- Brecht Decaluwé
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad serves up new finish line in Gent
It's been more than a month since the road season kicked off with racing 'Down Under', and while the racing continued in the Middle East and Southern Europe, in cycling-mad Belgium road cycling was still in hibernation while cyclo-cross has been the main two-wheeled entertainment.
That all will change next week as local heroes Stijn Devolder, Philippe Gilbert, Nick Nuyens, Greg Van Avermaet, Leif Hoste and of course glamour boy Tom Boonen return from sunnier climes to get the Belgian season underway at the 65th edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the race previously known as Het Volk.
Up until 2008 the race finished mainly in Lokeren, but with the start and finish being back in the city of Ghent many locals like to refer to the race as 'Ghent-Ghent'.
While most of the race kept the same ingredients as before, including 12 of the famous 'hellingen', last year's winner Thor Hushovd will not find the same final kilometers as in 2009.
The organisation opted to remove the slightly uphill finish on the Charles de Kerchovelaan, moving it up a few hundred meters to the same big square where the start is held, in front of the abbey of St. Peter.
Organiser Wim Van Herreweghe explained that the new finishing zone has a couple of benefits over the old version: "The St. Peter's square is better suited to host an event. In the past our finish was rather chilly and deserted because of the median on the big road.
"Now the last hundred meters are going through the Overpoortstraat with all its pubs and we're able to organise a more attractive finish on the square. It will be a great improvement."
Still, due to this modification the long slightly uphill slope towards the finish is gone. The St. Peter's square is located on top of the Blandijnberg, the highest point of Ghent and Van Herreweghe assured that it was still a tricky finish.
"The last few hundred meters are constantly false flat. In addition the Steenakker, the last cobbled zone is now only three kilometers away from the finish line, said Van Herreweghe. "And the last true obstacle, the cobbles of the Lange Munte, are now less than 20 kilometres away from the finish."
Belgians primed for season opener
Taking a glance at the race's palmarès makes it clear that the race is very important for the Belgian riders. Out of the 65 editions no fewer than 53 were won by the locals. Neighbouring country The Netherlands and Italy are second on the list of winning countries with only three each.
Last year Hushovd added Norway on the short list, next to Ireland and Germany which are the only other countries that ever had a winner in 'Ghent-Ghent'.
In the peloton that will nervously line up in Ghent on Saturday morning only four former winners will be present: Nick Nuyens, Filippo Pozzato, Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert.
The latter was the man in form at the end of last season, clinching four wins in a row including the Giro di Lombardia. The Belgian expressed that he's keen on the Omloop. "It's pretty important. For myself, but also for my Belgian sponsor. You're starting the race at 90%, just like in the Primavera [Milano-Sanremo]," Gilbert told Het Nieuwsblad.
Gilbert won the race in 2006 and 2008, which makes him the only rider who might put his name next to those of three triple winners Ernest Sterckx (1952, 1953 & 1956), Joseph Bruyère (1974, 1975 & 1980) and current race director, Peter Van Petegem (1997, 1998 & 2002); all of them are Belgian.
The weather in Belgium this winter has been quite chilly and two weeks before the race there was still some snow on the course. Conditions improved one week later but if there's snow on race day then a cancellation might be considered. This has happened three times in the past, most recently in 2004.
Boonen hopes to break his duck
The start list includes all Belgian stars and a large contingent of motivated 'foreigners'. Top favorites are the aforementioned Belgians and men such as Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato, Heinrich Haussler and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
The strongest lineups on paper seem to come from Quick Step, Cervélo, Rabobank but also the BMC Racing team, with Spring Classics specialists such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt and Karsten Kroon.
Last year the race was dominated by the Rabobank and Cervélo teams, with the chaotic sprint won by Hushovd marred by a crash involving Rabobank's Sebastian Langeveld, who took down Filippo Pozzato. The Italian champion will be keen on adding a second win in the Omloop to his palmarès and honouring the late Franco Ballerini who was the first Italian to win the Belgian opener 15 years ago.
A name that surprisingly doesn't feature on the winner's list is that of Tom Boonen, and he will look to turn his fortunes around in the Belgian opener.
"The Omloop is a race I love but due to several reasons I have never been able to win here. This year I'll try again," Boonen said. Still, along with Sylvian Chavanel the Belgian champion will opt not to scout the course ahead of the race on Tuesday with the rest of the team, including another Belgian favourite, Stijn Devolder.
"The last week before the Omloop I want to recover as well as I can from the two weeks of intensive racing action I had in Qatar and Oman. I want to be back at 100% first and have some good training rides. Traditionally the Omloop is also a battle between the two main Belgian teams: the Quick Step team from Patrick Lefevre and the boys from Marc Sergeant at Omega Pharma-Lotto.
Lucky enough for the Belgians, if all goes wrong they're receiving a second chance for consolation the day after the Omloop in the second race of the opening weekend, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. And of course a victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen is far more important than winning Ghent-Ghent for the Belgies.
Having a victory like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the bank going into the Spring Classics season takes a lot of pressure away from the whole team.