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
6. Marco Bandiera (Ita) IAM Cycling
7. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
8. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto-Belisol
9. Maarten Wynants (Bel) Blanco
10. Egoitz Garcia (Spa) Cofidis all at s.t.
Belgian Lotto-Belisol squad hit their 'home' roads to get ready for Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The 19-year-old Briton tells CW that she is "ready to go racing" again after five months away from competition.
Garmin-Sharp riders hit the cobbles of Flanders in preparation for Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Geraint Thomas sprints to fourth in freezing Belgian season opener