A unique style of racing
There’s nothing quite like the spring Classics. It’s the inclement weather, so horrible to compete in but so fun to watch from the comfort of your own home; the local fans, so passionate and knowledgeable, identifiable by the black and yellow Lion of Flanders flag that decorate the roads; and, of course, the cobblestoned roads, and the baron, desolate landscapes they weave between.
All these factors make for a unique kind of spectacle, characterised by a stop-start rhythm and regular attacking that is more reliably exciting than perhaps any other type of racing on the calendar.
Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is among the best examples of what the spring Classics have to offer. From the moment the first of its 13 climbs is tackled 158km from the finish, the race is an absorbing free-for-all, as some of the toughest riders in the world go hammer and tongs at one another.
Since last year Het Nieuwsblad has also paid service to fans nostalgic for the old Tour of Flanders route, by replicating that race’s former Muur van Geraardsbergen / Bosberg finale.
Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne may not be quite so explosive a race, given its flat 50km run-in to the line, but the 13 climbs that come before that feature ample exciting racing
A likely sprint finish at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne may not always end in a sprint – in 2017 Peter Sagan won from a five-man sprint, while a solo attack Jasper Stuyven attack around 30km from the line triumphed in 2016 – but there are enough top quality sprinters with designs on winning the race to make it likely that this year’s edition will.
Last year’s victor Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) returns to defend his title, and can be fairly labelled the race favourite, but he’ll be challenged again by the two riders who rounded off the podium last year, Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida).
In the absence of star names Elia Viviani and Peter Sagan, Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Bora-Hansgrohe will provide their respective young sprinters Fabio Jakobsen and Pascal Ackermann with a chance to see how they can handle themselves in a spring Classic.
And at the other end of the age spectrum, it will be fascinating to see how 36-year-old André Greipel performs for his new team, Arkea-Samsic.
Niki Terpstra faces off against old employers Deceuninck-Quick-Step
Niki Terpstra was arguably the star performer of last spring, winning the Tour of Flanders, E3 Harelbeke and Le Samyn.
But to what extent did his success depend on the strength of his former Quick-Step team? The long-range attacks he produced to triumph in each of those races were undeniably impressive, yet there’s no doubt he benefited from the role his team-mates played in marking any attempts to chase him down.
We’ll discover how each gets on without the other this spring, starting at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Terpstra has moved to Direct Energie, where he’ll either relish a new role as outright leader, or miss the foil his world class Quick-Step team-mates provided.
And Deceuninck-Quick-Step will hope that the likes Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert and Philippe Gilbert – all of whom did such a great job of supporting Terpstra in 2018 – will step up this spring and replicate his success.
Lots of Belgians
Belgian riders are in their element at the cobbled classics, and there is currently a very talented contingent of them in the peloton, many of whom will be changing victories in each of this weekend’s two races.
Greg van Avermaet (CCC) is best of the lot, and, following a mediocre 2018 campaign by his high standards, hopes to claim what would be a record-equalling third Het Nieuwsblad title.
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) is also a former winner of that race having triumphed all the way back in 2012, but since then has struggled to convert very promising form into more big wins.
Neither of those riders are also scheduled to ride Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) are all down to compete in both.
All three have been among the top performers in recent spring campaigns, and each look a few big wins away from becoming the next Belgian classics superstar.
Potential new classics stars
This weekend will provide the first glimpse of a number of exciting new talent targeting a spring cobbled Classics campaign.
Multiple cyclocross world champion Wout van Aert has generated loads of hype since his eye-catching debuts at the likes of Strade Bianche (where he was third) and the Tour of Flanders (ninth) last year, and this spring will be able to call upon the support of his new WorldTour team, Jumbo-Visma.
Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Merida) proved himself to be more the capable on the cobblestones during his overall victory at the BinckBank Tour, so he’ll be one to watch as he embarks on his first campaign of spring Classics; as will Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb), who was on great form at the Volta ao Algarve.
Last but not least, Michael Matthews (Sunweb) intends to shift his focus towards the cobbled Classics, and could prove to be the revelation of the spring.
Team Sky keep faith with 2018 lineup
Despite an underwhelming cobbled Classics season in 2018, Team Sky will again rely on Ian Stannard and Dylan van Baarle to lead the line.- however Luke Rowe will miss the race with illness.
Having now accumulated a whole season’s worth of racing in the aftermath of his serious leg break in 2017, Rowe will be hopeful of recapturing his old form.
Stannard has great pedigree at both these races, having twice triumphed at Het Nieuwsblad (including the time he famously got the better of three Quick-Step riders at the 2015 edition) and third at the torrential 2010 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
And Van Baarle is on great form having won the overall at the Herald Sun Tour, suggesting he could stake a claim to be Sky’s main man at both the weekend’s races.
The signs are that it could be a better spring for Team Sky this time around.