And it begins! – Pavé’s Belgian Opening Weekend Preview

The season finally begins this weekend with Belgium’s Omloop Het Niuewsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the two opening dates on the Belgian calendar—and the unofficial beginning to the official road season in Europe.
Saturday’s the featured event, as the Omloop and is longer and more difficult than Kuurne. That said, with only a few exceptions, most riders contest both races, eager to add one of them to their lists of palmares.
This year’s events boast some of the deepest start lists in years—especially the Omloop—and while there have been some riders injured in the season’s first few weeks, most of the favorites are arriving with the form necessary to take a well-respected win.
Let’s take a look:
5-Stone Favorites
1. Edvald Boassen Hagen will likely be a 5-Stone Favorite in just about every race he enters for the next 4 or 5 weeks. His early season has been unmarred by sickness or crashes and he’s already displaying the time trial endurance and finishing sprint speed that seems to be a requisite for most northern classics specialists. Furthermore, his Sky team possesses several men able to helping his cause, including one man capable of taking the win for himself should he have the opportunity. In the end, luck’s the only variable Boassen Hagen’s unable to control—hopefully he finds himself in the right break or selection, positioning him to take his first big win of 2010.
2. 2-time Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert is taking Sunday off, choosing to skip Kuurne so as not to peak too soon this spring. I think that’s a smart choice as Gilbert’s one of few men capable of finding success all the way through to Liege-Bastonge-Liege at the end of April. With that in mind, he can’t enter every race and still hope to have some speed left 8 weeks from now. However, this also spells bad news for his competition on Saturday, as Gilbert will put all his energy into winning the race. Like Boassen Hagen, his team is strong—Gilbert’s efforts will be spared until he really needs them, another fact making his third Omloop win a distinct possibility. His only flaw: he’s perhaps too strong. After last fall, all eyes will be on Gilbert and his team will be expected to dictate and control the race; he’ll receive no favors, a fact that would make a win all the more impressive.
3. Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel’s been due for quite some time—he must be getting tired of his Belgian teammates hogging the limelight. The Omloop’s just the kind of race where Chavanel could find himself free enough to take the win. Yes, it’s a big event for the Belgians, but offering Chavanel the win now—and helping him take one or two more in Paris-Nice—might guarantee his loyalty for the monuments yet to come—especially Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders, and Roubaix. In short, getting Chavanel a win this weekend might keep him content when Quick Step’s hometown riders want their time to shine. Regardless of how or why it happens, many would be thrilled to see Chavanel finally get the win he so rightfully deserves.
4-Stone Favorites
1. Heinrich Haussler took a fall in the Volta Algarve and almost didn’t make the list for this weekend’s races. Had he not crashed, he would certainly find himself as one of the top favorites on Saturday. Haussler came tantalizingly close to winning here last year, ultimately getting caught before the line—thankfully by a group containing his teammate, Thor Hushovd, who took the win. A similar tactic could be displayed here, although both men are admittedly a bit behind where they were in 2009. Still, Haussler’s too strong to be discounted; even injured he’s a serious threat to take the victory.
2. Something tells me Stijn Devolder wants to win the Omloop to remind everyone that he’s capable of winning other races besides the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. He’s looked strong in training, has also enjoyed an incident-free season thus far, and like Chavanel comes from perhaps the deepest team in the race: Quick Step. Will he add the Omloop to his two Ronde victories?
3. Fillipo Pozzato would be 5-Stone Favorite were it not for the fact that he, like others, is thinking more seriously about events later in the spring. Were he a bit less experienced, he might go for it all this weekend, but his experiences in Flanders and Roubaix last year illustrated to everyone—himself included—that wins in those two monuments are well within his grasp. Thus, if Pozzato finds himself with the opportunity, he could very well take his second win in the Omloop—just don’t expect him to go too deep to make it happen.
4. BMC has several potential 4-Stone favorites, but it’s hard to decide which rider to choose. Burghardt, Hincapie, Ballan, and Kroon form quite a formidable foursome—but they’re been somewhat reclusive thus far, making tough to gauge the level of their fitness. I think Burghardt has the best chance to win right now. He’s performed well here before, and might not be as worried about saving himself for later races. Still, it would be unwise to ignore the other 3—they all could open their classics campaigns with a win this weekend.
3-Stone Favorites
1. Tom Boonen’s a favorite in just about any cobbled race, no matter the time of year. He’s been winning races recently, but I doubt he has the explosivity—at this point in the season—on par with riders such as Boassen Hagen and Gilbert. Right now he’s a better choice for the win in Sunday’s flatter Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Still, Boonen’s team is super-strong, and he’s probably the most gifted classics rider of the last 8-10 years—he should never be taken for granted.
2. Along with Boassen Hagen, Team Sky brings Juan-Antonio Flecha to the race, hoping the Spaniard with a love for the North will finally take the classics win he so craves. Unfortunately, his more talented teammate might prove to be his biggest obstacle. He’ll have to hope that he can ride himself into a winning move without stepping-on Boassen Hagen’s toes.
3. Johnny Hoogerland’s been quite active so far this year, just missing a win in the season’s opening race in Marsellie, France. He’s consistently ridden at the front of just about event he’s contested—without ever reaching the line first. Saturday could see him break that trend though. His team’s stronger and more confident than last year, with Bjorn Leukemans and Roman Feillu able to help ease the burden. Borut Borzic’s taking the line as well, but like Boonen, I see his chances must better on Sunday in Kuurne.
4. Like BMC, Rabobank’s classics hopefuls—Nick Nuyens and Lars Boom—have been relatively quiet thus far, making it difficult to speculate as to where their fitness lies. Nuyens has won the Omloop in the past and is thus slightly more favored than Boom. Still, Boom’s a proven winner in just about anything involving a bicycle; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him completely dominate. In either case, a win would start Rabobank’s spring campaign off with a bang.
5. Yes, he’s out of shape, banged-up, and almost didn’t even make the race at all, but Thor Hushovd is still Thor Hushovd. He has to be mentioned as someone capable of winning if things go his way. It might take a lot, but Belgian races often have a way of equalizing things—making Thor a legitamate 3-Stone Favorite.
6. Garmin’s roster is deeper than in years past, but I still the Omloop is a bit out of their reach. Tyler Farrar’s their top man this weekend, supported by strong men such as Johan Vansummeren, Martijn Maaskant, and Matt Wilson, the strongest classics team Garmin’s fielded in years. Kuurne might be a bit more up Farrar’s alley, but if he’s going to develop into more than just a sprinter, we should see signs of it Saturday.
7. Saxo Bank’s left their best classics man at home as Fabian Cancellara waits for March before making his 2010 Belgian debut. Stuart O’Grady, Baden Cooke, and Matti Breschel fly the flag in his absence. If they work well together, there’s enough talent and experience here to make something happen, but they face an uphill challenge against so many deeper teams.
2-Stone Favorites
1. Sergei Ivanov rides in support of Pozzato, but should he find himself with an opportunity, he could easily take the win for himself. A proven performer in Belgium, Ivanov won a terrific E3 Harelbeke in 2000, so he’s clearly comfortable racing on rough roads and in bad weather. Furthermore, as he proved with a win in last year’s Amstel Gold Race, he’s still a powerful and cunning rider. Watch for him in moves where he marks other favorites on Pozzato’s behalf—these will be his best chances for victory.
2. Greg Van Avermaet left us hanging last year, falling far short of our expectations. This year he rides in support of Philippe Gilbert, while hoping the race develops in such a way that he gets to punch his own ticket. Should it happen, Lotto certainly wouldn’t mind. Van Avermaet’s continued development is a vital piece of the puzzle if the team is to have any chance of competing with the likes of Quick Step, Sky, and BMC for peloton supremacy between now and Roubaix.
3. Manuel Quinziato showed much potential with solid finishes in the cobbled classics last season. He comes into this weekend backed by a talented team including Daniele Bennati, Frederik Willems, and the young Peter Sagan. A bit of longhshot, yes, but Quinziato’s one dark horse to keep an eye on.
4. HTC’s Bernhard Eisel and Matthew Goss are also two dark horses worth noting. The win might be a bit out of reach considering the competition, but both could see themselves finish inside the top-10. Sunday’s Kuurne offers them even better chances to take HTC’s first big win of 2010.
5. Radio Shack’s a bit depleted following an injury to Geert Steegmans. That said, The Shack’s best contender might just be Sebastien Rosseler, fresh from his stage win in Portugal. The odds appear stacked against him, but with a solid team effort, a top-5 result is a distinct possibility.
6. How old is Nico Eeckhout anyway? I feel like he’s been racing for years! The An Post rider’s already won the final stage in Besseges, and has to be mentioned on his home turf, a place where he always produces an inspired performance. His team faces the difficult task of keeping him out of trouble, but Eeckhout’s savvy enough to handle himself with little or no support. Look for him inside the first 10 on both days.
7. And that’s it—it’s the most wonderful time of year for us! What are your expectations? Who are you picks? What are you most eager to see?
Share your comments below.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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