The Dutch LottoNL-Jumbo squad has checked all the boxes in its preparation for the first foray into the Spring Classics, and former Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Sep Vanmarcke is looking to regain his place on the podium on Saturday. After suffering a stinging defeat to Tom Boonen in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne last year, Moreno Hofland has more confidence in his sprint and is looking for a victory in Sunday's test.
In 2014, riding as Belkin, the squad went winless in the Classics: the closest they came was Lars Boom's impressive Tour de France win over the Paris-Roubaix cobbles to Arenburg on stage 5. This year, with Vanmarcke putting in a satisfactory performance in the Volta ao Algarve, and Hofland happy with his form after the Vuelta a Andalucia, the team is optimistic for the weekend.
"I've been able to prepare myself properly in the Volta ao Algarve," Vanmarcke said. "It was a perfect race. The weather was great and the course was tough. I even made it into a breakaway one day. I purposely dropped out after a while, so that I could get in the mix in the final, as well. I was specifically training for the classics."
Last year, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad took place in miserable weather, with temperatures just above freezing and steady rain. Vanmarcke made the winning breakaway, but missed out on the podium after Ian Stannard (Team Sky) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) left the rest behind, and Edvald Boasson Hagen claimed the last podium spot from Vanmarcke. The following day, Belkin were outnumbered by Omega Pharma-Quickstep in the breakaway, and Hofland and Vanmarcke had to settle for second and third, respectively, behind Boonen.
"The Omloop and Kuurne are two completely different races. The Omloop is an open race, which often sees many attacks. The strongest rider doesn't always win because of the tactical battle," Vanmarcke said.
"Kuurne often ends in a sprint. I hope for bad weather on Sunday so that it will be a real race. My most important races are scheduled later, but I feel that I'm going to be good this weekend. I'm ready."
The team's directeur sportif Nico Verhoeven has confidence in Vanmarcke for the weekend. "He looked strong in the Algarve, and he's surrounded by a group of riders that can support him very well," Verhoeven said. "We aim for the best possible result. Obviously, that's winning, but last Sunday we were also pleased with Tom Van Asbroeck's second place in the Algarve, for example. For us, that was the best result possible at that moment. As a team, we're going to make sure that Sep can ride the best race possible."
Van Asbroeck and Hofland will be the team's sprinters, while Vanmarcke will be in the mix should the races be more selective.
Hofland had a break-out season in 2014, his second in the WorldTour, and the speed of his sprint surprised Boonen in Kuurne. Whereas last season he had one stage win in Andalucia under his belt heading into Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, this year his best was a 7th place, albeit on a tough stage 5, won by Movistar's Juan Jose Lobato.
"I'm counting on wind and rain and expect some real racing in the hilly zone," Hofland said. "I hope to make it into the final with a few of my teammates. I obviously hope to fight for victory again."