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Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on tap
Belgian champion Tom Boonen leads his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammates up the Taaienberg.
The moniker "Opening Weekend" may seem like a misnomer or a provincialism in a modern era in which more and more riders choose to begin their seasons in the southern hemisphere in January, yet the significance of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne's position on the calendar cannot be overstated.
Six weeks of shadow boxing in the sunshine of Australia, the crosswinds of Qatar and the frigid air of the French Riviera have seen a number of Classics riders provide early indications of their form. Their fighting fitness will now be given a rather more rigorous work-out with twin bouts of somewhat heavier sparring over the cobbles at the first Belgian races of the season.
First up is Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race that is, in many respects, a miniature Tour of Flanders. Indeed, it was originally conceived by and named for newspaper Het Volk in 1945 in a bid to compete with De Ronde, run by rival publication Het Nieuwsblad. When Het Volk was subsumed by the Nieuwsblad group in 2009, the race name changed accordingly.
The 199km race, which begins and ends in Ghent, brings the peloton over 12 climbs, including the Berendries, Valkenberg, Eikenberg and Molenberg, which all feature in De Ronde six weeks later, but the flat sections of cobbles throughout – particularly the two blasts over the 2km stretch at Haaghoek – often do much of the damage. The flat 30km run-in from the Molenberg to the finish in Ghent means that a group finish can never be fully ruled out, even if the difficulty of what comes before usually whittles the peloton done to size quite rudely.
As ever in a cobbled race in Belgium, the road to victory goes through the Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad, who will undoubtedly have significant strength in numbers in the finale. With Tom Boonen still feeling his way into the season after his preparations were beset by intestinal and elbow infections, leadership of the team is likely to fall to Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel here. Terpstra was in sparkling form at the recent Tour of Qatar, shepherding Mark Cavendish to four stage wins and overall victory, and he will be looking to build on the 2012 spring campaign that saw him victorious at Dwars Door Vlaanderen and instrumental at Paris-Roubaix.
Boonen, meanwhile, is insistent that he is riding the opening weekend purely to get some racing miles in his legs ahead of the weightier battles to come later this spring. Even so, like a Flemish answer to Punxsutawney Phil, Boonen traditionally heralds the arrival of spring by forcing the pace on the Taaienberg, and the home fans will doubtless be hoping for at least some signs that the troubles of his winter have receded.
Speaking of Groundhog Day, Team Sky's Classics squad will return to its burrow on Mount Teide for a collective training camp – eschewing Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico – regardless of how things pan out this weekend, resurfacing only in time for Milan-San Remo. Given their early-season showings in Australia and the Middle East, both Geraint Thomas and Bernhard Eisel should be keen to land a significant result before their brief hibernation, while Edvald Boasson Hagen will also aim to test his Classics mettle.
BMC also line up with multiple options at both races and a roster eager to make amends for last year's lacklustre Classics campaign. Unlike 2012, the form lines this year are more pronounced – backed by Taylor Phinney, BMC were collectively strong at the Tour of Qatar, while Thor Hushovd claimed his first victory since 2011 at last week's Tour du Haut Var. At Het Nieuwsblad and particularly Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, however, the ace in the BMC pack could yet prove to be Greg Van Avermaet, who was bubbling under in Qatar.
Another on-song rider is Lars Boom, fresh from stage wins at the Tour Mediterréen and Tour du Haut Var, and he should form an intriguing double act with reigning champion and new Blanco Pro Cycling teammate Sep Vanmarcke. Fresh from victory at Trofeo Laigueglia, Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) should also be in the mix, while Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) all enter the weekend with ambition.
Click here for gallery of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad course recon
Cavendish looks to repeat in Kuurne
Coming just 24 hours after the Omloop, and on a less obviously exacting course, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne often plays as something of an afterthought to Saturday's action. This is somewhat unfair – Bobbie Traksel's victory the Cyclone Xynthia-hit edition of 2010 sticks in the memory – but unless the weather conditions are suitably inclement, it's hard to look past a bunch finish in Kuurne on Sunday afternoon.
Mark Cavendish claimed the win in the rainbow jersey of world champion last year. Now backed by the Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad and in a state of early-season form on a par with that of 2012 or perhaps even 2009, the Manxman will be favoured to take the spoils here.
Adding to the intrigue of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is that it could be the scene of Cavendish's first clash with André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) in a sprint this season. If Cavendish and Greipel were like boxers fighting for the belts of different federations in the early weeks of the season, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is something of a unification title fight – with the prospect of an even higher-profile rematch at Milan-San Remo in three weeks' time.
Other fastmen looking for a piece of the action will be Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r-La Mondiale), while at least some of the litany of contenders from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – especially those who fell short on Saturday – will attempt to upset the odds.