The double header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne that constitutes the so-called ‘Opening Weekend’ of the cobbled Belgian spring Classics always attracts illustrious roster, and this year is no exception - so much so, in fact, that not one but two world champions will be riding.
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) will be donning the famous rainbow stripes in both races, having been the surprise winner of the Worlds road race in Yorkshire last year. He was very much an underdog that day, but that will no longer be the case for the young Dane, whose status as the world champion will make him a marked man, and a clearly visible presence in the peloton.
The cobblestones are his natural habitat, and he already has a podium finish at the Tour of Flanders to his name (second in 2018, as a mere 22-year-old). If he replicates the form that saw him win in Yorkshire, he could be one of the stars of the spring.
Another rider expected to make headlines this spring is Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) - himself a recently crowned World Champion having won the Cyclocross Worlds in Switzerland earlier this month.
His return to the road is hugely anticipated after his performances from last spring, which included victories at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl and, most spectacularly of all, Amstel Gold Race. He’s not down to ride Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but will be the favourite heading into Omloop Het Nieuwsblad - we can’t wait to see what he’s capable of.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step the team to beat
If Mathieu van der Poel is the outstanding individual of the Classics, there’s no doubting who the outstanding team are.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step have hit upon a virtually unprecedented run of form over the past few years, winning Classic after Classic with remarkable regularity.
Key to their success has been their strength-in-depth - without a single designated leader, and multiple riders who are capable of winning, the team are able to fire off attack after attack, wearing the other teams down and outnumbering and isolating their rivals.
Their line-ups for the weekend strike a good balance between established and emerging talent. Both Zdeněk Štybar (Omloop) and Bob Jungels (Kuurne) return to defend their titles, and can be depended on to go well over the cobblestones. They’ll be supported by two of the breakthrough riders of the 2019 spring, Florian Sénécha and Kasper Asgreen, while 23-year-old sprinter Fabio Jakobsen will give them a great option should Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne result in a bunch finish.
Although Philippe Gilbert (who won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix during his three year spell here) will this year be racing against them for rival Belgian team Lotto-Soudal, Deceuninck-Quick-Step still have quality to again win both the weekend’s races.
British heavy Team Ineos line-ups
Team Ineos’ line-ups for the first two cobbled Classics of this year’s spring have a distinctly British flavour to it.
Riding both races will be Ian Stannard, who has historically enjoyed much success in these two races, winning back-to-back Omloop titles in 2014 and 2015 and finishing a characteristically gritty third place in a memorably stormy 2010 edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; and Luke Rowe, another cobblestones specialist who last year returned to something like his best despite breaking his leg in 2017.
Supporting them as domestiques will be Ben Swift, who is hoping to build upon a resurgent return to form in 2019, and Chris Lawless, now an established member of the Classics squad having been signed two years ago.
However, perhaps the main Brit to look out for will be Owain Doull. The 26-year-old looked on great form at the Tour de La Provence earlier this month, where he claimed his first ever pro win on European roads, and may well come of age as a Classics contender this spring - starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The usual suspects at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Joining the aforementioned contenders will be the familiar list of Classics contenders who target these races every year, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Omloop is especially valued by cobblestone specialists due to its resemblance to the Tour of Flanders - the crown jewel of Belgian racing. Unsurprisingly, therefore, most of the favourites for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad are Belgian.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) is always a major favourite for this race, given his remarkable consistency and the fact he has already won it twice (in 2016 and 2017). Another former winner is Sep Vanmarcke - another rider notable for his dependability, although he struggles to pick the right moment to attack - while Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) are also likely to be up there.
Some will be riding for new teams - Dylan Teuns will lead Bahrain-McLaren’s line-up, Tiesj Benoot will make his debut for Sunweb, and will be up against his replacement at Lotto-Soudal, Philippe Gilbert.
And there are at least some contenders who aren’t from Belgium. Dutchman Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie) has won virtually every cobbled classic apart from this one, Nils Politt (Israel Start-Up Nation) is one of the best young Classics talents around, and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) will be lethal in a sprint should the others not drop him.
Sprinters hoping for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne victory
It’s not always the case (as recently as last year Bob Jungels won from a long-range solo attack), but the less hilly parcours of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne make it more of a sprinters’ Classic, and that’s reflected in this year’s start-list.
Although there are a number of non-sprinters doubling up in both races (such as Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen), many teams are rallying behind a sprinter.
The on-form Fabio Jakobsen will surely be a favourite for Deceuninck-Quick-Step, but will face competition from the likes of fellow youngster Kristoffer Halvorsen (EF Pro Cycling), Edvald Boasson Hagen (NTT), Lotto-Soudal’s newly signed John Degenkolb, and Cees Bol (Sunweb), who specifically mentioned this race as a target following his stage win at the Volta ao Algarve.
Bahrain-McLaren boast two sprinting options in Sonny Colbrelli and Phil Bauhaus, while both Jasper Stuyven and Matteo Trentin (CCC) can also win from sprints as well as attacks.
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