2016 Dwars door Vlaanderen – Another Win for Trek-Segafredo?


Despite Tuesday’s terrorists attacks, the 71st edition of the semi-Classic Dwars door Vlaanderen looks as if it take place tomorrow as planned (until we hear otherwise). While top contenders for the cobbled Monuments often skip this mid-week semi-Classic, plenty of other talented riders still make the trip to Roeselare, where 200km of cobbles and climbs offer them a chance to reacquaint themselves with the terrain many of them haven’t seen since the Belgian opening weekend, and some since last season. Without galaticos like Cancellara, Sagan, and Boonen taking part, Dwars is a great place for unsung heros and upstarts to try and shine. Case in point: Jelle Wallays won last year’s race for Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise, proving that his win in the previous year’s Paris-Tours was no fluke (and earning himself a World Tour contract with Lotto-Soudal).

Here are the five riders I think have the best chance to take the victory tomorrow, along with a handful of other men to keep your eye on.

Niki Terpstra (Etixx–Quick-Step)

Terpstra’s won this race twice (2012 and 2014), but both of those victories came while the Dutchman was still considered more of a lieutenant than a captain. But now he’s a former winner of Paris-Roubaix and the runner-up in last year’s Tour of Flanders, meaning no one will overlook him as one of the event’s top contenders (especially wearing the jersey of the Dutch national champion). I’ve long been of the belief that a rider needs to finish Milan-Sanremo in order to be a contender for the cobbled Classics, but Terpstra’s proof that this isn’t always the case. He last raced la Primavera in 2013, a spring in which his best result in the cobbled Classics was a third-place finish in Paris-Roubaix. But in 2014 he skipped the Italian Monument, yet still won both Dwars and Roubaix. Last year, he skipped it again, and still managed to score a string of high finishes including his second-place finish in the Ronde. Whether he wins tomorrow or not, expect Terpstra to be a major protagonist, especially on a team that also boasts Fernando Gaviria and Yves Lampaert, both riders who should benefit from the attention Terpstra will draw—not to mention his experience.

Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal)

Despite being everyone’s favorite future superstar, Lotto-Soudal is clearly taking it easy with young Benoot. Last year, if you recall, Benoot rode neither Paris-Nice nor Tirreno Adriatico before the Flemish Classics—his pre-Dwars program consisted of the Driedaagse van West Vlaanderen and a series of one-day races in Belgium and the Netherlands. This year he raced Strade Bianche and Tirreno, which is perhaps why he skipped Milan-Sanremo this past weekend. Benoot’s still winless as professional and the only question mark surrounding his potential regards his ability to come through at the end. Fresh and eager to race, Dwars is a great chance for him to take his first big win.

Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal)

Benoot’s arrival has overshadowed the continued development of Jens Debusschere, who’s perhaps easier to miss now that he’s not wearing the Belgian Driekleur trikot. Eighth here last year, Debusschere’s pre-Dwars program has been nearly identical to last year’s with one key exception: he finished Saturday’s Milan-Sanremo (he skipped it entirely last year). While Milan-Sanremo’s 300km will certainly benefit the 26-year-old in Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix, they might hurt him here. If he doesn’t need Wednesday to work out any remaining kinks from Saturday, he’s a perfect rider for a race like Dwars in that he can win from a breakaway and by out-sprinting a diminished peloton.

Edward Theuns (Trek-SegaFredo)

Last year’s runner-up as a member of the ever-dependable Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise team, Theuns is primed for his first big win tomorrow. An eighth-place finisher in both the Omloop and Kuurne, Theuns then went to Paris-Nice, where he came tantalizingly close to winning Stage 1. Theuns should be the focal point of a Trek-Segafredo squad riding without Fabian Cancellara, who traditionally skips Dwars to be at his best for Friday’s E3. Like Debusschere but maybe better, he’s a rider who can win in a variety of ways. With Jasper Stuyven and Stijn Devolder alongside the 24-year-old, Trek-Segafredo could be the team to beat.

Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff)

Gatto won Dwars in 2013 and looks primed for another high finish this year. With Peter Sagan not racing, the 31-year-old Italian is free to ride for himself in a race he knows well. He’s healthy, in-form, and should have no problems finding his way into the winning move.

And keep your eye on…

Etixx-Quick-Step’s Fernando Gaviria will be hoping it all comes down to a sprint—and that he manages to stay upright for it. His teammate Yves Lampaert should be given a chance to try his hand in a breakaway or two, especially with teams marking Terpstra and Gaviria scaring them away from bringing the race back together…Jens Keukeleire will be the focal point of Orica-GreenEDGE’s attack, while Dries Devenyns will lead the way for IAM Cycling…Ag2r’s Alexis Gougeard was one of the heroes from the Omloop. The Frenchman did his best Jacky Durand impression by going in the day’s long breakaway yet still hanging-on to finish fifth…In the event of a field sprint, it’s hard not to like the chances of Direct Energie’s Bryan Coquard…Don’t be surprised if Stölting Service Group’s Gerald Ciolek uses Dwars as a chance to remind everyone that’s still got something left in the tank…And last but certainly not least, we can no longer discount the chances of Southeast’s Pippo Pozzato, as evidenced by his eighth-place finish in Saturday’s Milan-Sanremo (though I suspect he’s treating tomorrow more as training).

My prediction

Theuns goes one better than last year’s edition, winning Dwars door Vlaanderen ahead of Marco Marcato and Jens Debusschere.

Share your picks and comments below.

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2016 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Preview – Will Kristoff Conquer Kuurne?

Etixx - Quick-Step/ Tim De Waele

Etixx – Quick-Step/ Tim De Waele

The Belgian opening weekend closes tomorrow with the 68th edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Here’s my list of riders to watch:

Last year’s runner-up to Mark Cavendish (whose Dimension Data isn’t racing tomorrow), Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff is the top favorite for tomorrow’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Like last year, Kristoff was nowhere to be seen during today’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. I suspect the Norwegian spent much of today’s race adjusting to the weather, reacclimating to the style of the racing, and basically just easing himself into his Classics campaign. But Kuurne’s a different kind of race. While it’s just as long as the Omloop, it’s much easier to control and almost always ends up producing a field sprint (unless the weather is terrible). His team will have to show more willingness to work than it did today, but they should have little trouble controlling things–and will get plenty of help from other teams in doing so. Kristoff’s been the fastest man in the world so far this season, and I suspect he’ll add to his tally tomorrow.

Team Sky’s Elia Viviani finished right behind Kristoff last year, and the Italian has the legs to do it again. His build-up to Kuurne has been nearly identical to last year’s, and he’s adept at freelancing field sprints. He abandoned today’s Omloop, but that was more of a precaution than anything else–he’ll be up there tomorrow.

Last year was Nacer Bouhanni’s first start in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and he finished 18th. This year he hopes to do much better, fresh off his Stage 2 victory at the Ruta del Sol. Bouhanni’s focused, in-form, and should also benefit from the experience of Cofidis’ new-addition, Borut Bozic.

Orica-GreenEDGE’s Caleb Ewan makes his 2016 European debut tomorrow after winning a combined three stages at the Tour Down Under and Herald Sun Tour. Riding his first Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a win tomorrow might be a tall order. But Ewan’s confident, talented, and not to be underestimated.

After his second-place finish in the Omloop, I don’t expect to see Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan going too deep to try and win tomorrow. Instead, I expect to see him working on behalf of Daniele Bennati, winner of Stage 1 of the Ruta del Sol and someone not to be overlooked in a race of this sort.

And last but not least, there’s Tom Boonen. The three-time winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was clearly riding more for training than anything else in the Omloop (leg-warmers and all), but he’s worth keeping an eye on tomorrow. Etixx–Quick-Step often redeems poor Omloop showings in Kuurne, and Boonen’s the type of rider who can sit-in the bunch all day and still fare well in the field sprint.  

As for the rest of the bunch, keep an eye on Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Roy Jans, Fortuneo-Vital Concept’s Yauheni Hutarovich (a 2-time runner-up), Trek-Segafredo’s Giacomo Nizzolo and Jasper Stuyven, and Lotto Soudal’s Jens Debusschere (who along with Stuyven might be the best bet to score back-to-back top-10 finishes this weekend).

My prediction: 1. Kristoff 2. Viviani 3. Boonen.

Who’s your pick to take home the stuffed donkey? Share your comments below.

Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick / Kuurne - Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, 1 maart 2015 (I10) / Wikimédia France & Wikimedia Commons

Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick / Kuurne – Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, 1 maart 2015 (I10) / Wikimédia France & Wikimedia Commons

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2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Preview – Will Youth Prevail?

Photo courtesy of Etixx--Quick-Step.

Photo courtesy of Etixx–Quick-Step.

It’s late February, which means I have Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” stuck in my head. Yes, dames and heren, it’s time for Het Volk the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the unofficially official start to the season and the first important one-day race on the calendar.

Starting and finishing Ghent, “the Omloop” covers 200 kilometers of some of Flanders’ finest bergs and cobblestones, thus making it a perfect testing, training, and/or proving ground for riders hoping to make an impact during the cobbled Monuments later in the spring. That said, while winning the Omloop often proves to be a good predictor of Classics success later in a rider’s career, it consistently fails to predict the winner of the cobbled Classics little more than a month later. In fact, no rider has won the Omloop and the Tour of Flanders in the same season, and only three riders have won the Omloop and then Paris-Roubaix: Eddy Merckx (1973), Franco Ballerini (1995) and Johan Museeuw (2000). No wonder former winners Sep Vanmarcke and Ian Stannard have chosen to skip this year’s Omloop to save themselves for the Monuments.

But despite the absence of the two-time defending champion (Stannard), the 2012 victor (Vanmarcke), and arguably the greatest Classics rider of his generation (Fabian Cancellara), there are still plenty of riders starting Saturday’s Omloop to write home about. Here’s a look:

Greg Van Avermaet heads north following a string of high placings in Oman and Qatar. In eleven days of racing, he finished in the top-10 seven times. And his history in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad mirrors the trend that has defined the 30-year-old Belgian’s career: of his eight starts in the Omloop he’s finished in the top-6 five times, including 5th, 5th, 2nd, and 6th in the last four. He certainly knows how to contend, but does he know how to win?

Van Avermaet always seems to just miss the right move, as if he’s afraid to risk making a mistake that might cost him the victory. Unfortunately, as the adage goes, in order to win a race you often must be willing to lose it, something Van Avermaet himself proved when his aggressive attack near the end of the 2014 Tour of Flanders almost won him the Ronde. It’s gone down as one of his finest performances to date–even though he once again had to settle for 2nd-place. With similar tactics tomorrow, Van Avermaet might be able to take advantage of a peloton that (with riders like Sagan and Kristoff on the starting line) might be happy with a large group sprinting for the win in Ghent.

Niki Terpstra’s record in the Omloop is almost as impressive as Van Avermaet’s. Terpstra’s started eight Omloops, and has finished in the top-10 in half of them. But this year offered a new wrinkle for Terpstra’s Omloop prep thanks to Etixx-Quick-Step’s exclusion from the Tour of Qatar (which Terpstra won in 2014 and 2015). As a result, Terpstra and the rest of Etixx–Quick-Step’s Classics squad spent the pre-season in Spain and Portugal, where Terpstra failed to make headlines. But don’t his anonymity fool you; Terpstra logged some terrific training and should be the focal point of Quick-Step’s plans Saturday. And a slower build-up might mean even better things to come at Flanders and Roubaix.

Much less heralded, but no less talented, young Tiesj Benoot comes to the Omloop as another top favorite. The 21-year-old was the revelation of last year’s cobbled Classics, highlighted by fifth-place finish in the Tour of Flanders (and not by simply following wheels and lucking his way into the top-10). A rider who stills seems to have only broken the surface of his potential, Benoot scored two top-5 finishes in Mallorca (among some rather impressive company), and then hung with the GC contenders on the hilltop finish at the end of Stage 2 in the Volta ao Algarve. Now he heads to his second Omloop with the support of his talented and experienced Lotto-Soudal teammates Jurgen Roelandts and Jens Debusschere. Yes, Benoot’s still somewhat of a dark horse. But if he wins, he won’t be anymore.

As for Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan and Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, two of the sport’s biggest stars and top contenders in most cobbled Classics, don’t expect much Saturday. Sagan’s making his first race appearance since completing a long training block following late-January’s Tour de San Luis. Kristoff heads to the Omloop after winning six stages at the Tours of Qatar and Oman. With bigger races on the agenda in late-March/early-April these two won’t want to expend too much energy to win a race that, while prestigious in its own right, is less important than Monuments like Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix. If one of these two were to win, it will most likely be because the race came back together for the finale, sending a larger group to the line to contest the sprint.

The race’s biggest wild card is probably BMC’s Philippe Gilbert. Gilbert won the Omloop in 2006 and 2008, wins that announced the Belgian as one of the sport’s next one-day superstars. (Hear that, Benoot?) He skipped the race in 2012 and 2013, but came back last year. Why? Well, Gilbert’s not been shy about his desire to win the Tour of Flanders before he ends his career, but his team seems hesitant to give him a leash long enough to do it. He came to last year’s Omloop hoping to prove himself worthy of a place alongside Van Avermaet as Ronde co-captains, but failed to make enough of a mark to force his directors to alter his program. But a high finish this year–coupled with another “close but no cigar” performance by Van Avermaet–might be enough to earn Gilbert a spot on the team’s Flanders roster.

And then there’s Etixx–Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen. Believe it or not Boonen’s never won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. And like Sagan and Kristoff, it’s unlikely that we’ll see him going for the win on Saturday–it’s just too early in the season. But that doesn’t mean he won’t make an impact. He’ll likely try one his signature attacks on the Taaienberg to test himself and force a selection. And if a large group makes it back to Ghent together, I’m sure the Boonen will do everything he can to fill one of the only gaps on his impressive resume.

If you’re looking for a true dark horse, consider Tinkoff’s Oscar Gatto. Gatto rides well in cobbled semi-Classics–his 2013 victory in Dwars door Vlaanderen remains a career highlight. And he’ll certainly be overshadowed by the presence of his teammate, Peter Sagan. Gatto’s a lite version of Luca Paolini (minus the cocaine), a rider who’s savvy, tactically sound, and knows how to maximize his chances when given the opportunity to ride for himself. He’s also riding well, as evidenced by his stage win at the recent Ruta del Sol. If Gatto finds himself in a late breakaway, Sagan’s presence will give teams good reason not to chase, thus freeing Gatto for an even bigger Classic victory.

Other riders to keep an eye on include Etixx–Quick-Step’s Stijn Vandenbergh, Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns, Direct Energie’s Sylvain Chavanel, FDJ’s Arnaud Demare, and IAM’s Dries Devenyns.

And last but certainly not least, there’s Southeast-Venezuela’s 2009 Omloop-winner Filippo Pozzato, who’s worth mentioning just because he’s racing. And because he’s Pippo.

So what’s my call? I’m going with youth over experience. Benoot gets the win, followed by Gatto and Van Avermaet. The only silver lining to Van Avermaet’s continued disappointment will be the fact that Benoot’s victory (and yet another poor showing by Etixx–Quick-Step) will steal much of the limelight.

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E3 Harelbeke – Three Riders to Watch


Not much time today, but here are the three riders I see as having the best chances of keeping the defending E3 champ’s feet (and perhaps more importantly, hands) off the podium tomorrow.

Sep Vanmarcke (Team LottoNL-Jumbo)
If his performances in the Omloop and Strade Bianche are any indication, Vanmarcke is ready to dominate the cobbled Classics over the next three weekends. He raced Tirreno then skipped Milan-San Remo last weekend (which means he’s rested and healthy); and he spent his time wisely doing recon rides over key sections of the courses for Flanders and Roubaix (which should further boost his confidence). Some might say that Vanmarcke could try and save himself for Flanders and Roubaix–or mask his good form with a quiet showing tomorrow. But as Boonen and Cancellara have shown several times in the past, there’s no reason to hide good legs when you have them. With three top-5 finishes in the last four editions, he’s the top favorite for tomorrow.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
Tomorrow is Thomas’s first cobbled Classic of the season, but don’t let that trick you into discounting his chances. One of the more consistent E3 contenders in recent history, the Welshman has finished 3rd and 4th in the last two years and clearly is at the top of his game following outstanding rides in Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo. He’ll also benefit from a strong team containing Roubaix-hopeful Ian Stannard, former podium-finisher Bernhard Eisel, and the up-and-coming Luke Rowe. A win tomorrow would put Thomas near the top of the list of favorites for next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders–if he can hold onto his good form for that long.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)
Knowing that he wasn’t going to defeat the likes of John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, and Michael Matthews on the Via Roma in Sunday’s Milan-Sanremo, Van Avermaet did the only he could have done: he attacked. Unfortunately, Milan-San Remo isn’t a race that rewards such tactics anymore.
With so many favorites for tomorrow, Van Avermaet needs to play a bit of poker in the finale. If he needs a lesson, he can go back and watch how Cancellara handled himself in the final 10km of last year’s Ronde, a race which is coincidentally the best performance ever recorded by Van Avermaet in a Classic.

Other Riders to Watch: Niki Terpstra (EQS), Zdenek Stybar (EQS), Fabian Cancellara (TFR), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal), Edward Theuns (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise)

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Dwars door Vlaanderen – 5 Riders to Watch

Could Wednesday bring another EQS 1-2-3? (Photo Credit: Etixx - Quick-Step/Tim De Waele)

Could Wednesday bring another EQS 1-2-3? (Photo Credit: Etixx – Quick-Step/Tim De Waele)

And it begins…

The most wonderful time of the season is once again upon us, starting with tomorrow’s 70th running of Dwars door Vlaanderen. Dwars is a terrific race for many reasons, and it’s always worth watching if you have the time. Here are five riders I’ll be keeping an eye during tomorrow’s event, both for the win and as a predictor of bigger things to come.

Niki Terpstra (Etixx—Quick-Step)
Were I to choose a 5-Stone Favorite for Dwars this year, I’d look no further than the rider who has won two of the last three editions. After winning the Tour of Qatar in February (again), he rode well in the Omloop (again) despite failing to win the race (again).He then had a trouble-free Paris-Nice (a good thing) and skipped Milan-San Remo (probably a good thing) to stay closer to home and race Saturday’s Ronde van Zeeland where he gifted the win to his hard-working teammate, Iljo Keisse. But there will be no more gifts for his teammates, as Terpstra has a chance to ride for himself all the way through Roubaix. Expect him to start things off with another fine performance tomorrow—and if he doesn’t deliver it, look for it instead on Friday in the E3 Prijs.

Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo)
Dwars is a race that often announces the arrival of a new cobbled Classics contender, and that’s exactly what everyone thought had happened in 2010 when Breschel won the race for Saxo Bank. But lieutenants don’t always make the best captains—especially in one day races as difficult as the Classics, and Breschel failed to deliver as Rabobank’s protected rider. He’s been back at Saxo since 2013 though, and the arrival of Peter Sagan is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him. Now, no one’s counting on Breschel to score a big win this spring, which means he can race with little to lose. And his form has been terrific: he scored two top-10s in Paris-Nice and finished a respectable 12th in Milan-San Remo on Sunday. And before you go asking if the Dane has enough left in his legs to win one more important race before calling it a career, remember that he’s only 30-years-old.

Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Belisol)
When Debusschere won the Belgian Road Race Championship last June, a lot of folks said, “Who?” And with good reason. The 25-year-old has certainly enjoyed a quiet start to his career, and has been overshadowed by other young Belgians like Sep Vanmarcke and Tim Wellens. But Debusschere is for real. In addition to his national championship victory, he won the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and the Tour de l’Eurométropole (formerly the Circuit Franco-Belge) in 2013 and the Sluitingprijs in both 2013 and 2014. And this year, he took Stage 2 at Tirreno, a result that might speak more for his talent than any of the others. Debusschere was also the most consistent rider of the Belgian opening weekend, which reflects his ability to succeed in both selective races and field sprints, thus making him the perfect rider for a race like Dwars. And without Jurgen Roelandts or Andre Greipel, he’ll be his team’s protected rider.

Edward Theuns (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise)
The current leader of the UCI’s Europe Tour Ranking, Theuns reminds me of his former Topsport Vlaanderen teammate, Kenny Van Bilsen, who came into last year’s cobbled Classics wearing the white jersey thanks to a string of impressive results in the south of France and Spain earlier in the season. A rider who can handle himself both in a select group and when sprinting out of a larger peloton, Theuns has the perfect makeup for a race like Dwars. If there’s an important selection late in the race, he has the power to make it; and if it all comes back for a field sprint, he should be fine as well. If all goes according to plan, Theuns might be one or two high finishes away from scoring himself a better contract with a better team for 2016 and beyond. That could all start tomorrow.

Yves Lampaert (Etixx—Quick-Step)
Full disclosure: I’m developing a bit of a soft spot for this 23-year-old. First off, he’s an incredibly nice guy who’s willing to engage with media and fans on Twitter (like yours truly). But more importantly, he’s putting together quite an impressive resume in his first season with Etixx—Quick-Step. After taking 5th in Le Samyn, he followed it up with a stage win and the overall title at the 3-daagse van West Vlaanderen, a tough 3-day race that has produced several stars over the past few years (Degenkolb, Kwiatkowski, and Demare all have #3DWVL stage wins on their resumes). And in Zeeland on Saturday, he broke away late in the race with Theuns and took fourth—behind three of his teammates. After Terpstra, he might his team’s best card to play tomorrow.

Other Riders to Watch: Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (EQS), Lars Boom (AST), Stijn Devolder (TFR), Jempy Drucker (BMC), Tiesj Benoot (LTB), Jens Keukelaire (OGE), Dries Devenyns (IAM), Marco Marcato (WGG), Oscar Gatto (AND)

Thanks for reading and feel free to share your own riders to watch as comments below.

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2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – Riders to Watch

Photo by brassyn via Flicker. Some rights restricted.

Photo by brassyn via Flicker. Some rights restricted.

One of the best races of the year is finally here. 200km, 11 hills, and 10 cobbled sectors–it’s Omloop time!

This year, instead of clogging your Twitter feeds, I’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. Let’s get started:

5-Stone Favorite

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 Saturday’s Omloop. The reigning Paris-Roubaix champ and last year’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. Terpstra’s only problem might be that he’s too strong for his own good. He’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 Terpstra’s no longer just a lieutenant; he’s a co-captain who has proven that he’s able to handle the responsibility of being his team’s best chance to win. And he was left-off Quick-Step’s roster for Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. It’s been two years since a Belgian rider has won the Omloop and ten years since a Belgian team has won the nation’s opening race. Terpstra’s a good bet to end the latter streak, but not the former.

4-Stone Favorites

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) – All week long I had Van Avermaet right behind Terpstra as a 5-Stone favorite, but now that I’m actually writing this preview, I just can’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 BMC’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 Katusha’s Kristoff at the Tour of Qatar. Indeed, the reigning Milan-San Remo champion looks to have hit top form quite early—almost too early in fact. For a pure field sprinter, being so strong so soon isn’t a bad thing as there’s a big difference between a 250-meter field sprint and a 250-kilometer spring Classic. But for a Classic’s contender, hitting your peak too early can spell doom for the races still to come. That said, we don’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 I’m his DS, I’m hoping for a small group to hit the line Saturday, with Kristoff fresh enough to continue his winning ways. It’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 Kristoff’s behalf.

3-Stone Favorites

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) – If you’re looking for a wild card, look no further than the 2006 and 2008 Omloop champion. Gilbert’s realized that the new-look Tour of Flanders actually suits him better than the old one did, so he’s adjusted his program to take a stab at adding a third Monument to his resume. Gilbert hasn’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 he’s motivated, the cobbled Classics are generally no problem for him (with the exception of Paris-Roubaix)—as evidenced by his two Omloop wins and two third-place finishes in the (old) Tour of Flanders. His path to this year’s Omloop went through Dubai and Qatar before a pair of top-3 finishes at the 2-day Tour du Haut Var, a race that’s been a good indicator of Omloop/Kuurne form in the past. I suspect we’ll see one of two things from Gilbert tomorrow: he’ll either be in the thick of the action, or in the middle of the main field.

Zdenek Stybar (Etixx–Quick-Step) – Stybar hasn’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. Stybar’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 race—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 year’s Omloop.

Ian Stannard (Team Sky) – After his win in last year’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 year’s—right down to his fourth-place overall finish at the Tour of Qatar earlier this month. He’s clearly in form, but will now face the challenge of riding with dossard #1, a bullseye that means other teams won’t take him lightly anymore. His team is also notably weaker than last year’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.

2-Stone Favorites

Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) – I suspect we’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 won’t be the only rider of his sort to make the selection. He’s a better bet for 2016 and beyond—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 nation’s opening race, Vanmarcke would certainly be Belgium’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-Qhubeka’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 Saturday’s other top contenders. With Gerald Ciolek and Tyler Farrar, he’ll have at least two experienced teammates to lean on (maybe), though Farrar might be looking ahead to Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Arnaud Demare (FDJ) – Believe it or not, last year was only Demare’s first Omloop, a fact that makes his tenth-place finish all the more impressive. And he’s also still just 23 years-old, which means while it’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. He’ll need a select group to hit the line to make the podium tomorrow, but if that happens, don’t be surprised if he wins.

Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) – We’ll give Chava a pass for his results during last year’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.

Dark Horses

Oscar Gatto (Androni Giocattoli) – Ladies and gentlemen, meet Luca Paolini 2.0. Gatto is a rider who makes teams pay when they don’t take him seriously—as he illustrated by winning Dwars door Vlaanderen in 2013. And while we’re talking about Italians, keep an eye on Wanty-Groupe Gobert’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 sport’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 we’ll see BMC’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.

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