Hello and welcome to live coverage from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. We’re here in Belgium, Gent to be exact, for the start of the Belgian Classics. We’ll be bringing you live updates throughout the day, with the race starting in just over 30 minutes.
Sint-Pietersplein is awash with cycling this morning, as teams and riders park up and heads towards the sign in. The weather is, shall we say, brisk with a number of the peloton sporting arm warmers for the start.
So after skirmishes in Australia, Dubai, Qatar and Oman, we’re back in Europe for the beginning of the Belgian road season. Historically this weekend, with Kuurne tomorrow, marked the opening of the season and the weekend of racing still holds a place in many cycling fans’ hearts. It’s a feast of cobbles, climbs, grit and glory with a number of Classics contenders here and hoping to lay down a marker for the next few weeks.
We do however begin on a rather sour note, with BMC Racing's Greg Van Avermaet starting the race under a cloud. The Belgian has been asked to appear in front of the Belgian federation and answer questions relating to alleged doping doctor Chris Mertens. Not the chap from Coldplay but a doctor who is alleged to have provided ozone therapy, a controversial treatment where blood is extracted, infused with ozone and then re-injected.
Van Avermaet has denied the allegations, according the Belgian press and BMC have stated that the rider will start today’s race. You can read more on the story, here.
Van Avermaet was, of course, second here last year but today's news is sure to have an affect on the rider. BMC also line-up with Gilbert in their ranks, so they certainly have options within their sqaud but there's a really competitive field in here Gent.
Right now Giant Alpecin are on the podium and signing on. The German squad have a number of strong riders in the team here but no real stand-out favourite. Timmer, de Kort, and Arndt - if it's a sprint - can all put in a decent ride though. You can check out a full start list, over here.
Defending champion Ian Stannard is here with a Team Sky roster that includes Bradley Wiggins and Luke Rowe. All three riders come here after the Tour of Qatar where Wiggins finished second in the time trial and Rowe and Stannard rode into the top ten overall. Wiggins is using the race for his build-up to Paris-Roubaix - his final race in Sky colours - but is in need of a morale boosting performance.
“Last year I came to Flanders and I was just sat behind all the craziness for 250k. I was never in the front, never in the back, but always there, just watching. There were all these crashes, this carnage and chaos, and I was coming around it. And then I finished 29th or 30th at the end, and I was like ‘I could have won that,’” said Wiggins in his pre-race press conference yesterday. You can read the full story, here.
We're now about ten minutes away from the start of the race with Etixx and Lotto Soudal both having completed their podium appearances. Blue skies overhead for the peloton as the riders gather on the start line and there's a real air of anticipation in the main square with fans right alongside the bunch.
@katushacycling Sat, 28th Feb 2015 10:25:17
Etixx – QuickStep line-up with arguably their strongest cobbled Classics team here. Boonen leads with Niki Terpstra also set for a captain’s role. In support are Keisse, Maes, Sytbar, Trentin, Van Keirsbulck and Vandenbergh. It’s a team packed with firepower but the dynamic between Boonen and Terpstra will be fascinating to follow throughout the campaign, should both riders hit top form or if Boonen is still a little bit off his game.
The race is about to start - but first a quick hello to our readers in Australia who are staying up to follow the action throughout the night.
Just before the start there was a moment of silent for Claude Criquielion, who sadly passed away earlier this month. The Belgian was a cycling legend, who as well as having a hugely impressive palmares, was one the most liked and respected members of Belgium's cycling's fraternity.
The riders have officially rolled out from the square and the race is heading through a brief neutralized zone.
We've had a brief look at a couple of the squads in the race today but Katusha start with one of the main favourites in Alexander Kristoff. The Norwegian claimed three stages in the Tour of Qatar and has gone on record to say he's never had such a strong start to the season. He’s finished off the pace here last year, in 77th place but went onto claim Milan-San Remo. He’s many peoples’ favourite for another Monument win during this campaign and he has a team stacked with riders to help him although 2013 winner Luca Paolini isn’t on the startlist.
A few early attacks from the front of the peloton with Kenny Dehaes and rider from Wanty among those to jump clear.
No Trek Factory Racing or Orica here this weekend but MTN has sent one of their best line-ups for the race. Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tyler Farrar, and Ciolek are here and it's going to be interesting to see how the team balance the expectations of so many riders with similar characteristics. The team have won already this season via Stephen Cummings in Mallorca but they’ll want to start on the front foot here in Belgium. Boasson Hagen was third here last year.
192km remaining from 200km
8km of the race has been covered and the peloton are still together.
186km remaining from 200km
We have now some splits in the field with two groups going clear and already building up a lead over the peloton that's approaching two minutes. We'll bring you the full names shortly.
Our six leaders are Alexis Gougeard (AG2R), Matt Brammeier (MTN), Christophe Laborie (Bretagne-Séché Environnement), Michael Reihs (Cult Energy Van Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty) and Louis Verhelst (Cofidis). We have three chasers at 45 seconds and the bunch at two minutes.
180km remaining from 200km
De Bie, Timmer and Marycz are the three chasers but they're still 45 seconds behind the lead group. The bunch have slipped to four mintues behind the leaders though.
Alexis Gougeard (AG2R), Matt Brammeier (MTN), Christophe Laborie (Bretagne-Séché Environnement), Michael Reihs (Cult Energy), Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty) and Louis Verhelst (Cofidis) now have four minutes over the peloton.
Still no progress for the three chasers, who are still at 45 seconds. The peloton are now 5'16 down on the front runners.
@WiggleHonda Sat, 28th Feb 2015 11:34:40
167km remaining from 200km
33km into the race and the two leading groups have finally merged and we have eight riders leading the race with a gap of over five minutes on the peloton. On the attack: Alexis Gougeard (AG2R), Matt Brammeier (MTN), Christophe Laborie (Bretagne-Séché Environnement), Michael Reihs (Cult Energy), Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty), Louis Verhelst (Cofidis), Jaroslaw Marycz (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal) and Albert Timmer (Team Giant-Alpecin).
The eight leaders are approaching the first sector of cobbles. It shouldn't pose too much of a problem for the leaders but in the peloton there will be a fight for position, even at this early stage in the race.
Right after the first 2000m of cobbles we have the first two climbs of the day, and they come in quick succession, starting with the Leberg and then the Berendries, where Rolf Sorensen dropped Jalabert in the 1996 Tour of Flanders.
BMC and Etixx are currently leading the peloton after 40km of racing.
155km remaining from 200km
155km to go and the leaders have pushed their advantage out to over six minutes. It's at 6:10.
Check out our start line gallery from this morning, here.
Still a rather measured and controlled response from the peloton at the moment with Etixx, BMC, and Europcar each placing one rider on the front of the peloton. The gap is still around six minutes.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is many people’s favourite for victory today after his fine start to the 2015 campaign but the Norwegian was circumspect about his prospects at the start.
“It’s other people who say I’m the favourite, I don’t say that for a hilly race like this, and I’m not the only one who can sprint in this race either,” he said. “In flat races I’ve been good but this is not totally flat. We will try to win. I’m not the rider who needs to attack, I must follow. I will try to take a position and follow the other attacks and see if we can do it.”
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) will have been pleased with the dry, clear conditions at the start in Ghent and will doubtless hope the rain stays away for the duration of the race.
“If it rains, it changes the race for everyone but if it’s like today and it’s cold, then it’s just a question of staying warm,” Wiggins said on Friday afternoon. “That’s the biggest factor because even Boonen struggled with it last year and guys get to the end with nothing. If it’s raining for most of the day, that’s where it’s really tough. There’s only so many riders who can stay warm and it affects everyone differently.”
The leader have gone over the top of the Leberg and they're all together. The advantage is at 6:40. Importantly, for later, there appears to be a strong tailwind at the finish, and that could help a late break.
In the lead group Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal) has dropped his chain and he's 30 seconds off the back of the break.
@wigglebikeshop Sat, 28th Feb 2015 12:51:05
Over the top of the Muur and now it's Brammeier who has to dig deep in order to hold the leaders. De Bie is still fighting to come back.
112km remaining from 200km
The peloton have gone over the climb, roughly six minutes down on the break but the speed has certainly picked up with 112km to go.
The Valkenberg is next up, then a feedzone before the riders race over the Haaghoek for the second time today.
99km remaining from 200km
We're into the final 100km of racing and the seven leaders are still ahead. Team Sky have organised themselves near the front of the race, and they've won this race twice before of course. They'll want a performance from their leaders today after their dominant start to a number of stage races earlier in the season.
The gap to the leaders is under five minutes now, with 95km to go. The break are still working together with Brammeier back on the front once more for a lengthy turn.
There's a brief chat between the MTN rider Verhelst as the Cofidis rider comes through for his stint on the front as the wind changes direction once again.
The peloton pass through the feedzone now with Sky and Lotto on the front. BMC and Etixx are a little further back at this stage but the entire field is lining out.
And now Etixx move up with a man on the front to set the pace. The gap is holding at 4:54 with 92km to go as we see Eisel wrestle with the contents of his musette.
Onto the cobbles again for the break and it's Van Melsen who sets the pace for a brief moment before Timmer takes over.
There's some real pressure coming from the front of the peloton though as they shave 25 seconds off the break's advantage in the matter of 2km.
The leaders are half-way through the sector and have lined out as they look for the smoothest section of the road. They've lost another 10 seconds and the gap is down to 4:13 with 88km to go.
It's BMC who lead the bunch onto the cobbles and now Wiggins hits the front and begins to set the pace for his team. He has Eisel behind him and Sky are taking control at this stage.
And there's a fall in the middle of the bunch with riders sent into the grass as they try and avoid those on the floor.
Most of the bunch are up and running again as Wiggins still leads the peloton through the cobbled sector.
Jay Robert Thomson (RSA) and Jérôme Pineau (Fra) were involved in that crash moments ago.
Off the cobbles with a right hand corner and Wiggins and Sky ease up slightly and allow another team to take control of the bunch, and BMC duly take up the challenge. The leaders are at 3:25 with 85km to go.
But Sky, after that brief easing in pace, have decided that they're better off on the front and have moved up once more with Eisel setting the pace.
Onto the Kaperij for the seven riders remaining in the break. A few tired legs among them as Gougeard moves out of the saddle and puts a few of his companions in trouble. Chicchi meanwhile needs some help in the bunch due to a mechanical.
@LS_Ladies Sat, 28th Feb 2015 13:53:03
Team LottoNL-Jumbo have been near the front of the bunch for some time now but the've finally moved to the front for former winner Sep Vanmarcke.
Stijn Vandenbergh is coming back through the team cars. It's unclear if he was in the earlier crash or simply had a mechanical. Eithee way, he's back with the bunch now.
A bit of urgency has gone out of the main field and the gap to the leaders goes back out to 3:14.
A tailwind now for the leaders and they're smoothly taking turns as they hold the bunch at over three minutes once more. They've covered five of the climbs but there are still six to come as they enjoy a section of flat roads.
As the bunch race towards the next climb it's Team Sky and Wiggins who set the pace, with 71km to go.
And there's another fall in the peloton, this time with one rider remaining on the ground as he wait for treatment.
The leaders are now on the Kruisberg though, with their gap down to 2:35 with 68km to go . The peloton are going to hit this climb at full gas.
And it's Wiggins who leads them onto the lower slopes with several of his teammates tucked in behind him. It's clear that the team are working for Stannard today as Boasson Hagen moves to the other side of the road and creates a small gap. There's another crash at the back of the field with one rider down this time.
Boasson Hagen was just looking for a better line on the climb and has settled back to the front of the field, just next to his ex-teammate Wiggins.
Stig Broeckx (Lotto Soudal) has jumped clear as the peloton crest the top of the climb. The Belgian team are without Roedlantds so they have to roll the dice early in a race like this.
However there's no real reaction from the bunch as Sky, with Eisel, just adjust their speed and begin to slowly increase the pace.
65km remaining from 200km
The leaders have 1:55 over the peloton with 65km to go.
Stig Broeckx sits up, his move quickly caught by the field. Still no sign from Etixx, who are watching on as Team Sky do all the work.
We're one climb away from the Taaienberg, where Boonen always makes a move to test the field and announce the start of his spring campaign but for now it's Sky and BMC who are controlling affairs.
60km remaining from 200km
Up the road and with 60km to go Brammeier has attacked and has a small gap on the break.
And the MTN rider is onto the Taaienberg with the bunch at just 1:15. It's all starting to come back together.
And the bunch is starting to split as well with a number of groups forming with Team Sky still setting the pace.
And it's Sutton who takes over as Wiggins pulls over.
And Boonen opens up and sets the pace and puts everyone else in the gutter.
Out of the saddle and he has a small gap on the field as Sutton tries to follow.
Boonen goes over the top and he takes around five riders with him. One of them is Sutton, Stybar is also there. There's one rider from BMC as well but there's still 58km to go so very little chance of this sticking. However it's causing problems for the riders behing.
Up front Brammeier is joined by Timmer and Gougeard.
Boonen's group has now swelled to around 20 riders and the three leaders have 58 seconds with 57km to go.
Stybar is in the lead group and he's setting the pace. Sky have at least two riders there, Van Avermaet is there for BMC and he has teammates with him too but the situation is changing all the time with more riders making the junction.
Tiimmer, meanwhile, leads the three leaders onto the next sector of cobbles. Who has made the split for MTN because that could determine Brammeier's role for the rest of the race.
Stannard is in the Boonen group, which has just under 20 riders. There's a chase group at around 15 seconds.
Onto the Eikenberg for the three leaders, and Etixx have the numbers behind as they set the pace. The three leaders have just 46 seconds.
And Yoann Offredo has put in an attack as the Boonen group hits the climb. It's Boasson Hagen setting the pace behind him as the Frenchman struggles to open up a gap.
Stannard has at least one teammate with him as the gap to the break is down to 25 seconds.
That looks like Luke Rowe riding with Stannard as more and more riders make it back to the main field. Kristoff is there too as Etixx and Sky swap turns on the front of the field. The leading three riders have 45 seconds with 52km to go.
Onto the Wolvenberg and Brammeier grits his teeth and leaps out of the saddle as he sets the pace. Timmer is able to stay with him but Gougeard is struggling.
And now Rowe has attacked the main field on the climb.
The Sky rider is looking back to see if anyone is coming over to him but he's all alone as he crests the top of the climb. Just two riders remain from the break with 50km to go and the gap at 29 seconds.
Brammeier is doing most of the work, it has to said, as the two leaders try and survive for as long as possible.
Timmer comes through and takes a turn but Rowe is about to reach them - the gap at 19 seconds.
Back in the field and Stannard looks isolated as Rowe pushes the pace in the lead group and Etixx lead the chase behind them. The gap is down to just nine seconds though.
Perfect time for an attack as the leaders are within sight and it's BMC who launch a rider up the road but this time the move is shut down but there is a split at the second attempt and we have roughly 8 riders clear of the field. Chavanel and Trentin are there.
45km remaining from 200km
It's all over for the morning break - plus Rowe though.
And Vanmarcke moves up into second wheel behind a rider from QuickStep. Boonen smartly spots the danger and quickly pushes on the pedals and rides up to the Lotto rider.
42km to go and there's another split in the field this time with Boonen, Stannard, Vanmarcke, all present and Boonen puts a man on the front an orders him to drive. This could be cruciual in the race.
Etixx have four riders in this move but it's Vanmarcke who is on the front with Stannard on his wheel.
Stannard is struggling to hold the wheel though and Boonen has to come around him, which he does. And now the Etixx team sit on the front of the bunch.
And now Etixx turn the screw as they start to climb the Leberg and Terpstra leads Boonen, Stannard and one other rider from Etixx. 40km to go.
It's Stijn Vandenbergh. So Etixx have three riders in a four rider move with 40km to go. Only Stannard is able to stay with them on the Leberg and the rest of the field can't respond.
The four riders have 18 seconds already on the rest of the bunch. Shades of Wilfried Peeters pulling alongside a Trek team car a few years ago and saying Cancellara was 'too strong' but today it's three Etixx riders in a four rider move.
There's still a long way to go though and BMC are trying to organise a chase with Lotto Soudal, the gap up to 25 seconds.
Can Etixx drive home their advantage from here? All three of their riders are going to work but Stannard can afford to sit on for now.
Vanmarcke's team also join the chase, and there's still a lot of firepower in this chase. The gap is holding at 27 seconds though and there's a tailwind, which will help the break.
Onto the Molenberg and it's Terpstra who set the pace, Stannard just sitting at the back of the group for now and Vanmarcke has accelerated from the chase group.
The Lotto rider is really pushing hard and Van Avermaet and Stybar go with him as he creates a gap.
35km remaining from 200km
35km to go and the gap is at 26 seconds as the remaining Etixx riders can afford to just mark moves.
Stybar just sits behind Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet, as he should. Vanmarcke looks back but he can't argue with the Etixx rider's conduct.
The gap is at 28 seconds now as Stannard remains in the wheels. He'll have to come up with a game plan but at least there's little pressure on him right now. All of the responsibility is on Boonen and his team.
In a third chase group is Chavanel, Gilbert and Marcato.
The four leaders have 32 seconds on the chase from Vanmarcke and Van Avermaaet - 30km to go.
And Boonen leads onto the Paddestraat and briefly creates a small gap but it's closed down.
Stannard, it has to be said, is riding the perfect race at the moment although there's little he can do right now other than follow and wait.
Vanmarcke's chase is frantic but will Van Avermaet look back and see Gilbert coming?
And Boonen has a gap and this time Stannard has to chase. The Sky rider obviously thinks he has a chance today and he is the defending champion after all.
The Vanmarcke group have the gap down to 24 seconds with 27km to go.
Gilbert, meanwhile, is trying to break free from Chavanal and Marcato.
And now the gap is down to 19 seconds between the two front groups.
Gilbert is alone but he'll have to find another 25 seconds if he's to link up with Van Avermaet.
And the gap is down to 16 seconds, Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet are pulling it back together but how much do Boonen and Terpstra have left in the tank?
Vanmarcke is calling for help but Van Avermaet isn't coming through for now. Perhaps he's away that Gilbert is coming up to him.
The Etixx team time trial is losing time to Vanmarcke though, the gap was at 32 seconds but it's at 13 now.
Gilbert is still trying to find the speed to link up with the second group but he's actually losing time. Van Avermaet has to weigh up the options by himself and make the right choice - work with Vanmarcke.
Because Etixx are starting to find their feet again as the gap move back out to 23 seconds. Van Avermaet must simply be cooked at this stage but he's now finally come through for another turn.
Gilbert is now over a minute down on the four leaders with 21km to go, so his race is all but over but the gap between the two lead group remains at 24 seconds.
Boonen again takes a long turn on the front but the gap is back down to 18 seconds with Van Avermaet throwing in more turns. Stybar is still at the back of that group.
18km remaining from 200km
Inside the final 18km of the action and the race is still wide open. The gap is at 18 seconds as Stannard tucks in and finds as much shelter as he can.
Etixx find another five seconds and the gap moves back out to 22 seconds as Van Avermaet takes more control of the chase.
The BMC rider takes of a drink from the car with 16km to go and the gap at 21 seconds.
Boonen gives what looks like a slight thumbs up to the cameras but that might have been after he was simply given the time gap. Now Knaven pulls up to Stannard and gives him an update on the situation. The Team Sky rider has had to close down just one move so far but the defending champion has it all to do inside the final 14km of racing.
13km to go and the gap is still at 22 seconds. There's still time to bring back the leaders but how much do Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke have left in their legs?
Just 9km to go and the gap holds at around 25 seconds. The Etixx car pulls up as the Belgian team talk tactics. Stannard just sits, and wait. He can't follow every more so he has to think of his feet once they start to attack him.
The race is moving away from Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet, the gap now at 29 seconds with just over 7km to go.
Boonen looks like he's preparing for a sprint as he moves to the back of the group and sits behind Stannard.
The gap to the chase is at 35 seconds with 5.6km to go.
Boonen remains at the back of the group, waiting to chase once Stannard responds to any attack.
And they move Stannard to the front with 4.5km to go and instantly Boonen attacks.
Stannard can't respond but he remains on the front of the group as Boonen pushes on but Stannard is bringing this back together. Nice work from the Team Sky rider.
And now Terptra attacks but he's closed down by his own teammate.
3km to go and Boonen is at the back of the group. What were Etixx doing there and now Stannard has attacked. Who will chase?
Stannard has sa gap and this is a struggle for Etixx but it's Terpstra who is chasing but Boonen is in trouble here.
2km to go and Stannard is pulling Etixx apart.
Stannard has to keep the pressure on though, he has to distance Boonen and he's doing just that.
What a response from Stannard it has to be said as he leads Terpstra into the final kilometre.
Boonen is still off the back and it look sliek another two up sprint unless Terpstra can slow this one down.
And Terpstra leads out.
But it's Stannard, Stannard takes an incredible win.
He comes around Tersptra in the final hundred meters and retains his race title. Up against three Etixx riders, he does the impossible and takes the win.
Some hard questions will have to be asked in the Etixx camp this evening. As well as they raced how did they manage to throw that away? At one point they had the race sown up but then they decided to chase each other and it all played into Stannard's hands. Boonen eventually crossed the line in third with Vandenbergh fourth and Vanmarcke in fifth.
Thanks for joining us today. You can find our report, results and race photos right here.
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