The Belgian classics season kicks off this weekend with a double dose: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday. Team Sky has proven strong in the races over the last two years and is a favourite once again.

“We have quite a few strong classics riders. In a race like this it’s good to have numbers at the end,” Ian Stannard told Cycling Weekly. “If everything goes well, I expect to be right at the front coming into the finish” of Het Nieuwsblad.

Stannard finished third in Kuurne two years ago in “atrocious” conditions one day after team-mate Juan Antonio Flecha won Het Nieuwsblad. Last year, Flecha placed second on Saturday and Sky’s Chris Sutton won Kuurne on Sunday.

With Edvald Boasson Hagen ruled out with illness and after a good showing in the Tour of Oman, Stannard is leaning more towards Het Nieuwsblad. He will likely be one of the leaders with Flecha, Mathew Hayman and Bernhard Eisel.

The team faces BMC Racing with Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd, Omega Pharma with Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel, and other top teams. Most of its riders arrived back from Oman on Monday to make their way to Belgium. Stannard arrived yesterday, but others are still to arrive and the team opted not to preview the course in favour of an extra recovery day today following Oman. Stannard rode for a few hours and tested equipment.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad starts and ends, after 200 kilometres, in Ghent and includes 10 climbs and nine cobbled sections. The final climb is the Molenberg this year, followed by 36 kilometres and four cobbled sections.

Even with climbs like Oude Kwaremont, the 195-kilometre Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne usually ends in a sprint. Sky’s World Champion Mark Cavendish arrives and will race alongside defending champion Sutton.

“These races are very unpredictable anyway; anything can happen on the cobblestones and bergs. Weather conditions, wind condition… it all plays a massive part in it,” added Stannard. “It’s kind of thinking on your feet and making the best of the situation.”

Weather is expected to be 12°C and sunny for Saturday and Sunday, but wind off the North Sea could tear the races apart.

Top picks for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Tom Boonen (OmegaPharma-Quick Step): Looks to be back to his best

Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky): Experience will pay

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): Two-time winner

Matti Breschel (Rabobank): Ready to prove after hard 2011 year

Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing): Will play off of Gilbert

Top picks for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

Mark Cavendish (Sky): World Champ off to hot start

André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol): Ready to return after Qatar miss

Tom Boonen (OmeganPharma-Quick Step): If not Saturday, will revenge Sunday

Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda): Getting closer to first win this year

Chris Sutton (Sky): Defending champion and will play off of Cavendish

Recent winners

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

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

2001 – Michele Bartoli


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

2001 – Peter Van Petegem

Chris Sutton wins the 2011 edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

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