Taken together, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne offer a first chance to see who will be the major players at Aprilâ€™s cobbled Monuments. Saturdayâ€™s Omloopâ€”with nine climbs and nine sections of pavÃ© over its 204.4 kilometer trek through Flandersâ€”offers a scaled-down Tour of Flanders, where riders hoping to win Aprilâ€™s Ronde get a chance to test their legs. Sundayâ€™s 193-kilometer K-B-K parcours offers a flatter optionâ€”perfect for a select but large group of sprinters, similar to what we might see at Ghent-Wevelgem in March.
As a result, many teams come into the weekend with two aces up their sleevesâ€”some race both events and others will choose one over the other. But with few exceptions, all of the usual teams and protagonists have arrived in Belgium ready to battle for the first major victory of the season. Letâ€™s take a look at the most likely pairs of favorites for this yearâ€™s Belgian Opening Weekend:
Juan Antonio Flecha/Edvald Boasson Hagen â€“ After winning the Omloop in aggressive fashion last year, thereâ€™s little reason to doubt Juan Antonio Flechaâ€™s chances to become a repeat winner in a race that has already seen 14 men win it more than once. The Spaniardâ€™s preparation has been flawless, highlighted by a surprising top-10 finish on the climb to Green Mountain in last weekâ€™s Tour of Oman. With two weeks of racing in his legs, one of the strongest teams (Team Sky) in the race supporting him, and a title to defend, Flechaâ€™s the top favorite for Saturday.
Or do I speak too soon? Edvald Boasson Hagenâ€™s clearly overcome his troubles from 2010 and is ready to deliver on the potential he showed with HTC in 2009. Fresh from four top-5 placings and second-place overall in Oman, EBH could give everyoneâ€”Flecha includedâ€”a run for his money. Both men will need to co-exist should they want to find success; their ability to race aggressively yet cohesively will make or break them. Were I driving the car: Iâ€™d go with Flecha Saturday and EBH Sunday, with each playing the role of wild card lieutenant for the other.
Philipp Gilbert/Andre Greipel â€“ Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Philippe Gilbert has won the Omloop twice in his career and would love to become one of only a handful of riders to win the race three times. Gilbertâ€™s bigger objectives are Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, and the Ardennes Classics, but heâ€™s never been one to turn down a chance to win. For example, a last-minute participant in last weekâ€™s Volta ao Algarve, Gilbert won the first stage with a powerful uphill sprint thatâ€”despite his commentsâ€”displayed the Belgianâ€™s fine form. At last yearâ€™s Omloop, Gilbert made last yearâ€™s winning break, but was unable to follow Flechaâ€™s race-winning attack. You can bet the ever-aggressive Belgian wonâ€™t make the same mistake twice.
The winner of the GP Waregem in 2003 (an important U23 classic), Andre Greipelâ€™s no stranger to racing in Belgiumâ€”even though his rÃ©sumÃ© doesnâ€™t indicate it. As if the case with many, heâ€™ll skip Saturdayâ€™s Omloop in order to be fresh for Kuurne. Like Gilbert, Greipel won a stage in Algarve, indicating his fitness is on track for the rest of the spring. If the weather holds and a break proves unable to succeed, look for Grepiel at the end of Sundayâ€™s race.
Tom Boonen/Geert Steegmans â€“ Interestingly, the Omloop is one of the few Belgian classics Quick-Stepâ€™s Tom Boonen hasnâ€™t wonâ€”and with good reason. With Milan San Remo three weeks after the Belgian Opening Weekend, and the major cobbled Monuments another two weeks after that, Boonen tends to set his sights further down the road. That said, heâ€™s clearly coming into formâ€”his stage win in Qatarâ€™s a good indicatorâ€”and heâ€™s always a threat on home roads. Look for Belgian to put in a major attack sometime around the Taaienbergâ€”just to test his legsâ€”and then to see how things shake-up before deciding whether or not to go for the win.
Teammate Geert Steegmans has fallen a long way from the talented Belgian who won Tour stages in 2007 and 2008 and was considered a future contender for success in the cobbled classics. His return to Quick-Step has hopefully breathed new life into a rider many thought might one day challenge Tom Boonen. Heâ€™s riding both races, but will likely have more of a chance to ride for himself Sundayâ€”especially if Boonenâ€™s efforts Saturday are substantial. A win in Kuurne would go a long way toward restoring his reputation.
Thor Hushovd/Tyler Farrar â€“ Like Boonen, Thorâ€™s goals lie a bit further down the calendar; unlike his Belgian rival, he has less racing in his legs and hasnâ€™t displayed a level of fitness on par with some other favorites. But Thorâ€™s won this race in the past and is always a dangerous rider to contend with in Belgium and Northern France. Without Heinrich Haussler or Tyler Farrar on the roster, Garmin-CervÃ©loâ€™s clearly putting all of their eggs in Thorâ€™s basket.
As for Tyler Farrar, heâ€™s not fooling anyone into thinking heâ€™s not on his game. Sitting-out Saturdayâ€™s race in favor of Sundayâ€™s flatter encore, Farrar has to be considered one of the top favorites for the winâ€”and perhaps a safer bet for at least one win than his world champion teammate. That said, a win for Hushovd Saturday might provide a bit of extra motivation for Farrar and the team Sundayâ€”a weekend sweep is a distinct possibility.
Stijn Devolder/Bjorn Leukemans â€“ Vacansoleilâ€™s Stijn Devolder has never been a man for the Belgian Opening Weekend. (His best results are a 40th in the Omloop and 15th in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.) But despite his past, Devolder wants to send a message to his doubters that he is still the same rider that won the Tour of Flanders in 2008 and 2009. Heâ€™s ridden a relatively full February program, culminating with his fourth-place finish in Mondayâ€™s difficult first stage of the Ruta del Sol. A win in the Omloop would certainly silence his doubtersâ€”at least until April.
Bjorn Leukemans was one of the revelations of last yearâ€™s cobbled classics thanks to top-10 finishes in just about every cobbled race from Dwaars door Vlaanderen through Paris-Roubaix (he skipped Ghent-Wevelgem in favor of the E3 Prijs). As a result, he comes to the Omloop perhaps looking a bit beyond it. A painful saddle sore on the inside of his thigh hasnâ€™t helped matters, but he says heâ€™s over it now and is racing pain-free. If heâ€™s smart, heâ€™ll do whatever he can to support Devolder in the hopes that Devolder returns the favor in April.
Marcus Burghardt/Greg Van Avermaet â€“ BMCâ€™s Marcus Burghardt and Greg Van Avermaet were two of the pelotonâ€™s most active riders in Qatar and Omanâ€”theyâ€™re hoping the work pays-off this weekend in Belgium before teammates George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan arrive later in the spring. Burghardt won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2007, but has little to show since aside from an inconsistent smattering of cobbled top-10â€™s. But one of those is a fifth-place finish in the 2009 Omloop and the German has the experience necessary to open BMCâ€™s cobbled account with a victory Saturdayâ€”his only race of the weekend.
As for Greg Van Avermaet, he showed amazing potential in 2008 after winning a stage and the points jersey in the Vuelta; but like Burghardt, the Belgianâ€™s had few results to speak of since. Interestingly, Van Avermaet finished one place ahead of his German teammate in the 2009 Omloop. A win Saturday would be a fabulous confirmation of his potential. Van Avermaetâ€™s fast finish makes Sunday an option as wellâ€”especially if Burghardtâ€™s BMCâ€™s man for the Omloop.
Filippo Pozzato/Luca Paolini â€“ Pozzato won the Omloop with Liquigas in 2007, heralding his arrival as a classics contender. Pippoâ€™s enjoyed a rather quiet season so far, slowly riding himself into shape in Qatar and Oman beforeâ€”we hopeâ€”giving us a glimpse of his fitness this weekend. Weâ€™ll also get our first chance to see Leif Hosteâ€™s role with the teamâ€”his experience and knowledge should prove to be a major asset to Pozzato and the rest of the team.
But despite his presence, Hosteâ€™s not likely to be Katushaâ€™s #2 option this weekend; Luca Paoliniâ€”one of Katushaâ€™s other off-season acquisitionsâ€”is. Paoliniâ€™s one of those veteran riders who knows how to find the right breakawayâ€”after all, he spent most of his career with Paolo Bettini and was also with Liquigas when Pozzato won the Omloop. Paolini finished fourth in last yearâ€™s Omloop and is an even better option for Kuurne where his ability to join breaks and win sprints make him a more than capable contender.
Lars Boom/Sebastian Langeveld â€“ This weekend was supposed to be our first chance to see new Rabobank signing Matti Breschel strut his stuff at the classicsâ€”until a lingering knee injury forced the Daneâ€™s withdrawal. In his place, Lars Boom and Sebastain Langeveld will co-captain Rabobank in both races, with the two men hoping to earn the team a spot on the podium. Up-and-comers for several seasons now, both men could use a breakthrough ride to prove that the attention has been warranted. In particular, Boom is at a time in his career when his potential in the classics should start showing itself. Will this be the weekend that it does?
Lloyd Mondory/Anthony Ravard â€“ Ag2Râ€™s French sprinters both have the pedigree and the legs to perhaps pull a surprise this weekendâ€”particularly in Kuurne-Brussles-Kuurne. If one of them manages to take a win, heâ€™ll be the first Frenchman to win one of the Belgian openers since Frederic Moncassin won K-B-K in 1995â€”the only French winner of either race.
As for my prediction, I see Flecha, Gilbert, and Devolder as Saturdayâ€™s major animators, with Devolder taking a rain-soaked win over last yearâ€™s champion. Call me a sucker for aesthetics, but the image of the Belgian Champion crossing the line first just feels right. Thomas De Gendt will play an important role in helping Devolder get the win, possibly joining the Belgian Champ in the winning move.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: 1. Devolder, 2. Paolini, 3. Van Avermaet, 4. Flecha, 5. De Gendt
As for Sunday, the weather will be bad, but I still see a large hitting the line together. Steegmans hangs in to take the win over EBH, Farrar, and Vacansoleilâ€™s Roman Feillu. Belgium rejoices.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: 1. Steegmans, 2. Boasson Hagen, 3. Farrar, 4. Feillu, 5. Greipel
And for those of you who enjoy the wildest of wild cards, Topsport Vlaanderenâ€™s Sander Armeeâ€™s your man. (If youâ€™re in the UK, go put a quid down next to his name.)
And last but not least, we’re going to test drive a new Live Coverage application that will allow us to chat and discuss the race live right here on the site. So find your favorite Live Stream, open a new window, and head back here to discuss the race along with us as it happens.
For now, share your comments and picks below!