The other Saint Peter’s Square – Sint-Pietersplein in Ghent – is among cycling’s great sites of worship, as the masses congregate to hail the beginning of the Belgian season and the coming of spring at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
As ever, the greatest fervour was reserved for Tom Boonen. Fans huddled around his Etixx-QuickStep bus for a glimpse of their man, and his appearance on the podium was greeted by the loudest cheer of the morning, not least because the organisation saw fit to present him with a pair of tricycles as a gift for his recently born twin daughters.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) is making his first Omloop appearance since 2005, when the race was named for Het Volk, and he was applauded warmly by the local fans, as was Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), the man many feel is most likely to deny the home contingent of victory. “In the flat races, I’ve been good so far but this is not all flat,” Kristoff said. “I’m not the rider who needs to attack, though, I must follow and see if I can do it.”
There was a degree of mischief on the signing on rostrum, when Yoann Offredo (FDJ) was complimented for his prominent part Tour of Oman. “Here’s Yoann, who said no to Mr. Merckx,” speaker Michel Wuyts joked.
There was sorrow, too, as the late Claude Criquielion was remembered at the first Belgian race to take place after his premature death last week. A minute’s silence was observed on the start line in memory of the 1984 world champion.
The story that dominated all conversations in Ghent, however, was that of Greg Van Avermaet, who has been implicated in the doping investigation centred around the activities of Dr. Chris Mertens and will appear before the Belgian cycling federation for questioning on March 13.
Despite the seriousness of the matter, his BMC team took the decision not to withdraw him from the race and Van Avermaet leads the line here alongside Philippe Gilbert. Speaking after signing on, Van Avermaet confirmed that he had been a patient of Mertens, but insisted that he would provide clarification when he spoke to the Belgian federation.
"It was not pleasant news, but I am innocent," Van Avermaet said. “I'm glad my team let me start. That will help me to overcome everything."