I’ve decided to not do a recap series as, well, everything I write in them is a bit cheesy and I think that replaying a race in words isn’t as exciting as watching it for yourself. If you want me to try them again though, I will try again over the Spring Classics.
Everybody rejoice! Classics season is about to start – and every die hard cycling fan knows this brings the racing all of us love. The cobbles, the weather, the history, the attacks and the tactics are only some of the things that make the spring classics more alluring than any other block of races on the calendar. And as it is usually, Omloop and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne (KBK) start off the best time of the year no matter if you are an European escaping the winter or an Australian sick of the summer. Because the startlists for Omloop and KBK are basically identical, I am going to do a combined preview of both races. That’s enough waffle, let’s dive straight into the cobbles!
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
As per tradition, Omloop in 2017 begins in Gent, and 2017 marks the 10th year the race has finished in Gent as well. The first climb of the day comes 51km in with the Leberg with 700m at 6.1% (14% max). They do the Leberg twice on their run around the Flanders, as well as the famous Berendries (900m at 7.1%), Taaienberg/Boonen Hill (800m at 7.2%) and the cobbled Eikenberg climb (1300m at 5.8%). The last climb the riders tackle on the way back to Gent is the Molemberg (500m at 7%) at 35km to go. But you don’t come to most classics for the climbs, but for the cobbles. The riders pass through Haaghoek 3 times, as well as Donderij, Ruiterstraat, Holleweg, Paddestraat, Lippenhovestraat and Lange Munte with 15km to go. The cobbled classics also bring a number of breaks to the day, with the possibility of a decisive break heading out heading out on the Taaienberg due to the short relief between climbs and cobbles after the Taaienberg – 5 climbs in 24km with the cobbles only heating up after Wolvenberg. This is how it worked in 2016, with Luke Rowe attacking on the Taaienberg to which only Tiesj Benoot, Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan were able to hold on to and they stayed out the rest of the day. Hopefully the first spring(-ish, it’s still February) classic of the season can give us the same excitement as years gone past.
KBK starts in Kuurne, heads towards Brussels and turns back to Kuurne. Kinda why it’s named that way. It features one new climb in 2017 – the Onkerzele Berg (2100m at 3%). Outside of that, usual suspects like La Houppe (1900m at 4.8%), Kanarieberg (1000m at 7.7%), Kruisberg (1900m at 4.8%), Oude Kwaremont (2200m at 4%), Tiegemberg (750m at 5%) and Nokereberg (350m at 5.7%) make appearances as a handful of the 12 climbs of the day. The last climb is 50km away from the finish, so it is highly unlikely a break on the hills will do it, but the short Kuurne circuit can provide for a break to be successful, like Stuyven’s solo attack last year for the win. This won’t mean that they won’t try – La Houppe provides the perfect launchpad for an attack over the undulating terrain for the next 70km, and the ability for the sprinters teams to try and sap the energy out of each other. After Nokereberg though, expect it to be a mix of trying to test the legs of the sprinters and protecting your own at the same time, and the tactics will be flying faster than the bikes they ride on. What to expect into Kuurne? The unexpected. Attacks worked last year, what will happen this year will be revealed on Sunday.
The Bookies Favourite: Peter Sagan
Back-to-back World Champion and has been dominating the Classics since he joined Liquigas in 2009. That should be enough to say Peter Sagan is the favourite for both races by far. 2nd at Omloop last year would just drive his hunger even more to take it out this year, and discounting his ability to win would be like saying Usain Bolt isn’t the fastest person alive – it’s just plain wrong. Omloop will be a launch pad for Sagan’s classics season, while KBK will more than likely be another warmup. But if the conditions in Kuurne suit him on Sunday, he will win. There are no doubts with Sagan; if he wants to race, he will win, and he will blow the rest of the pack away. He’s done it at Gent-Wevelgem, RVV and plenty of other races – this year is his time to do it at Omloop.
The Hometown Hero: Tom Boonen
This man has been pro for the same time I’ve been alive. Like, he turned pro 3 days after I was born. He has been in this sport for 16 years and is part of the furniture now, and it’s a sad thought that at April this year he will finally be hanging up the cleats. But, that doesn’t mean he is going to be using the granny gears in the Classics. Tom Boonen is a hot favourite for his last Omloop – the only Belgian Classic he hasn’t won – and everyone will be getting behind him to try and get him the trophy in Gent this year. It even features the Taaienberg just for Boonen, and the parcours heavily favours the Belgian. But, in saying that, almost every classic parcours favours him. As for KBK, he has won here 3 times before and writing his name in the winners column for 2017 will be a history making 4th time. I suspect 99% of the cycling community will be behind Tommeke for his last classics season this year, I know I will be.
The Youngster: Tiesj Benoot
Can you believe this man is still only 22? Tiesj Benoot has the body of a youngster but the experience (and brains) of the wisest man on a bike. Already having won the Youth Classification at Algarve this year, as well as 5 race top 10’s, he is in blistering form heading into his best time of year. He was on the podium in Gent last year, behind Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet. He was 21. Not to mention 5th on GC at Tour de Pologne and 7th at E3 in 2016. He has shown that he can keep with the wheels of the big guys, and that will be very handy when the attacks come out up the Taaienberg, Wolvenberg, Loberg or Molenberg. Why am I calling the others ‘the big guys’ though – he is part of them now, and winning Omloop this year will only cement his standing for the decade to come.
The Unknown Entity: Bert Van Lerberghe
Sport Vlaanderen – Baloise are definitely the dark horses of Omloop and KBK this year, and Van Lerberghe is their best chance of getting a win at both races. After sneaking a 4th place at a chaotic Stage 6 sprint at the Tour of Oman this year, as well as 3 top 10’s at Etoile de Besseges in 2 years and 11th at Scheldeprijs, he will be hoping that he can find some results in 2017 during classics season to maybe weasel his way into a WT contract for 2018. It’s not out of his reach, with a smattering of top 10’s in various .HC and .1 classics races, but it will be one of the biggest upsets of 2017 by far. He might be able to get a better result at KBK this weekend with a few bigger riders missing it, but he will be dreaming of a win in Gent. From Sport Vlaanderen, also keep an eye out for Maxime Farazijn, the 22 year old has some street cred as a junior at KBK Juniors (6th/11th in 2011/2012) and Paris Tours Espoirs (3rd in 2015) and will be hoping to shine in his second year as a pro.
The Previous Winners: Greg Van Avermaet and Jasper Stuyven
GVA took out Omloop in 2016 from a break of 4 over the Taaienberg which lasted until the end, while Stuyven recovered from a crash at Omloop to take KBK in a 20km solo break away from a group containing Boonen, Van Avermaet, Rowe and more. Both will be fancying their chances at Omloop and KBK. Both riders live for the reduced bunch sprint on the cobbled races; forcing a small break at the finish and taking the wins from underneath their noses. Both breathe the Flanders region, and both are big hopes for Belgium in the future in these classics – GVA the experienced 31 year old Olympics Gold Medallist already performing full gas at the top level and Stuyven the younger 24 year old already taking the top flight by storm. While I hope someone different takes it out this year, both are more than deserving to win.
That’s a wrap for the 5 Riders to Watch for Omloop and KBK. Grab yourself a telly this Saturday (or for me, early Sunday morning) and Sunday and a good Belgian ale and enjoy the best cycling has to offer. If you haven’t watched a race outside of the Grand Tours, you need to watch the classics, it’s a whole different sport all together. For now, I’m out.
~The Cycling Raven