On a crisp but sunny Saturday morning, crowds gathered in Gent's Citadel Park as riders and teams arrived for what is considered in these parts as the true start of the season. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicks off the Belgian cobbled Classics and Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé and Patrick Fletcher were there at the start to speak to the key protagonists ahead of the race.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
“This race comes nearly a month before the moment when you’re supposed to be in top form. That’s what makes it hard to win this race. Maybe the headwind can slow things down up front and allow me to come back.
"I was good last year before this race and I was still only 11th here. If I win here I’ll be a lil bit surpsirsed. I know it’s going to be really hard. I’m still here to race and try to do well, so if I see my opportunity I’ll take it."
Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep)
“It’s the race I don’t think I’ve ever missed so it’s probably my 15th start. It’ll be interesting to see the riders we’ll be riding against in the Classics. The race became harder the last few years. Often the wind comes from another direction. The last time there was a headwind to the finish it was Thor Hushovd who won the race. With the crosswinds there might be echelons. That’s fun when you’re up front.”
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)
“I can’t say that I’m bad - that would be a lie. The weather is great and the crowds will be out. Hopefully I can live up to the expectations.”
Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal)
"For every Classics rider this is a big race, a big start - you’ve been preparing the whole winter for this. For me especially this is my home town, so it’s great to start the season here.
"There’s three riders with a protected role: Jurgen [Roelandts], Jens [Debuscherre], and me. It’s not the same feeling like last year; I’m more nervous. I’ve got to be attentive once we’re at the Kruisberg [climb 8 at 67km from finish]. I don’t expect the Boembeke [final climb 32km from finish] to cause much damage.”
Philippe Gilbert (BMC)
“I expect Tiesj to attack. He’s a rider that wants to race. If he goes I’ll go with him. Then we’re in front with the two of us [laughs]. I did a lot of training camps just like other years. I feel good. The team is important in this race and we’ve got a very strong selection.”
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep)
"I’m a little nervous. I want to stop speaking about the Classics and talk with the pedals from now on.”
Luke Rowe (Team Sky)
"With Ian Stannard not being here, it opens the door up a bit. If he was here he’d be the outright leader. It gives myself and a few others the opportunity to step up and see what we can do. You don’t get many opportunities in this team to have a chance, to be leader, to go into a race with personal ambitions, so when you do you've got to take them. If I fuck it up today, I might not get another opportunity, so I have to make the most of it"
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)
“If I’m not in top form I prefer the beer," joked the World champion as he received a big bottle of Kwaremont beer on the start podium. “It’s a very important race ahead of the real classics."
Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEdge)
“These will be my first racing kilometres. You have to start somewhere so what better place to do it than here. More than half the team did it like this last year. Now it was up to me as well. First I did a training camp in Spain and then we headed to South Africa for three weeks. This week I did some motor-pacing. The weather difference is probably the thing that makes it the hardest. I think there’s better places than South Africa to train but we had everything we need."
Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo)
"I feel good, not at my top form but I’m getting better and better. This week we had a good recon, and I was feeling better then, so I’m confident that I’m in good form. Not top form maybe, but good form. For me it’s an important race, a home race, I live near Gent, so it’s really important for me."
Servais Knaven (Team Sky DS)
"The weather’s not too bad but there’s quite some wind. It’s never easy on the Flemish roads. For Luke he knew this winter this was going be a big hit for him, so he prepared for this race, he’s ready. It’s his first time as a leader, he’s finished well here before, it s a race that suits him. He’s looking forward to it and he’s ready, and we are confident."
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
“I’m leading the team with Edward Theuns. I hope I made another step forward. Hopefully that shows today.”
Cyclingnews has full live coverage of the race, which you can follow by clicking here.