With the Tour of Qatar falling by the wayside this season, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will be the first chance for much of the peloton to put their winter training to the test. It will be a baptism of fire, or perhaps ice, for most with cold conditions and plenty of hills on the menu.
It will be the 12th edition of the race, and it is proving to be a popular haunt among most of the top riders. Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) began her reign as world champion in style at last year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with victory by almost 30 seconds over her teammate Chantal Blaak.
Deignan will not be back this year, but the field will be no less star-studded, and her successor in the rainbow stripes, Amalie Dideriksen, will be in action, as will Blaak and former winner Amy Pieters, who joined Boels Dolmans over the winter.
After their wholesale domination of the women’s calendar in 2016, Boels Dolmans will be the team to watch. They will be expected to take control of the race right from the start, but that shouldn’t bother them with this weekend's incredibly strong roster, which also contains WorldTour winner Megan Guarnier.
As the first European race, the other 27 teams have put up some stiff competition for the Dutch squad. Home hope Jolien D’hoore missed last year’s race as she prepared for the UCI Track World Championships, but she will be back to lead the Wiggle-High5 squad. Her record at the race hasn’t been spectacular, but with the Olympic Games behind her, that could change. Lining up with her will be former Flanders winner Elisa Longo Borghini and sprinter Lucy Garner.
Dutch sprinting star Kirsten Wild (Cylance Pro Cycling) has seen racing action, unlike most in the peloton, and has reaped plenty of reward from it, too, with two stage wins. She went up against some tough competition in Chloe Hosking (Ale Cippolini), who will be racing in Belgium, too, but this will be a much sterner test of her capabilities.
Tiffany Cromwell finished third last year and is gunning for a better step on the podium this year. Behind her is a strong Canyon-SRAM squad with Lisa Brennauer, Elena Cecchini and Trixi Worrack among the six riders competing for the team at the race.
There has been a lot of movement over the winter, and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will be the first chance for some to race in the colours of their new team. Ellen van Dijk and Lucinda Brand head a dominant Sunweb squad, as they make their team debut.
Other notable mentions on the start list are Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3 Pro Cycling), Roxanne Knetemann (FDJ) Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott).
The race begins in the north of Gent and goes off in a different direction to that of the men’s, heading towards Drongen. A total of nine climbs litter the course with the first, the Nokereberg, coming after 28 kilometres. The road between Amougies, where the route begins its turn back towards Gent, and Dikkelvenne at the 103km mark, is the busiest section of course with six of the nine climbs and all six of the cobbled sectors. After the 2.5km Lange Munte sector of pavé, there is less than 20km to the finish line.
Many of the race-winning moves have come from breakaways going in the latter part of this tough section. The race rarely finishes with more than three riders in the leading group, and it is unlikely to be any different this year. With so many top riders in the bunch, we can expect a fast and furious battle right from the off.