Van Aert is free from Van der Poel — but not from Tom Pidcock
The absence of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) through a back injury that stubbornly refuses to clear up comes as a big disappointment to fans hoping for a renewal this spring of his great rivalry with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). But fear not, as this spring could see the emerging of a new rivalry that has been in the making these past few years — between Van Aert and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers).
Up until now, Van Aert hasn’t had too much to worry about from the young Brit, outperforming him on both road and in cyclocross. That may be about to change, however, as Pidcock, now 22-year-old and with a full year’s worth of experience on the road behind him, looks poised to mature into a world class classics rider, ready to take on Van Aert.
At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this Saturday, the two will meet for the first time since last autumn’s World Championships road race in Leuven, where Pidcock managed to finish a handful of seconds ahead of Van Aert in one of the clearest signs yet that the gap between the two was closing.
Pidcock has already flourished in the absence of Van Aert this year, winning his first ever world Cyclocross title in January. But he’s sure to find success on the road more difficult, especially considering that Van Aert returns for his first race of the season.
The two won't meet again on Sunday, as unlike Pidcock Van Aert isn’t slated to ride Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. But with both riders targeting many of the same upcoming classics, there’s could be a rivalry that rages throughout the spring.
Familiar faces return to cobbled racing
Opening weekend is always a time to welcome back many familiar faces of the cycling world, back for another spring of battles over the cobbled bergs of Belgium.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Greg Van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen (both Ag2r Citroën), Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe), Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), Michael Valgren (EF Education-EasyPost) and Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) are among those set to appear in both races, while Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM) and former winner Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech) are down to ride just Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Then of course there’s Quick-Step - Alpha Vinyl, who are as ever expected to be the chief protagonists. Even in the absence of Julian Alaphilippe, who’s gone back to prioritising the Ardennes Classics this year, there’s a real familiarity to their line-ups, which feature Zdeněk Štybar (set to ride his ninth Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), Florian Sénéchal (set for his eighth), Yves Lampaert (his sixth in succession) and Kasper Asgreen, expected to be their main man having won the Tour of Flanders last year.
Among all these long-established Classics stars, perhaps the most interesting riders to watch will be less recognised names. 22-year-old Belgian Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal) will take to the cobblestones for the first time since finishing runner-up at last autumn’s Paris-Roubaix, a result that overnight made him one of the top Classics contenders and Belgium’s next great hope.
The winner that day Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) also finds himself in the new situation of starting his spring as one of the headline riders, while promising young riders like former Paris Roubaix U23 winners Stan Dewulf (Ag2r Citroën) and Nils Eekhoff (DSM), Brits Lewis Askey (Groupama-FDJ) and Matthew Walls (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Magnus Sheffield, Ineos Grenadiers’ teenage winner of a stage of the Ruta del Sol, are also worth keeping an eye on.
A new-look SD Worx line-up
Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will mark the start of a new era in women’s cycling, as the SD Worx team begins life without Anna van der Breggen.
Even in a squad as bursting with as much talent as the team formerly known as Boels-Dolmans, Anna van der Breggen was the star rider upon arrival in 2017, and was relied upon for many of their biggest successes in that time.
Now she’s retired, it’s up to a group of high-profile new signings to fill the void, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where two will be making their debuts for the team.
In the absence of Van der Breggen, who won the race last year, Lotte Kopecky will wear the number one jersey, a symbolic moment for a rider the team hopes will blossom into a superstar. Kopecky may not have quite hit the heights that were expected of her last year following her move from Lotto-Soudal to Liv Racing, but the 26-year-old should flourish in the company of such quality riders, as she enters the peak years of her career.
The other rider making her debut for the team is Marlen Reusser, someone whose quality would make her a leader at virtually any other team, but in SD Worx may play more of a support role.
Not that the distinction between support role and leader is always concrete at SD Worx. Even when Van der Breggen was around, key to the team’s success was a collective attitude that saw all of their stars happy to alternate between being the protected rider and riding as a domestique. With last year’s new signing Demi Vollering and Chantel van den Broeck-Blaak (who has cancelled her planned retirement) also riding, that should continue on Saturday, and with so many options they shouldn’t miss even a rider as supposedly irreplaceable as Van der Breggen.
Van Vleuten headlines quality Omloop Het Nieuwsblad start list
Although there have been a few races already this month, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will be the first major women’s race of the season, and has therefore attracted a roster of stars.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) was, inevitably, among the winners of those races earlier this month, taking overall victory and a stage win at Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, and will as ever be a frontrunner for victory on Saturday. With last year’s runner-up Emma Norsgaard also lining-up and on hand ready to emerge in the event of a sprint, Movistar have strength in numbers, too.
Fast-finishing Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ) also rides on the back of a stage win at Setmana Ciclista Valenciana (plus the Vuelta CV Feminas Classic), but the rider to be most feared in the event of a sprint would be Lorena Wiebes (DSM), who at the end of last season proved her Classics credentials by winning Ronde van Drenthe. There’s no way any other team will be comfortable taking her to a sprint finish, so expect plenty of attacks should she cling on to the lead group.
Among those likely to be instigating those attacks are Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), Grace Brown (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), and Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) — although, like Van Vleuten at Movistar, Van Dijk has the luxury of a fast-finishing team-mate in world champion Elisa Balsamo.
The tough palmarès, which includes the iconic Muur-Kapelmuur, should play into the favour of the attackers, however — as has been the case in each of the past three editions, in which a solo escapee has triumphed.
New climbs for the sprinters to handle at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Whereas Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a selective race featuring several tough climbs (most notably the Muur-Kapelmuur), and (with the exception of last year) is almost always won by either an attacker or very small group sprint, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is often decided by a bunch sprint — five times in the last 10 editions, to be precise.
There’s a slightly different look to this year’s KBK, with new climbs from the so-called ‘Hainaut Ardennes’ being added, and the Oude Kwaremont being removed.
Will these changes make keeping the race together for a sprint finish more difficult? The number of top sprinters willing to ride suggests not.
Given the way he’s started the season, all eyes will be on Fabio Jakobsen. The Dutch sprinter leads the season’s win tally with four wins in just ten days of racing, and will have the might of Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl’s Classics line-up to help look after him.
This will however be the first time this year that he’s had to face-off against Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), who’s also started the season on fire with two wins to his name. Both riders will have to battle to stay in contention on the climbs, but could be part of a heavyweight showdown if they do manage to.
Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) sprinted his way to a hatful of Classics victories last spring, so must also be counted as a contender, while Alexander Kristoff (Intermatché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) and Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma) are also in their element in races like this.
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