Figuring out precisely when and where the cycling season truly begins is a subjective matter in the modern era, but when the peloton lines up in Ghent's Sint-Pietersplein for the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on the last Saturday in February, one can't help but guess that this must be the place.
Those who laboured in sunnier climes over the past six weeks will understandably disagree – Alejandro Valverde compared one afternoon of echelons at the Tour of Qatar to five ascents of the Tourmalet, for instance – but there is a sense that everything up to now was mere pre-season fare. The serious business begins with Belgium's opening weekend of Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
Perched on the threshold between winter and spring like a latter-day pagan festival, familiar rituals abound at the start of the Omloop in Ghent, from the season preview supplements with the morning's Flemish newspapers to the procession of riders who troupe onto the signing-on podium and tell speaker Michel Wuyts that it feels like the first day back at school.
Once out on the road, the 200-kilometre course through the Flemish Ardennes has a familiar ring too, with eleven hellingen – including the Muur, Kruisberg, Taaienberg, Leberg and Molenberg – and ten stretches of cobbles providing the first true reliability trial of the year for those targeting victory on the first two Sundays of April at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad contenders
Over the years Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) has tended to herald the arrival of spring by testing himself on the slopes of the Taaienberg, although, curiously, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the lone cobbled classic missing from his weighty palmarès. That's partially because the race has been a point of departure for his campaign rather than an end unto itself, but if ever he truly 'needed' a win here, it might be now.
For the first time since he inherited the mantle of team leadership from Johan Museeuw a decade ago, there is a legitimate threat to his pre-eminence at QuickStep in the form of Paris-Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra. Patrick Lefevere likes to hold a strong hand and Boonen has always been his trump card to this point, but Terpstra's form at the Tour of Qatar suggested that the deck could be stacked differently this time around. With Zdenek Stybar, Iljo Keisse and Stijn Vandenbergh also in the line-up, no team has the same array of option as QuickStep: another Omloop tradition.
The prospect of generational change is a motif not just for this weekend but for the entire spring, with a wave of younger riders warming to the idea that Boonen and Fabian Cancellara – a stage winner in Oman but an absentee this weekend – are no longer operating at the same rarefied level as they were in yesteryear.
Only time and the final hour of racing at De Ronde will really tell us if that thesis holds water, but this opening weekend is an early opportunity for the likes of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto-JumboNL), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal) and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) to highlight their credentials.
Vanmarcke already left his calling card by winning Omloop in 2012 and was, along with Cancellara, probably the strongest man on the cobbles last spring, so winning this weekend seems a rather more pressing concern for Van Avermaet. He contrived to let Omloop slip through his (frozen) fingers in the two-up sprint with Ian Stannard last year, and despite his consistency over the past four years, risks becoming something of a nearly man.
Van Avermaet's peers raved about his form in Qatar, however, and a win this weekend could unlock a new level in his career. He will be joined in the BMC team by Philippe Gilbert, who makes what is likely to be his sole outing in a Flemish classic this year. Winner in 2006 and 2008, Gilbert showed signs of life at the Tour du Haut-Var last weekend.
The stand-out performer so far this season has perhaps been Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), who clocked up three stage wins at the Tour of Qatar and tacked on another in Oman for good measure. Winner of Milan-San Remo last year, the Norwegian has been quietly improving on the pavé since he joined Katusha in 2012 and it seems only a matter of time before he lands a big Belgian win. Both Omloop and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne are well within his capabilities.
Sky line up with a strong team for Omloop, with defending champion Ian Stannard, Bernhard Eisel and Bradley Wiggins among their number, although curiously there is no place for Volta ao Algarve winner Geraint Thomas. An indication, perhaps, that Flanders and Roubaix are what truly count for the British outfit, though Stannard in particular ought to be very competitive here, while Wiggins' progress will of course be followed with interest.
Others to watch include, MTN-Qhubeka's triumvirate of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek, FDJ's emerging stable of classics talent, Ag2r-La Mondiale's new arrival Johan Vansummeren and Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling), who was bubbling under to good effect at the Vuelta a Andalucia last week.
Twelve months ago, driving rain and plummeting temperatures combined to make for a particularly tough edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, with Stannard and Van Avermaet contesting the sprint back in Sint-Pietersplein in near darkness. This time around, the forecast seems about as kind as it can be in Belgium in late winter but that is about the only quarter likely to be given all weekend.
Last year's gripping edition of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne gave lie to the preconception that Sunday's so-called "Donkey Race" is merely a sprinters' benefit or an afterthought in relation to the events of the previous afternoon. Smarting from a dissonant showing at Omloop, QuickStep hit all the right notes when they blew the race open on the slopes of the Oude Kwaremont, driving a ten-man break clear with almost 60 kilometres to go and delivering Boonen to victory in what proved to be one of the most entertaining days of racing of the season.
Eight of the race's nine climbs are clustered in a frenetic 60-kilometre stretch shortly after the midway point, including the Kanarieberg, Kruisberg and Kwaremont. The final climb of the Nokereberg is some 53 kilometres from the finish, however, and shows of force like QuickStep's last year notwithstanding, the terrain is most amenable to a bunch finish.
The lie of the land at QuickStep could have a bigger effect than the topography, of course. In particular, Mark Cavendish is slated to start and given his clutch of early-season victories, it would be a surprise if Boonen and company weren't riding in his service on Sunday afternoon. There ought to be no shortage of allies of circumstance, either, with Elia Viviani (Sky), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Moreno Hofland (Lotto-JumboNL), Matteo Pelucchi (IAM) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) among the sprinters slated to start in Kuurne only. Depending on their exertions the previous day, Kristoff and Démare are two other obvious contenders for the win.
Weather conditions often have a significant say in how Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne unfolds: Bobbie Traksel won a memorable Cyclone Xynthia-hit edition in 2010, for instance, while the race was cancelled altogether due to ice and snow in 2013. The early forecast for Sunday is for rain and stiff gusts, and that could play into the hands of those hoping to discommode the sprinters.
Often more powerful that prevailing winds, however, are the harsh words of a directeur sportif, and those who underperform at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad have an immediate chance to make amends a day later in Kuurne. Therein, perhaps, lies the beauty of the Opening Weekend – the true start of the season and then a chance to begin all over again, all within the space of twenty-four hours.