Top riders can be seen at big races across Australia, South America, the Middle East, and Europe over the first few weeks of the year, yet for the traditionalists, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad still heralds the commencement of the cycling season proper.
As such, it kicks off what has become known as the 'opening weekend' – Omloop on the Saturday and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on the Sunday. Wherever you wish to draw your line in the sand, the two races forms a bridge between the early-season outings of the [European] winter and the more serious fare of the spring, with the balmy climes of Adelaide, San Luis, and the Persian Gulf swapped for the cold and often miserable conditions of Flemish Belgium.
To give an indication as to how big a part the weather can play in this region, the 2013 edition of Kuurne had to be cancelled due to heavy snowfall, while the 2010 edition was struck by a cyclone, with just 26 riders able to finish. Of course, the weather is just one ingredient in the cocktail that makes for an arduous weekend of racing; the numerous hellingen – or climbs – and stretches of cobblestones that line both parcours conspire to complicate matters yet further.
The result is a quintessentially Flemish weekend and an important early hit-out in the course of the cobbled Classics campaign; it is here that markers are laid down ahead of the more prestigious likes of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix a month or so later.
Given the proximity of Ghent and Kuurne, the fields will be similar for both races but while Omloop, which can be seen as a scaled-down Tour of Flanders, favours the big Classics hitters, Kuurne is weighted more towards the sprinters, with last year’s edition won by Mark Cavendish.
Easter falls early in 2016 and that means Ghent’s Sint-Pietersplein, Omloop Het Nieusblad's traditional start location, will be taken over by the Mid-Lent fair. The start and finish, therefore, have been moved one kilometre to the Avenue Emile Claus, next to the Citadel Park.
That could have an impact on the outcome of the race, with the new finishing straight slightly steeper than normal, as well as shorter and wider, according to race director Wim Van Herreweghe.
As for the hills, there are 13 this year, up from last year’s 11, though the addition of Eikenmolen and Tenbosse in the first half of the race is unlikely to dramatically alter the complexion of the race. The Molenberg is unreachable due to road works and the final climb will instead be the Boembeke, just over 30km from the line. It’s gentler, but there are still the same three cobbled sectors that lie beyond it, which should see key shake-ups in the race.
While Het Niewusblad starts and finishes in Gent, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is centred on the small village of Kuurne on the outskirts of Kortijk, nearer the French border.
The route, which takes the riders out towards Brussels without ever properly reaching the Belgian capital, has undergone little change for the 68th edition. The race is a shade over 200km and features 11 hellingen, including the famed likes of the Oude Kwaremont, Kruisberg, and Tiegemberg - not to mention several sections of cobblestones.
10 of the 11 climbs come in a 70-kilometre portion in the middle of the race but, crucially, the final climb, Nokereberg, comes some 50km from the line, giving the sprint teams ample opportunity to get things under control. The chancers and those hoping for a more selective finish will have to pray to the weather gods to produce the sort of conditions that facilitated Tom Boonen’s victory from a long-range 10-man break in 2014.
Both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne will be without defending champions this year. Ian Stannard, who has made Omloop somewhat his own with two wins in as many editions, is taking an alternative route to Flanders and Roubaix, while 2015 Kuurne winner Mark Cavendish is gearing up for the UCI Track World Championships in early March.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) was one of the first riders to sign up for the opening weekend and his well-planned return for the first time since 2010 could be read as an attitude of intent. When the Slovak burst onto the big stage in 2012 it was widely believed that the big Classics wins would come rolling in thick and fast, yet – with the exception of Gent-Wevelgem in 2013 and E3 Harelbeke in 2014 – they have failed to materialise.
There is a lingering sense that Sagan hasn’t achieved all that his talents merit – though he is still only 26 – but there couldn’t have been a more deserving winner of the World Championships last year and perhaps the rainbow bands will give him the impetus to kick on this spring. In any case, such is the range of his talent, he can be seen as a favourite for both Omloop and Kuurne.
Another rider who is eminently capable of winning both races is Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). The Norwegian, who was edged out by Cavendish at Kuurne last year, enjoyed a remarkable Classics campaign in 2015 – the highlight being the Tour of Flanders win – and the formbook so far this season would only seem to forecast more of the same. Last year he kicked things off with three stage wins at the Tour of Qatar and one at the Tour of Oman, and this time he struck three times again in Qatar and twice in Oman. His showing at Flanders last year proves he can cope with the bergs and cobbles in the decisive phases, while the raw speed he regularly displays in sprint finishes make him equally dangerous in Kuurne.
Greg Van Avermaet, the perennial nearly-man, can always be relied upon to be there or there abouts. The Belgian, who hasn’t finished lower than sixth in the past four editions of Omloop, has everything in his locker to take the victory, but just needs everything to come together, as it has never quite done in any of his Classics campaigns to date.
He’ll be flanked by Philippe Gilbert, a two-time winner of the race who has his eye on the big cobbled Classics this seasons, though the pair will have to put aside any animosity that has been rumoured to exist between them.
And where to start with Etixx-QuickStep? The Belgian squad once again arrive at the opening weekend with an enviable array of talent, though that is no guarantor of success, as they so spectacularly and disastrously proved at Omloop last time out.
Tom Boonen, for all his achievements in the Spring Classics over the years, has never triumphed at Omloop, though he has come out on top on three occasions at Kuurne – the last time being 2014. The 35-year-old has been QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevere’s talisman over the years but there is a sense that he is a fading force, or at least that the strength in depth means he is no longer the team’s clear go-to man. While Iljo Keisse may represent the best bet for Kuurne, any one of a number of riders, including Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh, could take out Omloop and managing that collective might once again be a headache, albeit a luxury one.
Not to forget Tony Martin, the richly-decorated time trial specialist who is looking to apply his aptitudes in the cobbled Classics for the first true time this spring. Omloop should provide an indication as to how realistic his prospects are over the coming weeks.
Tiesj Benoot is certainly one to watch – here and throughout the spring. The 21-year-old caught the eye and earned the rapture of the Belgian public last year when he rode to fifth at Flanders as a neo-pro. He has set the bar pretty high for himself but the talent is clearly there, to the extent that he will be considered on a par, in terms of leadership, with Lotto Soudal’s more established names like Jurgen Roelandts and Jens Debuscherre. Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns, both at Trek-Segafredo, are two other up-and-coming Belgians who could make an impact.
If Kuurne comes down to a big bunch sprint then Kristoff will have plenty of competition for his wheel. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky), would seem to be the principal rivals, and both have shown signs of form this season with their victory tallies already ticking. André Greipel would ordinarily be a threat but the German was dealt a blow when he abandoned the Volta ao Algarve after a heavy crash on stage 4, with scans later revelaing a fractured rib. At the time of writing it is unclear whether he will be taking to the start.
Caleb Ewan is one of the rising stars of the sprinting world and his string of wins over the Australian summer, including two at the Tour Down Under, indicate that his progression is going extremely nicely. Kuurne, however, will be his first taste of Belgian one-day racing, and this might be more of a learning curve than a true opportunity for victory.
Finally, spare a thought for Arnaud Démare, whose characteristics put him in the middle of the Sprinter-Classics rider Venn diagram. The Frenchman stuttered over the course of last season and, after a successful opening foray at La Méditerranéenne this year, he'll be hoping that this weekend can represent a new beginning - a launchpad to kick on and fulfil his much heralded potential.
And that's what the opening weekend is all about; it's where the tone will be set for the rest of the spring.