The start of the season for many fans and probably some riders to boot! The peloton makes its return to the Belgian cobbles for the beginning of the Classics season, kicking off with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Last year saw a group of favourites (Van Avermaet, Rowe, Benoot and Sagan) attack on the Taaienberg with 57.4km to go and long story short, they managed to hold off the chasing bunch with some strong work and co-operation. A special mention must go to morning breakee Alexis Gougeard who drove the front of the break in the closing kilometres ensuring they didn’t get caught when the others started playing games . We then saw an ever so slight uphill sprint to the line and it was Van Avermaet who took the glory!
The riders will tackle an almost identical route that we see back in 2016 with the only change being the traditional return of the Molenberg as the final climb.
Credit to @RickyFilips95 for the above profile, it’s much better than the official one the organisers provide IMO.
The race will follow a normal pattern of an early break escaping up the road before the pace is slowly ramped up over the opening hills and cobbled sections.
Things really get serious on Kruisberg before we often see the first big attacks from the main contenders on the Taaienberg at roughly 55km to go.
As you can imagine from looking at the profile, the biggest gaps are made on the steep bottom section. It’s interesting to note that Sagan always seems to “struggle” up that part, but then power his way over the flatter second half.
We then have a lot of climbs/cobbles/cobbled climbs in succession over the next 10km, five to be exact. If the lead group really put the hammer down over this section, they can really extend their lead. Likewise, it is the place where those behind may try to jump across the gap.
The final cobbled climb of the race, the Molenberg, comes at just over 40km to go.
At only 300m long (averaging 8%), it’s not ridiculously tough but gaps can still be made here. Once over the top, the riders have to traverse 3 more cobbled sections and a fairly flat run home. There are some technical sections as they pass through towns and are on small, twisty roads, but that’s what you would expect in this region!
After the success of last year’s finish, the organisers have decided to stick with the slight up hill drag.
Not the Mur, but it still requires the riders to have some punch left after a long day in the saddle!
So that’s the route covered, but it’s not the only variable that can have an impact on the race. The weather often plays its part here.
It doesn’t look as bad as was initially predicted which is a shame for us sitting watching from the warmth of our homes. In fact, there are probably several riders who would have wanted a lot of rain and wind!
With rain looking unlikely apart from a few scattered showers, it will be the wind that may cause some issues for the riders.
The above forecast is taken from Zottegem, which is roughly in the middle of the route. As you can see, a 20 km/h SSW wind is expected. This could cause some echelons, particularly with the twisting nature of the route where the riders will have to change road position.
The wind seems to be even stronger as we get closer to Gent. It will be a fast chase home!
I’m going to do this differently than normal, structuring this more as I would on a breakaway day where I highlight some riders and talk about them in-depth. The reason for not going through the whole start list is that;
1. Plenty of others will do that so I don’t want to repeat and;
2. Most importantly, I could easily see myself write close to 3,000 words on the nuances and intricacies of favourites/half favourites/no hopers etc and…
So apologies if I don’t name someone you were hoping for! Right, enough of me beating around the bush…
You can’t have a cobbled classic without naming at least one Quick Step rider. Their team for this race is just stupidly strong and you could make arguments for at least 6 of their riders to win this race. Sorry Keisse and Vermote! That strength in-depth can be both a positive and negative as they should in theory always be represented at the front (we’ll just gloss over last year…or the year before that…). Yet, you’re never entirely sure who they’re riding for on the day! Stybar himself has often been the bridesmaid, used as the anchor on a chasing group behind.
The Czech rider is exceptional on cobbles due to his cyclo-cross background and he always seems to be at the pointy end of a race on this terrain. He’s been quiet this season so far but I have been impressed with the glimpses that we have seen of him. Particularly the Mapei-style attack that he was the main driving force behind at the Volta ao Algarve.
He clearly has some good form! Stybar isn’t a slouch either in an uphill sprint so will fancy his chances if it comes down to a select group at the line, like we saw last year. The only issue might be if Van Avermaet and Sagan are there, or my next pick…
I’ve talked him up a lot on the blog the past few weeks, but that’s with good reason; he seems to be in scintillating form and has been unlucky not to have notched up a few extra wins by now.
Still only young, the Frenchman has had a very good career so far and is someone who I think is under-rated for what he has achieved. Winning some World Tour races this year will certainly help to change people’s minds!
A sprinter who’s at home on the cobbles and short climbs, he’s finished 10th here twice in the past (2014 and 2015), he just needs some luck to go his way.
Now, I’m not sure if he’ll be able to follow the very best over the likes of the Taaienberg, but he is certainly capable of being in a second group that rejoins the head of the race if those ahead stall at any point.
In an uphill sprint after a tough day he is certainly a big threat.
A repeat of the Binche result from last year wouldn’t go amiss!
Looking at a couple of riders further down the betting order, i.e. proper outsiders, there are a couple I’d like to highlight.
Dylan Van Baarle.
Finishing a very credible 6th in Flanders last year after attacking early on in the day, he will be Vanmarcke’s right-hand man here. A real powerful rider who can get over the lumps and bumps, he could well be used as a ploy, attacking off the front of the bunch while Vanmarcke follows the moves behind. Only having competed in one race so far this year on the road, he has been doing a lot of track racing so it will be interesting to see how he copes in a race like this. Will that explosiveness carry over?
At a point in his career where he felt like he wanted more leadership opportunities, Lightart has taken the step down from World Tour to Pro Continental to ride for the Roompot team. This is the type of race where he should be given those leadership opportunities. Picking up a second place on a stage in Valenciana highlights his fairly good climbing form, so he should be able to cope with the hills here. Ligthart also possesses a fairly fast sprint so he could win from a small bunch gallop too. Although he will need a lot of luck to go his way!
I’m really torn between my two main picks here but I think I’ll go with Stybar as the winner!
We’ll get a group of around 10 riders escape on the Taainberg, but they’ll slow a little initially, allowing another 10 guys to join from behind. With some co-operation in the group they’ll build up enough of an advantage over the rest of the peloton. From here, we’ll see some attacks in the final 10km. Everyone will be looking at Terpstra as the obvious choice from QS, but instead it will be Stybar who makes the move. He gets joined by a few others (maybe 5 of them in total) and with enough representatives from the group behind involved, they stay away to the end. Stybar then powers away on the final sprint, taking an excellent win!
0.75pt EW Stybar @25/1 with various bookmakers (I’d take 22/1, even 20/1).
0.75pt EW Demare @33/1 with various bookmakers (would take 28/1)
0.125pt EW Ligthart @ 150/1 with Bet365/Betfair/PP
0.125pt EW Van Baarle @ 125/1 with Bet365.
H2H wise I like the following two;
Ligthart > Kragh Andersen at 5/6 with Bet365. 4.5pts.
I tweeted this one out yesterday when it was at evens and I still like it at the price it is just now, I’d even take it at 4/6, or 1/2 at a stretch. I’m confused as to why it is priced the way it is. Yes, Kragh Andersen took a good win in Oman, but he has no history what so all in these types of races, whereas Ligthart does. I can’t see Andersen dropping Ligthart on any of the climbs, and it should be Ligthart doing the dropping on the cobbles. I like it so much I’m increasing my stake to 4.5pts (from the 3 I initially put on).
Stybar > Boom at 1/2 with William Hill. 2pts.
I think it’s clear to see my love for Stybar with what I’ve written above. Boom has often promised so much on this type of terrain but he’s failed to deliver in the past. The Dutchman did have a good TT in Algarve but I just don’t think he has the quality to match Stybar here. Boom’s performance is still enough to put me off going crazy on this one.
Thanks for reading if you managed to get this far and apologies again for not doing a full breakdown of the start list; you can see how much I managed to write for just 4 guys, imagine 20! Any RTs/Shares/any type of feedback is greatly appreciated as always. Who do you think will win? I’m just looking forward to a good race! Anyway,
Those were My Two Spokes Worth.