It may not be the official start to the inaugural Women's WorldTour but UCI 1.1 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite Women has drawn in a world-class field because of its stature as the kick-off to the Belgian Classics. Cyclingnews picked out a series of women to watch at the highly anticipated European opener.
Anna van der Breggen's upset victory over the dominant Boels Dolmans team at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last year makes her a top favourite to win the race for a second consecutive year. The Rabo Liv rider sprinted to the win ahead of Ellen Van Dijk, while Lizzie Armitstead and Chantal Blaak were left for third and fourth. Always a strong and smart contender, Van der Breggen will have the backing of a powerful team that includes Lucinda Brand, Katarzyna Niewiadoma and new cyclo-cross world champion Thalita De Jong.
A two-time winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2010 and 2011, Johansson will certainly be one to watch in the 2016 edition of the race. She is new to the team this year and eager to prove her value at Wiggle High5. She won't be the only rider on her team to line-up as a favourite, though. The team's other newcomer, Amy Pieters, won the race in 2014, and Elisa Longo Borghini is always one to watch.
"Obviously, I just love the Spring Classics. It's close to my home in Belgium," Johansson said in a team press release. "I've won Het Nieuwsblad two times before so it's obviously a race that suits me, and I have a really strong team.
"I think that everyone is very motivated; the whole team has been having a good winter - good preparations - and it’s good that we have been able to get together a bit. We got to do Qatar together, and that was a good start for us, and I think everybody is just really motivated to get the European Classic season started.
After placing second, third and fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last year, Boels Dolmans will want to redeem themselves with a victory on Saturday. World champion Lizzie Armitstead will lead the team that also includes Chantal Blaak and Ellen Van Dijk, and says she expects the team to come up with a strong result.
Last year Anna van der Breggen (Rabo Liv) won the race ahead of Boels Dolmans' trio Van Dijk, Armitstead and Blaak. It was a losing scenario that team manager Danny Stam hopes to improve upon this year.
"You can say second, third, fourth – we were strong. We had the numbers," Stam said. "But if you have three or four in a small group and you don't win, it's strong but not smart. I think after that race everyone learnt a little bit from the mistakes. I hope we do better this year."
Winner of the 2013 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Tiffany Cromwell stated that she wants to experience winning the race for a second time. Canyon-SRAM will have multiple cards to play with Trixi Worrack fresh off an overall victory at the Ladies Tour of Qatar. Both riders placed in the top 10 last year with Cromwell taking fifth and Worrack ninth.
"I want to have a strong spring. I would like to once again win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It has always been my favourite race," Cromwell told event organisers.
Orica-AIS newcomer Annemiek Van Vleuten will lead her team during Belgium's opening weekend of racing. The three-time Giro Rosa stage winner will have the backing of a strong team that includes Australia's road race champion, Amanda Spratt, and Santos Women's Tour stage winner Lizzie Williams.
Van Vleuten will race both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Omloop van het Hageland this weekend. "These are the kind of races that suit Van Vlueten," Director Gene Bates said on the team's website. "She's done well in them in the past, so she's definitely motivated for Saturday."
"I think we will see her in good shape now and looking to be in the front group."
After a strong showing at the Santos Women's Tour, Shelley Olds will be a strong contender at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Her new team Cylance Pro Cycling will also be motivated to perform in their first race in Europe and will look to make a mark on the world-class field.
Olds has proven to be in top early season form after placing second in the opening stage of the Santos Women’s Tour and then finishing second overall to winner Katrin Garfoot (Orica-AIS). The team also raced at the Ladies Tour of Qatar at the beginning of February before turning their attention to the start of the European season.
Lotta Lepisto (Cervelo Bigla)
In the absence of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Lotta Lepisto is a likely candidate to lead Cervelo Bigla into an outside shot at the podium at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. She had a break-out season last year with a podium at the Sparkassen Giro and won a stage at Internationale Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen ahead of Johansson and Pieters. It could be a weekend for her to shine with the help of experienced teammates Joelle Numainville and Carmen Small.
The team was not invited to race at the Ladies Tour of Qatar held at the beginning of February, so Small admits that it's difficult to know how Cervelo Bigla will stack up against the teams that have already been racing.
"I am looking forward to racing," Small said in a team press release. "I'm nervous because you've done all this hard training through the winter and what's the payoff. 'Are you fit?' 'How do you compare to the other girls?' Because we missed out on Qatar, we don't really know where we stand fitness-wise. We're starting off with one of the hardest races of the year. Het Nieuwsblad is as hard as Flanders."
Team Liv-Plantur also have a couple of riders to look out for at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with Floortje Mackaij and Leah Kirchmann as their strongest chances for a podium.
Mackaij won Gent-Wevelgem last year and is always a factor in the Belgian one-day events. Her aggressive riding style combined with Kirchmann's winning sprint make them a solid one-two punch for a challenging classic.