Hello and Welcome to Cyclingnews' live coverage from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Blue skies, warm temperatures and the start of the traditional racing season. We're in Belgium for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
On the menu, we have 10 climbs and nine cobbled sections. The final climb is the Molenberg this year, followed by 36 kilometres and four cobbled sections. The total race distance is 200km and we've got 196 starters.
We're just over an hour into the action and group of seven are up the road.
David Boucher, Marco Haller, Lieuwe Westra, Sven Vandousselaere, Andy Cappelle, Florian Vachon and Davide Ricci Bitti.
Here's a run down of the climbs for today:
Ten Bos 69km
And here are the 9 sections of cobbles:
Lange Munte 179km
And here are the 9 sections of cobbles:
Lange Munte 179km
149km remaining from 200km
Finally, an update from the race. We've got 149km to race and the gap to the leaders is 8:53.
A lot of the big teams will be happy with the situation. They'll have to start working at some point but a lot of them will need to share the responsibility. You can expect Sky, BMC and Omega to take charge before the first climb at 69km.
The gap is rising. The latest time check is 12 minutes.
We've dusted off the CN blimp and moved it out of storage. It's just taking a few minutes to warm up before we'll be able to catch up with the leaders on the road.
@UCI_Overlord Sat, 25th Feb 2012 12:03:32
You can find a startline gallery from this morning here too.
The start shot of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was fired by city representative Christophe Peeters and An-Sophie De Graeve. She’s the widow of Wouter Weylandt who tragically died at the Giro d’Italia last year. The funeral of Wouter Weylandt was organized at the same square where today’s race kicked off. “It feels weird to be here again, especially because Wouter was buried in the Saint-Peterschurch and because he has been here at the start a lot of times,” An-Sophie De Graeve told organizing newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.
We also spoke to Peter Van Petegem. He believed that the race would not end in a sprint. He also confirmed that he would not be working with Garmin this year.
The arrival of the women's race is expected around 3pm. Not at the start this morning is Swedish rider Emma Johansson, the double winner of 2010 and 2011. She's not yet completely recovered from the collarbone injuries she sustained on January 14 during a training ride accident. She's said to be fit but not fit enough to race. Also absent is Tour of Flanders winner Grace Verbeke due to an intestinal virus which ruins her Spring Classics season.
122km remaining from 200km
The leaders have made it over the Ten Bosse and the gap is 9;45, so it's dropped by a couple of minutes.
Omega-Pharma QuickStep is the first of the big teams to show their hand, moving to the front to try and reduce the gap to the break. The leaders have 8:45 on the bunch.
The race today may well be won on the final set of climbs. That's where the likes of Boonen, Gilbert and Flecha will be looking to test each other and break the field.
From the final climb of the Molenberg there's still close to 40km but with a tailwind it will be difficult to bring back a small group.
114km remaining from 200km
114km to go and the gap is back up to 9 minutes.
Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) also spoke at the start: "People recognize me more on the streets,” he said. “Today isn’t the Tour de France though. We’re in Belgium and the only similar thing is the sun. It’s not new for me as this is my twelfth season as a pro.” The former French champion is known to be an attacking rider but he remained unclear on his objectives in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “I expect [Sylvain] Chavanel today,” Voeckler said. “Is he a friend? No, he’s French, like me.”
And it's fair to say there's some pressure on GreedEdge today. In Langeveld they have the defending champion but other than their results back home in Australia they've yet to hit the headlines. They could do with a win this weekend.
And also some pressure on Belgium too. They've not had a winner in this race since 2008.
107km remaining from 200km
107km to go and the gap has dropped back to 8 minutes.
The leaders have reached the Valkenberg, the gap down to 7;25 so that work from QuickStep is starting to pay dividends.
Garmin could certainly come up with a result today too. Haussler, who turns 28 today, told Cyclingnews last week that he's here to win and that his form is improving. Last year he struggled in the longer races but at 200km this could be within his reach. He'll have strong support from the rest of the Garmin team, including last year's Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren.
Jimmy Engoulvent has abandoned the race. The first rider to do so today.
For Rabobank, there's Breschel, Boom but also Tankink. All three could be in the mix towards the end of the race.
85km remaining from 200km
The gap is coming down rapidly now. The leaders have 5.52 on the peloton.
Omega still on the front, doing all the work to bring things back together and set up potential moves from either Boonen or Chavanel.
BMC are hovering just behind the team in light blue. They'll be more than happy to keep out of the wind and out of sight for the time being.
We caught up with both Alex Dowsett and Taylor Phinney this morning. Both riders are taking part in their first senior (semi) classic, both looked nervous but were excited. It's good to see that major teams like BMC and Sky are using these races to blood some of their younger talent.
80km remaining from 200km
Back to the race and the pace has shot up dramatically. Omega still on the front but Farnese, Katusha and Sky are moving their leaders to the front of the bunch. The race is coming to life.
Ramunas Navardauskas has gone down in a crash. He's quickly back on his feet and looking for a new bike.
77km remaining from 200km
Under five minutes for the leaders now.
BMC are moving up on the outside, trying to get their leaders closer to the front. It's ratcheting up the pace in the field and causing a few riders to slip off the back.
Meanwhile, Pozzato is calling for the team car.
Worth remember there are no race radios in the race.
A huge fight for position at the front and it's led to a crash. Cofidis rider on the ground. Riders trying to squeeze up the side of the road but there's only so much tarmac before you hit the gutter. Labbe is the rider from Cofidis on the ground. Trusov also came down and has lost some skin.
Another crash and this one is a lot bigger. Most of the riders are back up and racing. Rollin is looking for a new bike though.
A Sky rider also came down.
Knees was the Sky rider who came down. He's back up though.
69km remaining from 200km
And the leaders only have 3:24 on the bunch. It's only a matter of time before they're caught. Westra is leading the break but in all honesty he looks like he doesnt want to be there.
Sky and BMC all over the front and Omega have drifted back after doing so much of the pace setting. The bunch have just reached the Kruisberg.
Gilbert moving forward.
Bauer and Van Summeren are on the front now for Garmin. Leukmans was another ride in the earlier crash and he's coming back through the cars now.
A teammate has dropped back to help Leukmans.
And he's back with the peloton. He'll have to move up to the front though and that's going to take more energy out of him.
65km remaining from 200km
65km to go and the gap is down to 2:33.
Garmin are being swamped at the front with FDJ coming over the top of them. The pace is too high for a serious attack from the bunch but moves will surely come on the next climb.
Klier is on the front and is trying to get things organised as the pace drops slightly. A lot of riders looking around to see who will take charge.
And there's another crash. Dowsett is after a new wheel. Pozzato is waving his arms around and a GreedEdge rider is also down.
The lead group has also split. Westra, Boucher and Vandousselaere have left their companions behind.
Vandousselaere is pulling away on the Taaienberg. It's a super tough climb and we'll surely see attacks from the main field there too, and the bunch are hurtling towards the climb now.
With all the firepower BMC have they should be throwing riders up the road once the climb hits.
Boonen the front and he comes together with a Rabo rider who crashes.
It was Boom. That was incredible. And Boonen is clear with Vanmarcke. Sky are chasing but riders are all over the place.
Another crash. Ciolek.
When Boom hit the ground his bike kicked up and almost took out a Sky rider. Boom tried to go around Boonen but he didnt give an inch. That will be a talking point after the race.
Sky have a couple of riders in the Boonen group. Flecha and Hayman. Breschel is there, Vanmarcke and a BMC rider. Hushovd.
55km remaining from 200km
Another crash and this time Langeveld and Velits are down.
Westra is almost taken out by a fan who tries to wave at a tv camera crew. The only peace seems to be in the Boonen, Hushovd group. Gilbert is missing and Boonen has Devenyns with him.
Langeveld is back up and chasing.
Boonen has his domestique on the front, he's clearly confident but Sky are saving both Flecha and Hayman. Breschel is a very good sprinter too.
Gilbert has a puncture. He's getting a new wheel.
Gilbert is chasing but he's on his own. He'd already been dropped by the Boonen group. Langeveld and Gilbert are now together on the road, as a BMC rider slows and waits for his leader.
50km remaining from 200km
50 km to race. Boonen and his group are 1:15 behind the leaders.
Boonen is working on the front now. Sky, Breschel and Hushovd getting a free ride at the moment.
And Vanmarcke. Who is also in the Boonen group.
Hushovd takes a turn on the front of the main group for the first time.
It's not certain the Boonen group will stay away. The remnants of the peloton are roughly 30-40 seconds back.
Boonen and Hushovd are 33 seconds behind the two leaders. The Belgian looks incredibly strong as he gets out of the saddle. He's not afraid to lead from the front and put the others under pressure.
Friebe who is in the CN blimp is tipping Boonen for the win.
The two leaders are about to be caught, just before the Molenberg, where they'll probably be dropped.
40km remaining from 200km
40 to go!
Vanmarcke attacked over the top of the Molenberg but he was caught and brought back by Boonen. The leaders have 1:40 on the chase behind that features BMC.
The leaders are on the Paddestraat, no more climbs left.
Sky cant afford to wait for the sprint. They have the numbers to attack but do they have the strength? Breschel, he's an unknown. After such a long injury how is the form?
And Breschel and Hushovd have cracked. Hushovd in a major way. All from the pressure of Boonen on the front.
Flecha moves to the front straight away. That's another fast man he doesnt have to worry about.
A penny for Gilbert's thoughts.
So Vanmarcke is the only rider in the lead group without help. Boonen will be happy to have dropped both Breschel and Hushovd. The big question is whether he has enough left in the tank if Sky start popping off the front.
Hushovd and Breschel are still chasing, mind. They're not giving up but it's going to be very hard to get back on.
26km remaining from 200km
26km to go. Hushovd and Breschel are at 12 seconds, the Gilbert bunch at 2:03.
Vanmarcke is coming through and taking short turns. Can he pull off the biggest win of short career? Sky of course have a great pedigree in this race.
Hushovd and Breschel losing a couple more seconds, they're at 18s now.
20km to go and the five leaders have 2 minutes on the bunch. 28 seconds on Hushovd and Breschel.
Sky are doing more and more of the work. They've ridden the perfect race so far.
Vanmarcke attacks, where Flecha went a few years ago. Boonen is on it. So is Flecha. Then there's a gap.
Vanmarcke is looking very strong. The move wasn't a surprise but it was so ferocious.
The leading trio have 10 seconds already.
And for the first time in the race Boonen is gritting his teeth.
The Sky car pulls alongside Flecha, the Omega car does the same for Boonen. This looks like the winning move.
16km remaining from 200km
The leading trio are continuing to collaborate well. Vanmarcke in particular is looking very assured. His attack succeeded in ridding Boonen and Flecha of their help, and he certainly doesn't want Devenyns and Hayman to get back on.
Wilfried Peeters draws up alongside Boonen and offers some words of wisdom. Remarkably, Boonen has never won the Omloop, and he has a golden opportunity to complete his set of Belgian cobbled classics this afternoon.
12km remaining from 200km
Meanwhile, Hushovd and Breschel have been swallowed up the peloton. Alessandro Ballan is pulling on the front for BMC now, but it's too little, too late. The bunch is still almost 2:00 down. Considering the talent at their disposal, it's been a somewhat underwhelming outing for BMC, but the spring is very, very young...
10km remaining from 200km
There's plenty of encouragement for Boonen on the roadside as the three leaders enter the hinterland of Ghent. The Belgian has enjoyed a fine start to the season and he's motoring well here.
Ballan and Burghardt string out the peloton and their efforts have shaved ten seconds or so off the break's lead.
Boonen will be the overwhelming favourite if the leading trio arrive at the finish together, so Flecha and Vanmarcke will surely need to be inventive if they are to deny him the win.
8km remaining from 200km
The leaders are still all contributing to the pace-setting, but even so, their lead is now at 1:30.
Devenyns and Hayman have been caught by the peloton, which is still led by BMC.
5km remaining from 200km
The three leaders cross the Schelde river with a shade over 5km still to race. Boonen looks composed as he sits on Flecha's wheel.
4km remaining from 200km
Flecha drives the break with 4km to go, then swings over and nods Vanmarcke through.
3km remaining from 200km
Boonen hits the front on the final short cobbled section of the race.
Boonen looks behind, but still no move from Flecha or Vanmarcke.
2km remaining from 200km
Finally, Flecha has a go just under the two kilometre to go banner. Boonen is sharply onto his wheel, and brings Vanmarcke back up to him.
The pace is sucked out of the break when Flecha is brought back, and the trio eye one another. Boonen hugs the right hand side of the road and looks over his shoulder at Vanmarcke and Flecha, almost daring them to attack.
1km remaining from 200km
Vanmarcke puts in a dig but it peters out almost immediately with one kilometre to go.
Flecha is now caught on the front, with Boonen tucked in his wheel and Vanmarcke lined up behind.
Flecha attempts to tempt Boonen into hitting the front, but the Belgian isn't falling for it. It will be up to Flecha to lead out the sprint.
Flecha opens it up, but Boonen swoops past him...
But inside the final 150 metres, it's Vamarcke who comes past and claims the win. An upset in Ghent, as Boonen comes home in second. Flecha third.
Meanwhile, Vanmarcke's teammate Haussler takes the bunch sprint for fourth.
Vanmarcke timed his effort perfectly. Boonen was only still getting into his stride when he passed Flecha, and he succeeded only in leading Vanmarcke out for the win. When Boonen from the right into the centre of the road, Vanmarcke wisely bided his time, and cut past Boonen down the side of the road he had just vacated.
A great win for the 23-year-old Vanmarcke. He's come close to a big win already in his young career, but this could be a presage of what is to come from this promising talent. After second place at Gent-Wevelgem in 2010, and fourth in the E3 Prijs Harebeke last year, Vanmarcke has added a significant line to his palmares.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) took 5th place, he was just behind Heinrich Haussler in the bunch sprint.
But the day belongs to Vanmarcke. Isolated in the winning break, he had the foresight and the strength to eliminate Hayman and Devenyns, and significantly increase his odds of victory. Then, he had the steadiest hand in the final sprint and upset Tom Boonen in the process.
1 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Garmin-Barracuda
2 Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
3 Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Sky Procycling
4 Heinrich Haussler (Aus) Garmin-Barracuda
5 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing
Loes Gunnewijk won the women's race for GreenEdge earlier this afternoon, and you can see the full results and report
Thanks for joining us for our live coverage of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this afternoon. Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for a full report, results, pictures and reaction from a fine start to the classics season in Belgium.
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