On Saturday February 26, 2011 the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad traditionally kicks off the Belgian road cycling season. The race is the first 1.HC race of the season, featuring on the Continental calendar of the UCI. The Omloop is part of the Flanders Classics federation of Flemish one-day races. The race is also known as the Omloop Het Volk but for the not-so-fluent Dutch-speaking cycling fans – and maybe last year's winner Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) – there's also the option to refer to the race as Ghent-Ghent.
The 66th edition of the 'Omloop' kicks off on Saturday at 11:30 on the historical St-Peter's square in the Ghent city centre for the Elite Men. The Women's race kicks off five minutes earlier in the outskirts of Ghent. Both races arrive on the St-Peter's square respectively at around 3PM and 4:30PM.
Non-Belgian one-day specialists like Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) and Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) are postponing their season debut on the famous Flemish short cobbled hills and prefer to focus on the true Monuments like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The local fans don't mind their absence and the lack of road racing up until now in their hood as they're coming straight off the muddy cyclo-cross meadows, quickly switching their misspelled Sven Nijs jacket for the ubiquitous Tom Boonen fan kit. The 30-year-old is still the most popular Flemish rider but somehow never managed to win the Omloop.
"The opening weekend has never been my priority, but often I'm in good shape. I can't complain about my winter so I expect to be at the expected level. I want to play a role of importance," Boonen told Sporza.
Another Belgian might be able to unite the Flemish and Wallonian cycling fans and that rider is Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto). Coming fresh from a stage win in the Volta ao Algarve the 28-year-old can become the fourth rider to win the Omloop three times. The last rider to get three wins was current race director Peter Van Petegem who has redesigned the course for the 2011 edition.
Officially nine climbs and nine sections of pavé are featuring the 203km long course in the province of East-Flanders. The first three climbs are scheduled after the 70km mark.
"Those hills aren't a real problem. It's in between the climbs that the pace never drops back: false flat, small farm roads, short climbs that don't feature on the road guide. The riders will quickly feel their legs; it will be a war of attrition," Katusha director sportif Jef Braeckevelt told organizing newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.
The big guns are expected to ride near the front once past the city of Ronse and the climb up the Kruisberg hs begun. Traditionally Boonen will test his legs on the following climb, the Taaienberg, but 20 tough kilometres later the finale starts for real. After the third passage of the Haaghoek cobbles the riders turn left towards the Leberg and right after that climb the Molenberg follows.
"That one's crucial because it's very narrow. You have to battle for a few kilometres to stay near the front and after the climb it's wide-open terrain so the wind can play its role," Braeckevelt said.
From there it's still more than 30km on often cobbled roads back towards Ghent. Looking at the palmarès of the Omloop we're seeing names of strong men like Flecha, Gilbert, current world champion Thor Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato and Nick Nuyens. Taking the new course in mind one can't expect a nobody to add his name to the impressive list of winners on Saturday afternoon.