One word succinctly encapsulates everything cycling fans know and love about the Spring Classics, which begin this weekend with the double header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – ‘cobblestones’.
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It is those uneven, bumpy, wrist-shattering road surfaces that give that the Classics their distinctive character – specifically, the unpredictable racing, stop-start rhythms and guarantee that only the grittiest riders can succeed.
Both races are great spectacles watch thanks to their abundance of cobbled sectors, but tend to play out in different ways.
The 13 steep cobbled bergs and ten flat pave sections make Het Nieuwsblad a very selective race, with usually only a small group or solo rider contesting for the win. Whereas the 50km stretch that follows the last berg of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne often allows sprinters who have limited their losses to make it back up to the leaders and contest a sizable bunch sprint.
Enough with the cosy sunny weather riders have enjoyed in Australia, the Middle East and Southern Europe. This weekend they return to Northern Europe, where grey skies and cold weather await.
Early forecasts suggest that rain too could be a possibility in both races, meaning we could be in for the full Spring Classics-experience of treacherous cobbles, mud-splattered roads, painful crashes and grim-faced cyclists.
Of all the bergs tackled in Het Nieuwsblad, the Taaienberg has become the most synonymous with the race thanks to Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors). The Flandrian favourite has made the climb his own, using it to intimidate his opponents at the start of every spring with decisive attacks up it at virtually every edition of Het Nieuwsblad, to the extent that it has been nicknamed the ‘Boonenberg’.
Watch: Cobbled Classics essential guide 2017
When, in last year’s edition, his customary attack was not forthcoming, it seemed like a sign that his reign as patron of the classics was coming to an end – although he did eventually bounce back to come within inches of winning Paris-Roubaix six weeks later.
If Boonen exerts his authority on it once more this weekend, it’ll be a reliable indication that he can achieve his dream of winning one last Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix before his upcoming retirement.
One of the most exciting aspects of this weekend is the return of cycling’s World Champion and superstar Peter Sagan.
Following the retirement of Fabian Cancellara, Sagan is now unquestionably the strongest classics rider in the peloton, and no-one will want to lose sight of him at either Het Nieuwsblad or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
One thing to look out for in particular will how well his new Bora-Hansgrohe team supports him. We all know how brilliant Sagan is, and he’s often able to take care of himself, but it will still be a concern for him if his teammates – who generally lack experience riding at the front of major cobbled classics – are dropped prematurely.
Sky’s strong squad
Unlike many of the other Spring Classics, both Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne are happy hunting grounds for Team Sky – Christopher Sutton and Mark Cavendish respectively won the 2011 and 2012 editions of the latter, while Ian Stannard won back-to-back editions of the former in 2014 and 2015, memorably out-gunning three Etixx-Quick Step riders the second-time round.
Having opted to skip the race last year, Stannard returns to Het Nieuwsblad in an attempt to continue his unbeaten streak, and will also be a threat in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – a race he finished third in back in 2010.
Given the explosive way he tends to start the season, Stannard might be Sky’s best bet for a high placing. But Luke Rowe will also be enjoying the status of protected rider that he has earned himself, especially now that Geraint Thomas’ plans to skip all of the classics to focus on the Giro.
Sprint at K-B-K
The fact that a sprint finish at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne isn’t guaranteed – last year Jasper Stuyven won with a 17km solo break, while the drenched 2010 edition had the peloton in bits – is what makes it such a tense, balanced race. But there is such an abundance of quality sprinters also capable of handling the cobbles that it would be a shame not to see them slug it out in a large dash to the line.
The youthful Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) join 2014-runner up Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), three-time winner Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) and of course Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), in what could be some showdown.
Women’s Het Nieuwsblad
Recent editions of the Women’s Het Nieuwsblad – a 122km-long race scheduled to take place on Saturday before the men’s edition – have been contested by the biggest stars in the peloton, with Lizzie Deignan and Anna van der Breggen being the last two riders to triumph here.
But both that pair and several other of the peloton’s most formidable usual suspects won’t be riding this time round, with the race perhaps slipping down their priorities having not been included in the Women’s WorldTour.
Nevertheless, the presence of Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans) and Annemiek Van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) will ensure a very competitive race, while the 10 tough bergs tackled will make this one of the most selective races of the season.