A decade has passed since Tom Boonen first began amassing his collection of classic and semi-classic victories (his running tally stands at 21 and counting) but, curiously, one race on the cobbles has always eluded him – the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which opens the Belgian cycling season on Saturday.
Form is rarely an issue for Boonen at this time of year – he has won Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne twice, after all – but a second place finish behind Sep Vanmarcke in Ghent in 2012 is the closest he has come to completing a full house on the pavé.
Boonen being Boonen, of course, he wins the battle for Belgian hearts and minds each year regardless of the result. A hush falls over bars and cafes throughout Flanders when the Omloop hits the slopes of the Taaienberg, where Boonen traditionally gauges his condition and announces the start of the Belgian season by merrily stringing out the peloton on the cobbled climb.
After a winter hindered by illness and injury, that Taaienberg cameo failed to materialise last year and it seemed to confirm the worst fears of the local fans – Boonen would not be ready for the Classics. Indeed, in keeping with the Punxsutawney Phil overtures to the ritual, Belgium suffered its coldest spring in over half a century and Belgian cycling endured its worst Classics campaign since 1945.
Twelve months on, however, there is considerably more verve about Boonen as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne approach, and he will be the favourite to win in Ghent’s Sint Pietersplein on Saturday afternoon. He was already in enviable shape at the Tour of Qatar, where he won two stages, while his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team was the dominate force in the race, where Niki Terpstra won overall.
World cyclo-cross champion Zdenek Stybar, the in-form Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and last year’s Omloop runner-up Stijn Vandenbergh join Boonen and Terpstra in a powerful QuickStep selection that will bear responsibility for controlling the race.
If victory at Het Nieuwsblad would simply fill a gap in Boonen's résumé, it would mark an important statement of intent from Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol). After his inventive third place finish at the Tour of Flanders last season, the 28-year-old is expected to progress still further in 2014. He approaches the Opening Weekend with confidence after an impressive showing at the recent Tour of Qatar, where he finished third overall and was part of every important move in the race.
BMC are without Philippe Gilbert and the suspended Alessandro Ballan for this year’s cobbled classics, but their absence might ultimately help to make them a more cohesive unit than they have been in the past. Allan Peiper’s focused management has been welcomed by the riders, and they line up in Ghent with Greg Van Avermaet, 2009 winner Thor Hushovd and Taylor Phinney.
2012 Omloop winner Sep Vanmarcke forms an interesting double act with Lars Boom at Belkin. Boom, in particular, was bubbling under in Qatar and Oman, and would dearly love to inscribe a major win on the cobbles on his palmarès.
With Ian Stannard, Bernhard Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen in their ranks, Sky are another team with a formidable collective, while Katusha have twin cards to play in last year’s winner Luca Paolini and fast man Alexander Kristoff.
The weekend will also see Sylvain Chavanel and Heinrich Haussler race together for the first time in the colours of IAM Cycling, and on paper at least, their respective talents dovetail nicely. Others to watch include FDJ.fr pair Arnaud Démare and Yoann Offredo, Sebastian Langeveld (Garmin-Sharp) and MTN-Qhubeka’s Gerald Ciolek, who is fresh from stage victory at last week’s Ruta del Sol.
The grand absentee is Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), who will instead start the countdown to April at Strade Bianche next week, while Filippo Pozzato and his Lampre-Merida team will also not be in Belgium for the weekend’s racing.
Starting and finishing in Ghent’s striking Sint Pietersplein, the peloton will tackle ten climbs on the 199 kilometre course, beginning with the Leberg (59km). After controversially cutting the Muur van Geraardsbergen from the Tour of Flanders, organiser Flanders Classics makes some sort of amends by including it as the third helling here, albeit with 117km still to race.
The race traditionally begins to enter its endgame on the Taaienberg (136km), followed shortly afterwards by the Eikenberg and Wolvenberg, although it is the Omloop’s flat sections of cobbles – particularly the three blasts over the sector at Haaghoek – that often cause the greatest problems. The final climb of the Molenberg comes with some 37 kilometres still to race, though there are still three sections of cobbles in the finale that can force additional selections in the leading group.
Greipel the favourite for Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne
On Sunday, the action shifts closer to the French border at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, a race where the terrain is traditionally more amenable to a group finish. Neither Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) nor Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) are slated to start, but after last year’s event was cancelled due to snow, the organisers will simply be grateful for the relatively mild forecast for this weekend.
After landing three stage wins at the Tour of Oman, André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) will line up as the outstanding favourite for Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne victory, although even without Kittel and Cavendish, there are plenty of contenders in the event of a bunch finish.
Tom Boonen – assuming he does start – got the better of Greipel in one finale in Qatar and might fancy his chances of landing a third Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, while French youngsters Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr) and Bryan Coquard (Europcar) would also relish the prospect of a group finish. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) is a man in need of a big result and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) will also be a contender. Those riders left disappointed 24 hours earlier in Ghent, meanwhile, will be out to upset the fastmen and make the race as selective as possible on the succession of hellingen after the midway point.