One of the best races of the year is finally here. 200km, 11 hills, and 10 cobbled sectors–itâ€™s Omloop time!
This year, instead of clogging your Twitter feeds, Iâ€™ve decided to post my previews in a familiar place. If you like what you read, you can follow me (@whityost) and the blog (@paveblog) on Twitter. Letâ€™s get started:
Niki Terpstra (Etixx–Quick-Step) – By successfully defending his title at the Tour of Qatar earlier this month, Terpstra firmly planted himself at the top of the list of favorites for Saturdayâ€™s Omloop. The reigning Paris-Roubaix champ and last yearâ€™s third-place finisher here, Terpstra has all the qualities one looks for in an Omloop winner: great form, a strong team, and good knowledge of the course. Terpstraâ€™s only problem might be that heâ€™s too strong for his own good. Heâ€™ll be given no leeway by opposing teams, despite the presence of his teammate, Tom Boonen. In most years Boonen is enough to draw attention from other teams, thus freeing his supporting cast to ride for themselves. But Terpstraâ€™s no longer just a lieutenant; heâ€™s a co-captain who has proven that heâ€™s able to handle the responsibility of being his teamâ€™s best chance to win. And he was left-off Quick-Stepâ€™s roster for Sundayâ€™s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Itâ€™s been two years since a Belgian rider has won the Omloop and ten years since a Belgian team has won the nationâ€™s opening race. Terpstraâ€™s a good bet to end the latter streak, but not the former.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) – All week long I had Van Avermaet right behind Terpstra as a 5-Stone favorite, but now that Iâ€™m actually writing this preview, I just canâ€™t do it. Van Avermaet has progressed nicely as a cobbled contender despite the crowded roster often fielded by team BMC. But with first Alessandro Ballan and then Thor Hushovd out of the picture, the coast now looks clear for Van Avermaet to ascend to the top of BMCâ€™s cobbled hierarchy. Or is it? With Philippe Gilbert back in the picture for the Omloop and the Tour of Flanders, Van Avermaet might once again have to share the team with a compatriot. After so many near-misses throughout his career, I suspect Van Avermaet is just a win away from unleashing his true potential. After finding so many ways to lose races, finally winning one is likely to give his confidence the boost it needs to make it a habit. The Omloop would be a terrific place to start, especially given his near-miss last year.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) – With three stage wins, there was seemingly nothing anyone could do to stop Katushaâ€™s Kristoff at the Tour of Qatar. Indeed, the reigning Milan-San Remo champion looks to have hit top form quite earlyâ€”almost too early in fact. For a pure field sprinter, being so strong so soon isnâ€™t a bad thing as thereâ€™s a big difference between a 250-meter field sprint and a 250-kilometer spring Classic. But for a Classicâ€™s contender, hitting your peak too early can spell doom for the races still to come. That said, we donâ€™t know with certainty how close to 100% Kristoff is riding, and I suspect that he still has room to improve (which is bad news for the competition). If Iâ€™m his DS, Iâ€™m hoping for a small group to hit the line Saturday, with Kristoff fresh enough to continue his winning ways. Itâ€™s too bad the team will be without Luca Paolini. The 2013 Omloop-champ would have been an experienced lieutenant and a rider capable of covering late-race attacks on Kristoffâ€™s behalf.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) – If youâ€™re looking for a wild card, look no further than the 2006 and 2008 Omloop champion. Gilbertâ€™s realized that the new-look Tour of Flanders actually suits him better than the old one did, so heâ€™s adjusted his program to take a stab at adding a third Monument to his resume. Gilbert hasnâ€™t raced a cobbled Classic since 2013, when he finished anonymously in the E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem before taking a pass on the Tour of Flanders. That said, when heâ€™s motivated, the cobbled Classics are generally no problem for him (with the exception of Paris-Roubaix)â€”as evidenced by his two Omloop wins and two third-place finishes in the (old) Tour of Flanders. His path to this yearâ€™s Omloop went through Dubai and Qatar before a pair of top-3 finishes at the 2-day Tour du Haut Var, a race thatâ€™s been a good indicator of Omloop/Kuurne form in the past. I suspect weâ€™ll see one of two things from Gilbert tomorrow: heâ€™ll either be in the thick of the action, or in the middle of the main field.
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx–Quick-Step) – Stybar hasnâ€™t raced much this season, most likely because the team wants to ease him back into competition following an offseason injury. But he finished third in his first race, the Vuelta a Mucia, and rode impressively in the Volta ao Algarve. Stybarâ€™s biggest asset is the depth of his team. With Terpstra the top favorite and Boonen a perpetually marked rider in races of this sort, Stybar might find himself with enough of a leash to escape late in the raceâ€”similar to what happened last year with Stannard, a rider who probably benefitted from the presence of a more heralded teammate, Edvald Boassen Hagen, in the final selection. If teams focus heavily on Terpstra and Boonen while leaving Stybar unaccounted for, it could spell the end of their chances to win this yearâ€™s Omloop.
Ian Stannard (Team Sky) – After his win in last yearâ€™s Omloop, Stannard looked ready to be one of the main protagonists of the 2014 Classics until a crash in Ghent-Wevelgem ended his spring prematurely. His program so far this year has been a mirror image of last yearâ€™sâ€”right down to his fourth-place overall finish at the Tour of Qatar earlier this month. Heâ€™s clearly in form, but will now face the challenge of riding with dossard #1, a bullseye that means other teams wonâ€™t take him lightly anymore. His team is also notably weaker than last yearâ€™s. One has to wonder why the team left the in-form Gerraint Thomas at home. Yes, he wants to win Paris-Nice, but the Welshman has proven himself adept at racing in Flanders and would have been a top favorite were he racing the Omloop.
Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) – I suspect weâ€™re still one year away from seeing Boonen put more emphasis on winning the Omloop, for as long as likes his chances in the Ronde and Roubaix, the Omloop will always be less of a priority for the 34-year-old. For Boonen to win, a larger but select group needs to sprint for the win, but if that happens surely he wonâ€™t be the only rider of his sort to make the selection. Heâ€™s a better bet for 2016 and beyondâ€”if there is one.
Sep Vanmarcke (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) – The reason why Boonen might soon start emphasizing the Omloop is the same reason why Vanmarcke is beginning to de-emphasize it: he has bigger goals in April. The last Belgian to win his nationâ€™s opening race, Vanmarcke would certainly be Belgiumâ€™s best contender if he wanted to be. But after high finishes in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix the past two seasons, Vanmarcke is now confident in his status as a main contender in both cobbled Monuments and has designed his program around winning one or both of them. This shift comes at the cost of his chances in the Omloop, but if he wins Flanders and/or Roubaix, no one will care.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) – Third last year, the Omloop is a perfect race for this Norwegian to justify MTN-Qhubekaâ€™s investment while proving right those who think Sky does a lackluster job of developing young talent. Last year, Boasson Hagen raced in Majorca and then the Ruta del Sol before heading to the Omloop, this year, he completed the Tours of Qatar and Oman along with many of Saturdayâ€™s other top contenders. With Gerald Ciolek and Tyler Farrar, heâ€™ll have at least two experienced teammates to lean on (maybe), though Farrar might be looking ahead to Sundayâ€™s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Arnaud Demare (FDJ) – Believe it or not, last year was only Demareâ€™s first Omloop, a fact that makes his tenth-place finish all the more impressive. And heâ€™s also still just 23 years-old, which means while itâ€™s tempting to start tapping our feet while impatiently waiting for him to score a big result in the Classics, he still might need another year or two get used to the style of racing, and more importantly, learn the roads. Heâ€™ll need a select group to hit the line to make the podium tomorrow, but if that happens, donâ€™t be surprised if he wins.
Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) – Weâ€™ll give Chava a pass for his results during last yearâ€™s Classics. Moving to a new squad after getting accustomed to the culture at Quick-Step must have been tougher than many expected. But now he should be used to the way his new team does things and is hopefully ready to deliver the types of performances IAM envisioned when they signed him prior to 2014. His top-10 finish at the Ruta del Sol bodes well for his chances, as does the fact that his team is underrated but talented and experienced.
Oscar Gatto (Androni Giocattoli) – Ladies and gentlemen, meet Luca Paolini 2.0. Gatto is a rider who makes teams pay when they donâ€™t take him seriouslyâ€”as he illustrated by winning Dwars door Vlaanderen in 2013. And while weâ€™re talking about Italians, keep an eye on Wanty-Groupe Gobertâ€™s Marco Marcato. Just a hunch.
Edward Theuns (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) – Each year, Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise produces another young Belgian who reveals his talent with a series of strong rides in the cobbled Classics (Sep Vanmarcke, Kenneth Van Bilsen, Tom Van Asbroeck, and Yves Lampaert come to mind). This year, look for Theuns to be the next product of what has become one of the sportâ€™s best squads in terms of developing young riders.
Peter Van Petegem won two quick Omloops and then waited a few years before winning his third. I suspect weâ€™ll see BMCâ€™s Philippe Gilbert follow a similar pattern by winning his third Omloop tomorrow. While Greg Van Avermaet might be as strong as his teammate, Gilbert knows how to win races. Watch for Gilbert to launch an attack that comes late enough to stay away to the finish, but early enough that he can say he was trying to set-up the race for Van Avermaet. That might indeed be the case, but Zdenek Stybar and another dangerous rider or two (someone like Oscar Gatto) will join the move, giving it just enough firepower to go the distance.