Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will once again welcome the world-class women's peloton to open the Spring Classics on February 27 in Belgium.
It's a notoriously tough race held under the colder, and often rainy, conditions of northern Europe. The 126km route starts in Gent and includes five cobbled sectors and 10 climbs, three of which are cobbled - the Molenberg and the final two ascents over the Muur-Kapelmuur (17km to go) and the Bosberg (13km to go) before the finish in Ninove.
Cyclingnews selects just some of the contenders for the 2021 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten is the favourite for the one-day race on Saturday. She is eager to get the racing season underway and no doubt looking to open her season with a victory to impress her new squad Movistar Team Women. Van Vleuten is a breakaway specialist, and last year she attacked on the Muur-Kapelmuur to take a solo victory in Ninove, in what was the first of a five-race winning streak.
She has been steadily preparing for the 2021 season with her new teammates in Spain, and most recently completed a lengthy training camp with new Movistar Team Women squad at Mount Teide, a volcano on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Van Vleuten is determined to start her season in top form and to make the most out of what could be another uncertain year due to COVID-19, which shut down the calendar after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last year.
Watch for her to make another not-so-surprising winning move on the Muur-Kapelmuur, but if she doesn't stay away, she is confident that her new teammates, such as Leah Thomas, can produce a winning performance, too.
It goes without saying that if it isn't Van Vleuten winning, it's usually Anna van der Breggen, and visa versa. Although the peloton is incredibly strong and individual talents are spread across many different teams this year, SD Worx and Van der Breggen are considered among the strongest on paper.
Van der Breggen is entering her last year as a professional cyclist before retiring at the end of 2021, and as much as she wants to enjoy her final year, she is still taking it very seriously. We won't know exactly how strong she is this early in the season until the racing gets underway, but after her stellar performances last year, which culminated with double world road titles in Imola, we can expect that she will be well-prepared to start the Classics.
SD Worx have a number of potential winners lining up at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and we wish we could name them all, but another standout is Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, a four-time podium finisher in the one-day opener that includes her victory in the 2019 edition. She is a master of the one-day races and never one to discount for the win in the Spring Classics.
The double Belgian champion enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2020 with a stage victory at the Giro Rosa and podium finishes at Le Samyn des Dames, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Brugge-De Panne. Watch for her in the Spring Classics before she turns her attention to the Madison at the summer Olympic Games.
Kopecky also has something to prove in her first year on the Women's WorldTeam, and she will no doubt want to put forth a winning performance for Liv Racing.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the perfect starting point for Kopecky, who is strong enough to out-ride many of her competitors, climb punchy hills, and she is one of the fastest in the peloton. Plus, she has the home-race advantage on Belgian soil.
Last year marked Deignan's return to the top as the number-one ranked rider who is racing for the number-one ranked team, Trek-Segafredo, on the Women's WorldTour.
She is starting this year by building on a huge base and added confidence after victories at GP de Plouay, La Course by le Tour de France and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2020.
Her main goals are further into the season at Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the UCI Road World Championships in Flanders, Belgium, but Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the perfect place to start building that winning confidence and teach cohesion.
Trek-Segafredo, like SD Worx, are one of the strongest teams on paper with the likes of Ellen van Dijk, Elisa Longo Borghini, and new signing Chloe Hosking.
A standout rider of 2020, Grace Brown secured victory at Brabantse Pijl and second place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and has become a contender for the Spring Classics.
Her position at Team BikeExchange has moved up a notch after the departure of Annemiek van Vleuten to Movistar, and she will likely have more opportunities to lead the team in the one-day races.
This will be the first race that BikeExchange compete together without Van Vleuten and the cycling world is keen to see them take new chances at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The team line up with Amanda Spratt, always a contender, and a powerful Classics team with Teniel Campbell, Sarah Roy and Jessica Allen, and new sprinter Arianna Fidanza.
Italian all-rounder has twice placed second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to Chantal van den Broek-Black in 2019 and Annemiek van Vleuten in 2020, and she will no doubt want to open her 2021 campaign with a victory. The team also have newcomer and 2020 revelation Marlen Reusser to watch for a breakaway, but the Bastianelli of two seasons ago would be the outright team leader for a race like Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
She is a former world champion and one-day race specialist, who carries the team's highest hopes for success in 2021. She won her world title in 2007 and has gone on to win Spring Classics - Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Drenthe, and Tour of Flanders. She was on a one-day race winning roll in 2018 and 2019, but that momentum seemed to have stopped temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic and the truncated season last year.
She suffered an injury and was also stuck in quarantine with her team during the October Classics, but watch for her to be back on top of the one-day races this season.
Chloe Hosking (Trek-Segafredo)
Everyone is excited about Chloe Hosking's return to a top-tier team with Trek-Segafredo in 2021. There are huge expectations on her shoulders because she fills a much-needed sprinter's gap in a team that has risen to the top of the world rankings in just two seasons.
Hosking scored three wins in 2020 while riding for the Continental team Rally Cycling, including a stage at the Tour Down Under and at the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche. Now in her 12th season, the veteran has a total of 36 pro wins.
In her early years as a professional, Hosking raced alongside Ina Teutenberg and will now be guided by the Trek-Segafredo directeur sportif. She will no doubt want to give her new team the season's first win.
Demi Vollering (SD Worx)
Tapped as the next Anna van der Breggen, Vollering also has pressure on her shoulders, but the all-rounder is one of the most promising athletes in professional cycling and a strong candidate to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Vollering mutually ended her contract with Parkhotel Valkenburg one year early and signed a new two-year deal with SD Worx for 2021 and 2022. She is a rising talent and surprised everyone in 2019 with top-10 finishes in the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where she was third. She also won the Giro dell 'Emilia.
Last year, she was part of the winning breakaway at La Course where she finished in third place behind winner Deignan and runner-up Marianne Vos, and then placed third at Flèche Wallonne, and 7th at both Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders.
Vollering said she is still developing and would like to focus on both the Classics and major stage races such as the Giro Rosa along with the possible future women's Tour de France.
She is only 25 but it seems as if she's been racing in the professional women's peloton forever. Mackaij is still continuing to develop as a rider and although she has had a strong career, she might just be on the brink of another breakout year.
She is a strong one-day specialist, who can swap between domestique duties and taking opportunities as they come. Last year, she finished third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad behind Van Vleuten and Bastianelli. She also finished third at Brabantse Pijl. The team will field Coryn Rivera and Lianne Lippert, but watch for Mackaij to form part of a winning move.
Banks will start Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with her new Ceratizit-WNT team, after Equipe Paule Ka folded abruptly in October last year. She is one of the dark horses to watch in the one-day races as she aims make the Team GB selection for the Olympic Games.
The early-season Classics will be an important part of the Team GB selection process, and so Banks will want to perform at her best starting at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. She had an outstanding season in 2020 with a stage win at the Giro Rosa and podium finish at GP Plouay Trophee.
Banks also joins a team that has several potential winners including Lisa Brennauer, and the pair will likely make a great one-two punch in the one-day races.
Another dark horse, Nieuwiadoma is always a contender, and although we might not normally pick her for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, we also know that she's targeting top-end form now, in preparation for securing that elusive victory in two weeks at Strade Bianche.
Canyon-SRAM have a number of potential winners including Hannah Barnes, who is also looking to secure a place on Team GB for the Olympic Games. Niewiadoma and Barnes will have guidance from teammate and former winner Tiffany Cromwell.
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.