By Jeff Jones
The Belgian season begins later than in most other European cycling countries, one reason being that the weather is not the greatest in this part of the world in late February. Snow is definitely not unheard of at this time of year, and last year it was bad enough to cause the cancellation of the Omloop Het Volk, the first race on the Belgian calendar. Amazingly, it has only been cancelled twice previously - in 1960 and 1986 - because of bad weather. The threat of snow hasn't been ruled out for this year's edition either, although it's unlikely to be very heavy. Still, the temperatures have been barely above zero this week and the cold alone will make it a very tough race.
The 201 km parcours is a typical one for this race, with a healthy mixture of Flemish climbs and cobbles that is sure to cause a selection. Starting in Gent's Citadelpark, the riders head due south towards the famous "hill zone" that is used for so many of the Flemish classics. The first climb is the Kattenberg (km 24), just before Oudenaarde. It's a 750m wide, cobbled climb at a fairly gentle 6%, and comes early enough in the race not to be of significance. The first important climb is the Oude Kwaremont after 44 km, but this 2.2 km cobbled monster is still probably too far from the end to really damage the peloton. On the other hand, an enterprising team could cause some irreparable damage if the time is deemed right.
After 83 km, the riders will encounter the famed Muur van Geraardsbergen, which often marks the deciding moment in the Tour of Flanders. But there is still a lot of riding to come in Het Volk after the Muur, and the peloton often goes over it in one bunch. The race then heads back towards Brakel and back into the hills. The Kleiberg, Eikenberg, Leberg, Berendries and Molenberg all follow in quick succession, with the summit of the final climb at 66 km to go. The Molenberg is often a break point, with its narrow, savagely cobbled 9.8% average gradient. After that, the parcours twists and turns on its way back north to Lokeren and the finish, featuring another eight flat cobbled sections. If the hills haven't split things up, then the these cobbles generally do.
That's not to say a bunch sprint is unheard of in Het Volk, but more often than not a small group will get away in the finale to contest the finish.
Cyclingnews will be covering the 60th Omloop Het Volk live, starting 14:30 local time (CET)/08:30 (USA East)/05:30 (USA West)/00:30 (Australia East).