The Muur van Geraardsbergen
It’s that time of year again when the heavyweight hard-men of the peloton take to northern Europe to do battle in the cobbled Classics.
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Though it’s still February, and the weather remains very much wintery, this weekend’s double-header of Belgian races signals the start of the spring Classics.
First up is Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race featuring enough vicious bergs to have been deemed a mini-Tour of Flanders. This year the similarities with that race are even more explicit, as a redesigned finish sees the riders take on the same final 60km that used to conclude the Ronde up until 2011.
That means fans of the previous Tour of Flanders route – of which there are many – will once again get to enjoy the spectacle of the Muur van Geraardsbergen in the closing stages of a classic. Its steep, twisty cobbled ascent remains one of the most stirring sight in cycling, while the 16km distance to the finish has long been proven to be just the right amount to ensure a thrilling final dash.
Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne isn’t quite as difficult, and is eyed up by sprinters who fancy their chances of surviving the 12bergs into the final flat 50km run-in. A bunch sprint is anything but guaranteed, however – in fact, each of the last two editions was won via a breakaway.
Greg Van Avermaet defending his title
Greg Van Avermaet begins his spring facing the impossible task of replicating the historically high standards he set last season.
Het Nieuwsblad will be the first of four titles he will be defending, having won it, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix last year in what was a unique quadruple.
He also won the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as well, meaning he could become the first ever rider to win three consecutive editions of the race.
The Belgian therefore goes into the race as hot favourite, and, in the absence of Peter Sagan, the rider everyone will have their eyes on. Every move of his will be marked and pounced upon – it’s just a matter of whether, like last spring, he can win regardless.
He’s also set to ride Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, which was one of the few Classics he didn’t manage to win last year, and one which, with its relative lack of difficulty, he is not so well suited to.
Quick-Step Floors adjusting to life post-Boonen
This will be the first season since 2002 that Quick-Step Floors go into a spring campaign without Tom Boonen.
For most of the years since Boonen has been the team’s talisman, and even as age began to take away his edge, he remained a formidable road captain, carrying himself as a patron of the peloton and taking it upon himself to control races.
It will be fascinating to see how Quick-Step adapt to his absence. In theory, it shouldn’t be too difficult – they boast an awesome roster, with the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Fernando Gaviria, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra and Yves Lampaert all set to compete over the weekend.
Gilbert will likely be the main man for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and is one of the few active riders who can boast similar experience to adequately replace Boonen.
In Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Gaviria is the one to look out for as a potential winner in a bunch sprint. As a rapid sprinter who fancies himself in the Classics, the Colombian could yet prove to be Boonen’s long-term successor – victory here, at the same age (23) Boonen landed his first ever Classic, would reinforce that ambitious claim.
Team Sky’s inexperienced line-up
Team Sky are bettered only by Quick-Step Floors in the terms of the strength of their Classics squad, but most of the team’s biggest assets won’t be featuring this weekend.
The likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Gianni Moscon, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard will start their Classics campaigns later in the spring, while Luke Rowe is using the Abu Dhabi Tour to cautiously return to racing following last year’s leg break.
Instead, a generally younger, less experienced roster of seven riders will take on both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Owain Doull, Chris Lawless and Jonathan Dibben are all British riders under the age of 24 who could develop into serious Classics contenders one day, and have a great chance to test themselves against a high calibre field this weekend.
Team leadership duties however will likely be assigned to Dylan van Baarle, an exciting new signing for this season who has already demonstrated his quality at the highest level by finishing fourth at last year’s Tour of Flanders.
Big names set for the Women’s Het Nieuwsblad
Held before the men’s event on Saturday will be the Women’s Het Nieuwsblad, an event that, despite not featuring in the Women’s WorldTour, still attracts a high-class field of the world’s best.
Featuring tricky cobbled climbs, it is among one of the most select races on the spring calendar, with either solo escapees or groups of no larger than four riders usually contesting victory at the finish.
Defending champion Lucinda Brand is part of a very strong Sunweb line-up that also includes Ellen van Dijk and last year’s revelation Coryn Rivera.
By contrast Boels Dolmans haven’t selected their strongest squad, with 2016 winner Lizzie Deignan and 2015 winner Anna van der Breggen both skipping the race.
That leaves newly crowned world champion Chantal Blaak to lead the team and aim for her first win in the rainbow jersey, having finished runner-up in each of the past two editions.
Other contenders include Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) and the Mitchelton-Scott duo of Jolien d’Hoore and Annemiek van Vleuten, while Brits Alice Barnes and Dani Rowe will be hoping to make positive opening impressions for their new teams (Canyon/SRAM and WaowDeals respectively).