12 riders to watch during Opening Weekend

After the first bar of racing at the Tour Down Under, the South American notes from Colombia and San Juan, and the underscore of European races, it's time to tune into the cobbled Classics, and the Opening Weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. We've selected 12 riders to watch for across one or both races.

Michael Valgren (Dimension Data)

Spotlight: A win in last year's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, coupled with a resilient fourth place in the Tour of Flanders, provided insurmountable proof that Valgren could blend his talents between the cobbles and the Ardennes. He ended the season in the same vein, with a gutsy ride at the World Championships that eventually netted a fine top-ten. An off-season move to Dimension Data followed, with the African team making one of the leading transfers of the year. In theory, at least, everything is now in place for the Danish all-rounder to cement his place as one of the most prolific and exciting one-day specialists of his generation. However, in comparison to some others, Valgren's form has been far from scintillating since the start of the season, but few will fret at this stage. The Dane is a class act, and it's a case of when he'll take another major win, rather than if.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Spotlight: So what if he's never raced Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and that his best and only performance in Kuurne netted 130th place - Ackermann is a genuine contender for at least the latter of the Opening Weekend's salvos. The form has been impressive, with wins in the Clasica de Almeria, in which he held off a resurgent Marcel Kittel, and the points jersey in the Volta ao Algarve. This is an important season for the German, who has earned a Giro d'Italia spot thanks to a breakthrough 2018 campaign that included wins in several WorldTour stage races. With Peter Sagan training and Sam Bennett heading to Paris-Nice after the UAE Tour, Ackermann has the space to generate growing authority in the team's sprinting hierarchy.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)

Spotlight: Démare has one of the best records for a rider who has never won either of the Opening Weekend races, with second, fourth and sixth among his results at Kuurne, and three additional top-ten placings in Omloop. This season the FDJ rider has remained consistent but has yet to taste victory, and while he may not be as punchy as some of the cobbled specialist, or as rapid as a selection of pure sprinters, he will be in contention once again this weekend. FDJ have bolstered their roster with Stefan Küng from BMC Racing, and the Swiss powerhouse will add steel to an already solid base within Madiot's armoury. It's Démare who will lead the line throughout both races, and three years on from his Milan-San Remo title, the 27-year-old is due for another major one-day result.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)

Spotlight: On Saturday the talking stops, and after a long and protracted transfer saga, Wout Van Aert will finally have the chance to race in Jumbo-Visma colours. The 24-year-old hasn't raced on the road this season and comes off the back of a cyclo-cross campaign that was littered with distractions but that's all in the past, and at Omloop - a race he debuted in last season - the Belgian will face the first of many tests this spring. If his character and determination are anything to go by, he'll relish every race that he starts. Kuurne isn't on the programme - Dylan Groenewegen heads there as the defending champion - but Omloop has the terrain on which Van Aert should shine.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb)

Spotlight: Michael Matthews is another rider who hasn't raced on the road since 2018, and the Australian will be looking to kick-start his campaign with better luck than beset him last season when a crash in Omloop ruined his spring. He spent the subsequent months chasing form, before finally finding his groove in the latter part of the season. The former GreenEdge rider doesn't tend to need much of a lead-in before hitting form - in 2015 and 2016 he won during his first races of the year - but Omloop is a race Matthews has only started once in his career. However, the Australian is a proven winner, and able to prevail on many terrains. His one blind spot remains the Spring Classics, where he has never managed a one-day win. Surely it's only a matter of time.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-QuickStep)

Spotlight: We could have selected the ever-present Philippe Gilbert, the resurgent Zdenek Stybar, the constantly-improving Bob Jungels or the new kid on the block, Fabio Jakobsen - such is the depth of talent that runs through Patrick Lefevere's team - but instead we've plumped for Yves Lampaert. We'll be honest, Gilbert has the better record, Jakobsen has the sprint and Stybar has rediscovered that winning feeling, but there's something missing from Lampaert's palmares, and it's a significant one-day win. Since his debut at QuickStep the Belgian has often sacrificed his chances for others, but with Niki Terpstra out of the picture and Gilbert a year older, Lampaert has an opportune moment to stake his claim. Remember, QuickStep don't always win through having the strongest rider, more often in the Classics, they employ a tactic of numbers that simply wears the opposition into submission. Lampaert is a strong rider - you don't win the Belgian nation road title and finish third in the corresponding time trial if you lack talent - but this is time for him to step up.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team)

Spotlight: After solid dress rehearsals at the Volta a la Communitat Valenciana and the Tour of Oman, the Olympic champion's Classics campaign begins in earnest at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. An early-season win in Spain certainly took the pressure off the 33-year-old's shoulders but it's on the cobbles where Van Avermaet's performances will always be judged. Of course, more significant targets - Flanders and Roubaix - lie ahead but just how important an early-cobbles success would mean to CCC can't be understated. This is a squad that almost didn't exist until a last-minute deal on the eve of the 2018 Tour. Yes, much of the management structure from BMC Racing remains but this is very much a different rider roster. Not just that, but the style of the squad has shifted from a cautious point tallying entity that covered bases, to a svelte outfit designed around one key figure. There are understudies within the squad, of course, but a positive marker laid down during Opening Weekend could decide the momentum for the rest of the spring.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott)

Spotlight: Three wins already this season illustrates that Trentin has hit the ground running. Twelve months ago he was on the mend after busting his ribs in a January training crash, the lingering effects of which saw him limp through the Classics without ever reaching his true potential. With a trouble-free winter behind him, the 29-year-old has the opportunity to show why he left QuickStep and commands outright leadership in the Classics. Flanders and Roubaix are not inconceivable targets for a rider who can live with the long distances and six-hour-plus racing but Omloop, and even Kuurne, are certainly achievable goals. The Italian has three top tens across both races, which isn't exactly a fitting reflection of his talent. It's time to put that right.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First)

Spotlight: A perennial figure in our top-ten Classics contender lists, Vanmarcke typically falls just short of greatness when it comes to the Monuments but the 30-year-old deserves his place on here once again. Firstly, he recently won a race - a stage in Haut Var. Secondly, EF Education First actually have a solid Classics department. Vanmarcke is backed up by the experience of Sebastian Langeveld, Moreno Hofland, Taylor Phinney, and Mitch Docker - and while Matti Breschel is no longer the force he once was, he too has over a decade of Classics experience. Finally, Vanmarcke actually won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad - back in 2012 - and after winning in Haut Var, the Belgian will be hugely motivated to keep his run going.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates)

Spotlight: With neither Fernando Gaviria nor Alexander Kristoff racing over Opening Weekend, 20-year-old Jasper Philipsen has been handed the chance to lead the line. Despite his young age, Philipsen has all the necessary attributes to succeed in the WorldTour, and while the majority of attention in his native Belgium has been focused on Remco Evenepoel and Wout Van Aert, the UAE starlet has picked up a win at the Tour Down Under and the third place on stage 4 in Volta ao Algarve. He and several of his teammates recently rode recon for the Classics, and although this will be his first outing at both Omloop and Kuurne, the Belgian deserves attention. Along with his fast finish, he has Allan Peiper in the team car and a lead-out that includes Marco Marcato, Roberto Ferrari and Sven Erik Bystrøm.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)

Spotlight: Care must be adhered to when it comes to placing pressure on a young rider's shoulders, nevertheless, second place in last year's Tour of Flanders was a breakthrough moment for Pedersen. After making his WorldTour debut in 2017, Pedersen made huge strides last season, and even marginal improvements this term could lead to a string of results. Trek-Segafredo certainly have options and more proven one-day winners, but in Pedersen, they have another exciting prospect for the next ten years.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie)

Spotlight: Terpstra's move from QuickStep to Direct Energie may have appeared as one of the most surprising transfers of the season, but the switch made perfect sense for both teams. With budget controls tighter than ever at QuickStep, and Patrick Lefevere desperate to keep as many leaders as possible, it was pragmatic to see a 34-year-old depart, especially when Terpstra realistically had one big contract left in him. At the same time, Direct Energie have a marque classics rider with a proven track record. The question, however, is whether Terpstra can transition from being an important cog in a well-oiled machine to an undoubted position of leadership. The Opening Weekend may provide more questions than answers, especially given that Terpstra's real aims lay further into the spring, but Omloop and Kuurne should at least showcase just what level of support Terpstra truly has at Direct Energie.

Race programme: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

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Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at Cyclingnews.com between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.