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Start gallery: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

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Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) began Omloop Het Nieuwsblad under a cloud.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) began Omloop Het Nieuwsblad under a cloud. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Belgian champion Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) in Sint-Pietersplein.

Belgian champion Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) in Sint-Pietersplein. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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A minute of silence was observed in memory of the late Claude Criquielion.

A minute of silence was observed in memory of the late Claude Criquielion. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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The peloton lines up for the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

The peloton lines up for the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) makes his way towards the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) makes his way towards the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Despite the sunshine, many riders were wrapped against the chill ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Despite the sunshine, many riders were wrapped against the chill ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Guillaume Van Keirsbulck has the cobbles and hills of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad taped to his stem.

Guillaume Van Keirsbulck has the cobbles and hills of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad taped to his stem. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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As ever, Tom Boonen's appearance raised the biggest cheer at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

As ever, Tom Boonen's appearance raised the biggest cheer at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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New father Tom Boonen was presented with gifts for his twin girls at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

New father Tom Boonen was presented with gifts for his twin girls at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Stijn Vandenbergh was voted the best domestique by his fellow Flemish professionals in the lead-up to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Stijn Vandenbergh was voted the best domestique by his fellow Flemish professionals in the lead-up to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) tells Flemish television about his hopes for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) tells Flemish television about his hopes for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Jakub Mareczko (Southeast) lines up for his first Flemish Classic at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Jakub Mareczko (Southeast) lines up for his first Flemish Classic at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Philippe Gilbert (BMC) reports for duty at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) reports for duty at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) takes his place on the start line at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) takes his place on the start line at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Bram Tankink (Lotto-JumboNL) ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Bram Tankink (Lotto-JumboNL) ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Bradley Wiggins, Bernhard Eisel and Team Sky are presented to the masses in Ghent's Sint-Pietersplein.

Bradley Wiggins, Bernhard Eisel and Team Sky are presented to the masses in Ghent's Sint-Pietersplein. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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2014 winner Ian Stannard (Sky) was in demand at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

2014 winner Ian Stannard (Sky) was in demand at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Niki Tersptra (Etixx-QuickStep) mulls over his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad chances.

Niki Tersptra (Etixx-QuickStep) mulls over his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad chances. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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The first obstacle of the day for the rider at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is navigating the crowds on Sint-Pietersplein in Ghent to find the signing on podium.

The first obstacle of the day for the rider at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is navigating the crowds on Sint-Pietersplein in Ghent to find the signing on podium. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Greg Van Avermaet was quizzed about his implication in the Chris Mertens doping affair as the start.

Greg Van Avermaet was quizzed about his implication in the Chris Mertens doping affair as the start. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was coy about his chances ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was coy about his chances ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) gave his Australian champion's jersey its first European outing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) gave his Australian champion's jersey its first European outing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) signs an autograph for a young fan.

Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) signs an autograph for a young fan. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Alexandre Kristoff (Katusha) ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Alexandre Kristoff (Katusha) ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Dries Devenyns, Heinrich Haussler and IAM Cycling line up in Ghent.

Dries Devenyns, Heinrich Haussler and IAM Cycling line up in Ghent. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Bernhard Eisel is an integral part of Sky's Classics line-up.

Bernhard Eisel is an integral part of Sky's Classics line-up. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Bradley Wiggins (Sky) waits to sign on ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Bradley Wiggins (Sky) waits to sign on ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep).

Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep). (Image credit: Barry Ryan)
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Bradley Wiggins and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad peloton set out from Ghent.

Bradley Wiggins and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad peloton set out from Ghent. (Image credit: Barry Ryan)

The other Saint Peter’s Square – Sint-Pietersplein in Ghent – is among cycling’s great sites of worship, as the masses congregate to hail the beginning of the Belgian season and the coming of spring at the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

As ever, the greatest fervour was reserved for Tom Boonen. Fans huddled around his Etixx-QuickStep bus for a glimpse of their man, and his appearance on the podium was greeted by the loudest cheer of the morning, not least because the organisation saw fit to present him with a pair of tricycles as a gift for his recently born twin daughters.

Bradley Wiggins (Sky) is making his first Omloop appearance since 2005, when the race was named for Het Volk, and he was applauded warmly by the local fans, as was Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), the man many feel is most likely to deny the home contingent of victory. “In the flat races, I’ve been good so far but this is not all flat,” Kristoff said. “I’m not the rider who needs to attack, though, I must follow and see if I can do it.”

There was a degree of mischief on the signing on rostrum, when Yoann Offredo (FDJ) was complimented for his prominent part Tour of Oman. “Here’s Yoann, who said no to Mr. Merckx,” speaker Michel Wuyts joked.

There was sorrow, too, as the late Claude Criquielion was remembered at the first Belgian race to take place after his premature death last week. A minute’s silence was observed on the start line in memory of the 1984 world champion.

The story that dominated all conversations in Ghent, however, was that of Greg Van Avermaet, who has been implicated in the doping investigation centred around the activities of Dr. Chris Mertens and will appear before the Belgian cycling federation for questioning on March 13.

Despite the seriousness of the matter, his BMC team took the decision not to withdraw him from the race and Van Avermaet leads the line here alongside Philippe Gilbert. Speaking after signing on, Van Avermaet confirmed that he had been a patient of Mertens, but insisted that he would provide clarification when he spoke to the Belgian federation.

"It was not pleasant news, but I am innocent," Van Avermaet said. “I'm glad my team let me start. That will help me to overcome everything."
 

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