Six riders to watch this weekend during Belgium's 'opening weekend'

Belgium's "opening weekend" and the start of Classics season are just around the corner, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicking off Saturday in Ghent followed by Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday.

It's the first chance this year fans will have to watch many of the sport's top one-day stars racing on their favored terrain. For some of those cobblestone specialists, this weekend is also a first Classics outing on a new team – or a final opportunity to grab an elusive victory.

Here are a few riders you'll want to watch this weekend in Belgium...

Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors)

Thirty-six-year-old Tom Boonen should expect plenty of attention from rivals, fans and media alike this weekend, and not only because he's a contender for both races. This happens to be the last first day of Classics season for the veteran one-day specialist, who plans to retire this year, and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is among the few Belgian one-days he has never won in his career.

Boonen will have to decide whether to hunt this elusive title Saturday and risk going too hard too early on in his Classics campaign, or to save energy for the bigger fish downriver at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. No matter what he decides, he'll be a threat in Sunday's less challenging Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, which he has won multiple times in his career. For both races, he's a rider absolutely worth watching.

Ian Stannard (Team Sky)

The makeup of Team Sky's Classics squad has changed quite a bit since Ian Stannard last raced Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, taking an emphatic victory ahead of a stable of Quick-Step stars. Back in 2015, the team counted both Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas among its Classics leaders. Although neither featured on the cobbles in 2016, Michal Kwiatkowski entered the fray, stunning Peter Sagan and the rest of the Classics specialists with an E3 victory. Kwiatkowski has said he's not targeting the Flemish Classics this year, however, leaving Stannard as Sky's cobbled specialist of note, with Luke Rowe having developed into another fine option.

Should Stannard want to make an early statement as a bone fide Classics contender, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad seems like a good place to do it. He certainly knows how to win. Keep an eye out for a Stannard attack as the peloton nears the Ghent finish line on Saturday.

Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)

Stuyven is the defending champion at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, where he stunned a crowded field of sprinters last year, and he's just as likely a contender at Omloop, which traditionally favors his riding style more.

The 24-year-old up-and-comer will be one of a few Classics specialists called upon to deliver in the absence of Fabian Cancellara this year. New teammate John Degenkolb will also bear much of that pressure this season, but he's not racing this weekend in Belgium, while fast finisher Edward Theuns is still be working his way back into form after a crash derailed the second half of his 2016 campaign. That gives Stuyven a perfect opportunity to take a crack at claiming his first career WorldTour one-day win on Saturday, and to defend his title in Kuurne on Sunday.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin)

Winning Milan-San Remo in 2014 and the Tour of Flanders in 2015, Alexander Kristoff looked like he might be the Classics rider to beat for years to come. In 2016, however, he was unable to bring home any of the major spring one-day titles. This year will be about trying to get back to winning Monuments, and the semi-Classic run-up races seem like a good place to start.

Kristoff has downplayed his chances at Saturday's Omloop, but he has to like his chances at the more sprinter-friendly Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Given the form he's shown already this season, with one stage victory at Etoile de Besseges and three in Oman, the 29-year-old Norwegian has to be considered among the top favorites Sunday. It may only be an HC-rated Europe Tour event, but it's still a coveted Flemish prize, and a win in Kuurne will be a great way for Kristoff to kick off his Classics campaign.

Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin)

Joining Katusha for 2017 after five years with the Quick-Step organisation, reigning time trial world champion Tony Martin already looks to be in good form, having won a stage in Valencia and notched a second-place stage finish in Algarve. He'll need all the form he can get if he wants to achieve one of the main goals he's set for himself this year: transforming into a Classics contender.

As a powerhouse against the clock, Martin can certainly pump out the watts necessary to battle it out on the cobblestones, but the Classics are about much more than watts. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne give Martin a good venue to put his off-season work to the test. Compared to Flanders or Roubaix, this weekend should be less stressful, particularly with Alexander Kristoff and fellow Katusha newcomer Baptiste Planckaert drawing plenty of attention as contenders in both races.

Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac)

Vanmarcke has been touted as a Belgium's breakout star for the Classics year after year, but hasn't quite managed to take that big victory he's been seeking.

Maybe a change of team will prove the necessary ingredient for success, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad providing the perfect opportunity to lay down a marker for the season. It's a race he won back in 2012 riding for none other than Garmin, which evolved into the team Vanmarcke signed with for 2017, Cannondale-Drapac. Back with the organisation that saw Vanmarcke first emerge as a rising star, and with a strong supporting cast for this weekend's races, perhaps he can nab an elusive first ever WorldTour victory five years after his last Omloop win.

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Dane has been a sports writer and editor for many years, and makes a return to Cyclingnews as a contributor in 2022. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Virginia.