Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad - formerly Omloop Het Volk and Ghent-Ghent - marks the traditional opening race of the Spring Classics season. After building up their form in the Middle East a part of the peloton now hits the cobbles and hellingen for the first time this season.
At the Omega Pharma-QuickStep press conference in Kortrijk, Belgium the team's leader Tom Boonen showed up an hour late due to a traffic jam. Meanwhile co-leader Sylvain Chavanel entertained the press with his view on the opening weekend but when tv-crews suddenly entered the hotel he realized it was time to leave the room.
"I'll make some space for le grand," Chavanel smiled. Boonen entered, apologizing for the delay. "Sorry everybody... my apologies," Boonen said, taking a seat and started talking about the season so far and his view on the Omloop.
"I've done three stage races already and this doesn't really feel like the first day at school. It's a new start for our team. Two important days are coming up and we'll see how we fare on these roads. I feel some nerves but in a positive way. There's no need to worry. The birds start to sing, the spring is in the country so the most beautiful time of the year is coming up," Boonen said.
Being a local hero Boonen once again is among the top favorites for the win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad even though he somehow never won the race. "It's the only Spring Classic that I didn't win even though I can win it. Why? Because if you peak to this one then it's harder to be good at the other Classics. I've always been the top favorite and other riders were able to exploit that in their favor," Boonen said.
Boonen didn't want to talk about the other favorites. "Some riders who I expect for the Spring Classics aren't here yet. I usually wait after this weekend before I talk about other riders and I'll stick to that," Boonen said.
After going through a rough year in 2011 the now 31-year-old "Tornado Tom" has already claimed four victories this season and seemed more motivated than ever to finally claim a win in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. "It's easier to be eager when you're good. Compared to other years I'm without physical sores which helps on the mental front. I have no excuses if I'm not good," Boonen said.
"This race is important in Flanders. I've only returned recently to Belgium but when we're arriving in Ghent with the bus it'll be exciting; the first race in Belgium. Of course I go for the win because otherwise I'd be better doing a training camp this week. I hope that I can win. I worked hard for it. If I can prepare without problems then I'm always a candidate in these races."
The years are flying by and some new names have popped up in recent years which means Boonen no longer seems the strongest man on the cobbles. "You don't always have to be the best to win a race but if all goes according to plan then I'll be as good as in my best years," Boonen said.
The newly-formed Omega Pharma-QuickStep team has been flying high so far this season. The Belgian team has collected the most victory flowers of all teams, topping the list of team victories with 12 wins. For the first time in a few years the team doesn't seem to count on Boonen alone to deliver the goods.
"Last year we came into a downward spiral. I'm used to being at the start with a lot of pressure on my shoulder but last year Sylvain [Chavanel] had back sores while I struggled with my knee. Now everything has been fallen into its place. There are no worries and that makes it easier. This year there was a schwung from day 1.
"We've kept the right people from the three teams. The biggest change is that some new guys joined the team who can work hard," Boonen said. "The team has been flying so far and I know that all the guys who're here for the Omloop are ready for it. We've got some guys who can pull off some work so we can handle some battles."
One day after the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad there's always the re-match at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne for those who disappointed on Saturday. "I've done it about 11 times so... I've won it three or four times [two times: 2007 & 2009]. I'm always motivated although it's a bit harder if you went flat out in the Omloop and if there's foul weather in Kuurne."