The theme of last spring was aggressive racing and decisive selections being made early, and a subtheme was Lotto Soudal missing out on almost all of those selections.
Seemingly eager to make amends at the first possible opportunity, the Belgian team took the race by the scruff of the neck on Saturday and went on the early offensive through Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot, only for the race to boil down to the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg in the final 17 kilometres, by which point they were nowhere to be seen.
"We should have just waited for the Muur..." said a rueful Wellens at the finish line.
"You never know if the early moves are the right choice but today it was the wrong choice."
Riding the first cobbled Classic of his career, the Belgian forced his way into a group that went clear in the aftermath of the Molenberg, some 53km from the finish. That move having been neutralised, Wellens then launched a big attack on the Berendries, just under 40km out, ripping the bunch to pieces and establishing what looked like a potentially race-defining selection.
Benoot was in there, too, and despite the rest of the group falling back to the regrouping bunch, he attacked again and ploughed on alone for several kilometres. The headwind blowing from the east, however, combined with the teams looking to control proceedings through domestiques, stacked the odds against the adventurous.
"Last year the good guys were gone straight away. This year, that didn't happen," said a similarly rueful Marc Sergeant, Lotto Soudal's general manager, in Meerbeke.
"It was the goal to get the good guys in the breakaway and then kill the race behind them. We speculated that the race would be in multiple pieces but Astana always closed it back down. On the Berendries they had a good group with Van Avermaet. If it's like last year and the best guys are there, they're away and it's maybe over right there. Usually you'd think that's the right move, with Van Avermaet over the Berendries, but still they came back. From there, it was difficult. Tiesj tried but it was useless and we told him to stop.
"In hindsight it was way too early. At a certain moment they were too greedy to attack."
Benoot, speaking to reporters beyond the finish line, explained that circumstances conspired against them.
"There were too many teams waiting for the Muur," said the young Belgian.
"On the Berendries we had a nice group of 10 guys, and we kept turning but suddenly I was alone. On the Valkenberg I wasn't riding flat out but I was thinking of carrying on until the Tenbosse to see if a nice group was coming, but that was not the case. It's a pity, because the race was controlled by a few teams."
Asked if it was a mistake to think anything could be done before the Muur and Bosberg – the old Tour of Flanders finale revived here in a new Omloop route – Benoot agreed.
"I think the same. The old Tour of Flanders was 50-60 kilometres longer so it's easier to make the difference if you've got good legs. Today that was not the case."
In the end, a peloton of nearly 100 riders hit the Muur with the race wide open, only for Benoot to collide with a spectator rand lose position at the foot of the climb. On the other side, Wellens hit the front of the bunch to help chase down the leading group of 10 for Plan C, Jens Keukeleire, but he ended up paying for his earlier efforts.
When the dust had settled, Lotto Soudal, in complete contrast to last spring, had taken the initiative and done their utmost to shape the race, only to still find themselves absent when it really counted. All they had to show for their efforts was Keukeleire's 21st place.
"That's the only negative thing, the result," said Sergeant. "But at the end of the day, the result is what matters."
Wellens on the cobbles
The build-up to Omloop during the week was marked by all the familiar names: Van Avermaet, Gilbert, Vanmarcke, et al. But there was a more surprising one that was never far from people's lips: Tim Wellens.
The Belgian, though a perennial factor in the Ardennes, had never raced a cobbled Classic before, but his recent form – he won the Ruta del Sol and before that a Challenge Mallorca trophy – had everyone wondering if he might be the dark horse of the 'opening weekend'. The main favourites were quizzed on his chances through the week and they said his attacking instincts made him a threat and that strong legs can make up for a lack of experience at this point in the season.
In the end, he certainly left his mark on the race, but a lack of experience was indeed his undoing.
"I had good legs but I was a bit too nervous and attacked a bit too much," Wellens admitted.
"In the end my legs were dead ahead of the Muur. I spent too much energy as earlier I thought the race would explode earlier but because of the wind it wasn't to be. In the end it wasn't necessary to be nervous and we should have just waited for the Muur."
Wellens had clearly had a discussion with Sergeant before addressing the media, with his manager making no secret of what he'd said to his rider.
"He did a good race, but at a certain point he was too aggressive, and at a point which was a little bit too early," Sergeant told Cyclingnews.
"He has to learn. A one-day race is not a stage race. In this one you have to think ahead, you have to be thinking 'I'm playing too much with my power now, I'm going to pay for it in the finale. That's what he has to learn. He said to me, 'I made some mistakes', and he was right."
The question, now, is how far could Wellens go as a cobbled Classics rider? We'll have to wait a year for an answer, as the 26-year-old will skip Sunday's Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and the main spring fortnight in March in favour of placing his eggs in the Ardennes basket one again.
"He can do it, for sure," said Sergeant. "It was never his favourite thing but maybe he can go down that path now."
As for Wellens: "I really enjoyed it. That doesn't mean I'm going to do all the Flemish Classics, but it's good to do the smaller ones likes this in between other races. I like the narrow roads, I like style of racing. It's been a good experience and I'd like to come back next year."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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