The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the traditional first test for the cobbled Classics specialists. Last year's winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) was the pre-race favourite after his major challenger Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) opted to skip the Belgian opening weekend, but it wasn't to be for the Olympic Champion.
On a redesigned course that featured the old Ronde van Vlaanderen finale, it turned out to be much harder than expected for Van Avermaet to fight for the win. In the final kilometres, Michael Valgren Andersen (Astana) jumped away from the elite lead group towards victory. Most of the riders in the lead group were eventually brought back by the peloton that sprinted for fourth place. After the race, Van Avermaet couldn't hide his disappointment.
"I'm pleased with my form and I featured in the favourites' group. It's a pity there were only attacks and no real co-operation in the group. Now there's no good result that comes along with the performance. It wasn't possible for me to attack because everybody would be on my wheel. I had good legs, but not super. It was possible to win but the race circumstances, the headwind in the final made it difficult for me," Van Avermaet said at the BMC bus on Saturday, shortly after switching to warm clothing.
One day later, at the start of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Van Avermaet was still regretting the missed opportunity. "The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a bit of a bummer. As beautiful as the race was last year, it was disappointing this time around," Van Avermaet stated.
"In the past, you had the sequence Kruisstraat, Donderij and Taaienberg. That was full gas. Ten men survived the selection and they would all be team leaders, riders who wanted to ride. This time around - I tried a couple of times on the Wolvenberg, Berendries - but in hindsight, I should've saved my matches for the final. That was a bummer. I had the ambition to ride away together with the best riders, but on this course, it wasn't possible. Too short? At this time of the season, the races don't need to be too long."
The 32-year-old Belgian rider didn't really like the new course but he also blamed the headwind and the racing style of his breakaway companions. A cold headwind dominated the final part of the race from the classic hill zone around Oudenaarde towards finish town Meerbeke near Ninove. In that section, the famous ascent of the Muur and the Bosberg climb awaited the riders.
"The wind was a major factor. There was a headwind until the Muur and then again headwind from the Bosberg until the finish in Ninove. That's 30 kilometres with a headwind and if you don't co-operate then it's hard to stay up front. I felt like it was a very hard race but when you see how many riders were still together at the Muur… that was demotivating," Van Avermaet said.
On the Muur, Van Avermaet struggled to keep up with Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) but he made it into the lead group. "I got with the best to the top. When you finally get away with a nice group they start attacking. If you only have an advantage of 25 seconds, then you know it's going to be very hard to keep the peloton at distance," Van Avermaet said.
Astana had three riders in the breakaway and exchanged attacks. Valgren made the winning move and behind him, there were individual attempts but no organised chase. "In the finale, it was hard to make the good decisions. With all the attacks it killed me a bit to be fresh and make the good decisions. I was hoping for a sprint but you know that it's sometimes hard to keep everybody together. Nothing really went our way. Valgren will not mind it all, I think."
Before the start of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, he was asked if he was ready for revenge but Van Avermaet quickly pointed out that he wasn't very ambitious. "Today is a good revenge day but I never have big expectations here in Kuurne. To me, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is more important. Today, I make a good training and see where I can come. There's no headwind but a tailwind in the final part of the race which might be a benefit.
"Hopefully, there's co-operation if there's a breakaway. There's a possibility to stay ahead from the Oude Kwaremont on with a sizeable group. From there, it's a matter of having a good co-operation. I hope it'll be a nice race. The freezing temperatures? Yesterday, we were never cold. We'll try to do the same today."