The eagerly anticipated opening weekend of cobbled races in Belgium has concluded with two exemplary days of racing at Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Sunday's Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. It's still very early in the classics season but Cyclingnews' Daniel Benson has made some keen observations regarding the weekend's competitions.
1. Team Sky thrives on the opening weekend of Belgian racing. Three wins in three years courtesy of Juan Antonio Flecha (2010), Chris Sutton (2011) and Mark Cavendish (2012) illustrate how they can hit the ground running once the peloton rides into Belgium. Cavendish’s win was somewhat similar to his ride in Copenhagen last year, although in some aspects it was more impressive. Unlike in Copenhagen, Kuurne threw up a more challenging course and again unlike Copenhagen, early season skirmishes are difficult in proving true levels of form. The key for the boys in black and blue will be keeping their momentum in the Classics. They’ve been here before but have yet to podium in Sanremo, Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem. Cavendish’s form has to be compared to that of 2010 and as such he’s the early favourite for Sanremo.
2. If you thought HTC was reliant on Mark Cavendish or Saxo Bank on Alberto Contador then the same can be said of GreenEdge and Matt Goss. The Australian team had a weekend to forget with their top riders finishing 56th in the Omloop and 12th in Kuurne. But this wasn’t a fluke. In their debut season they’ve failed to make any notable impression outside of the Tour Down Under. Goss, meanwhile, isn’t in the form of last year – he’d picked up 7 wins at this stage - and his next stint of racing at Tirreno-Adriatico will be crucial both for him and his employers. The biggest worry is the fact that the team’s transfer policy was designed around one-day races and, at a push, shorter stage races (Gerrans won the Tour of Denmark in 2011) but so far they’ve failed on their best-suited terrain.
The winning breakaway at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (l-r): Flecha, Boonen and Vanmarcke
3. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) is the real deal. But what’s perhaps more impressive than his talents in the saddle is his mental fortitude. On Saturday, faced with two of the biggest Classics riders from the last decade, the 23-year-old showed a level of maturity and calmness under pressure well above his years. So often the strongest rider will blow his chances through either a culmination of arrogance or misjudged tactics – Vanmarcke timed each of his efforts to perfection and his demolition of Tom Boonen was the mark of a future Monument winner.
4. And a note on Boonen. Many a champion would have cursed or sulked after being outshone by Vanmarcke but his first reaction was a genuine shake of the hand and smile for the winner. Chapeau.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) on the Omloop cobbles
5. Another podium for veteran Juan Antonio Flecha, justifying why Sky chose to extend his contract. Flecha is often in better shape than most at this point in the season but Brailsford will be delighted in the fact that he has showed no sign of slowing.
6. If you don’t have a Gilbert, Cancellara or Boonen your chances of winning depend on a certain amount of adaptability and Vaughters’ men seem to have that in abundance. The night before Vanmarcke’s win the team was planning to ride for Heinrich Haussler. One raised hand and one speech later and they suddenly had two leaders (to read about the team meeting click here). Whether they’ll pull off a Monument win this year is yet to be determined but they couldn’t have asked for a better start.
7. Calling their weekend a failure would be harsh and BMC Racing Team can take any number of positives from the weekend. Firstly, Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert appear to compliment each other well and in Greg Van Avermaet the team has a more than capable deputy. Having Alessandro Ballan as a domestique deluxe is something most teams would cherish and blooding Taylor Phinney in his first set of pro Belgium races shows the team isn't just thinking about the here and now. As for Gilbert, he finished 43rd in Omloop last year, and we all know what happened next…
8. A return to form for 'Special Breschel' in the Omloop was much needed for the talented Dane but after a season ruined by injury Rabobank would have expected no less. And while he was dropped along with Hushovd on the Paddestraat there’s at least proof he can return to the rider he once was. The big question, though, is what sort of rider is that. It’s sometimes forgotten he’s still in his mid-20s but Matti Breschel has been on the cusp of breaking into the bracket of Classics favourite for a number of year. Coming back to his 2010 level is one thing, improving even further is the real challenge ahead.
Mark Cavendish (Sky) wins Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne
9. After the finish in Kuurne, while Cavendish walked to the podium and collected the applause, his rivals were left to dissect just what went wrong. Tyler Farrar said he’d been swarmed, Mark Renshaw complained he’d been bumped from Cavendish’s wheel, but frankly it made Sky’s dominance all the more glaring. While the Manxman has but to follow his teammates until the final 250-200 meters his rivals must first compete simply to latch onto his wheel, then tussle to hold it and that’s all before they even think about competing for the win.
10. Fans of French cycling probably thought that the nation’s Classics campaign was over before it began after Yoann Offredo was handed a one-year ban for a doping violation last week. But with five riders in the top-10 spread over the weekend there’s hope for them yet. With Frédéric Guesdon aiming to recover for Paris-Roubaix and Thomas Voeckler likely to shake things up in Flanders, Anthony Roux, Damien Gaudin and Sébastien Turgot should all be watched carefully over the coming weeks.