By Gregor Brown in Gent
The Classics season is back upon us with the running of the 63rd Omloop Het Volk, this Saturday in Belgium. Those who love the one-day races of the spring will rejoice when the riders take off from Gent's Citadelpark as it signals not only the start of the 199-kilometre race but the days of pavé-littered slugfests in treacherous conditions.
The Omloop Het Volk, run by newspaper Sportwereld, packs enough pavé and hellingen ('climbs' in Flemish) to warrant its early season status as a semi-classic, and sends out indicators as to whom will be the warriors to watch for the events later in spring, like Three Days of De Panne, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.
As announced last May by the organisers, the 63rd edition returns to its roots with a parcours that starts and finishes in the Flemish city of Gent, north of Brussels. The race began in Gent last year but the city of Gentse Feesten has not seen an aankomst ('arrival' in Flemish) since 1995 when Franco Ballerini won.
The race finished in Gent for the first 49 editions, but afterward the aankomst was moved to the northeast, in Lokeren.
The new finish means that the parcours has been modified; the first helling comes later, as does the final one. This year, the riders will face 73 kilometres before the Grotenberge, it will be followed by Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Tenbosse, Pottelberg, Kruisberg, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Wolvenberg and Molenberg. All-in-all there are 11 hellingen in the 2008 parcours, down from one from 2007.
The Berendries, which last year was the penultimate climb and saw a group of eight fighting a losing battle, will now come early on. However, it is the vicinity of the final climb, the Molenberg, that will see the race even more dispersed when it arrives in Gent. The 463-metre-kilometre climb starts 23 kilometres later than last year, at 39 kilometres to go. Any small group that is formed in the closing kilometres will be sorted out in the finale, the uphill drag of Charles de Kerchovelaan. Gert Steegmans will know the finale well, he won stage two of the 2007 Tour de France on the same 1000-metre run-in.
To read the full preview of the Omloop, click here.