Here we go then, the start of the season. The Tour Down Under may have finished a month ago, with a busy period of racing following across Europe, South America, and the Middle East, but for the purists the 'opening weekend' of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is where things really begin.
There's certainly a change of tone, a dividing line between the early-season cobweb-shaking and the more serious business of the spring.
Gone are the warm weather and the gently-designed parcours, replaced with a cold and often grim weekend in Belgium and full-gas one-day racing across the hills and cobbles of Flanders. Back to the old school.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad comes on the Saturday, followed by Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on the Sunday, neatly packaged into what is widely known as the 'opening weekend'. The main spring Classics period is still a few weeks away but this is an important first step and also a tone-setter for what's to come.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
It's all change for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2018. After 10 years of starting and finishing in Gent, this year the finish has been moved to Meerbeke to revive the much-loved old Tour of Flanders finale.
The combination of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg, before the run-in to Meerbeke, will therefore be the focal point of the 196km race.
After the start in Gent's 't Kuipke velodrome, the race heads out towards the Flemish Ardennes for 13 hellingen – the short, steep hills characteristic of the region – and a further eight kasseien – cobblestone sectors.
The first difficulties come after 60km with the Haghoek sector and Leberg climb combination – which will be revisited later – but they are mostly packed into the second half of the race. The final 65km, in particular, are relentless, with Kokerelle, Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Haghoek-Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, and Tenbosse all appearing in succession. They all point, however, to the Muur-Bosberg combo, scene of some famous past battles in De Ronde.
That leaves a shorter 12km run to the finish in Meerbeke.
However, the trend in the Classics in the last couple of seasons has been for aggressive tactics and selective racing, and Cavendish's 2015 victory was the last bunch sprint at Kuurne. In 2016 Jasper Stuyven held off the chasers with a dramatic solo victory, while Peter Sagan won last year from a group of four.
The 200.1km race, as the name suggests, starts and finishes in the small town of Kuurne, near Kortrijk, but, more misleadingly, it never actually reaches Brussels. It makes its way towards the Belgian capital before turning back, and the majority of the 12 hellingen appear on the return leg.
The key stretch is between kilometres 83 and 150, where 10 climbs are packed into the space of 67 kilometres, including the Kruisberg, Oude Kwaremont, Kluisberg and Tiegemberg. The final climb of Nokereberg, however, comes some 50km from the line, which, coupled with two laps of a finishing circuit around Kortrijk, means the race will be finely poised.
Given the races take place on successive days in the same region, the start lists for both are usually similar.
Almost all the big Classics hitters are here, with one notable exception in world champion and Kuurne champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who's building his route to the spring differently this year.
At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) returns in search of a third straight title and naturally goes down as one of the big favourites. Competition will come from his old rival Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), who won the Tour of Flanders last year, along with Belgian champion Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale), Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac),and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
There are plenty of other potential candidates, including Astana's Alexey Lutsenko, who finished third at last year's Dwars door Vlaanderen and is in fine form after winning the Tour of Oman. Another form rider is Ruta del Sol winner Tim Wellens, who gives Lotto Soudal another option alongside Tiesj Benoot. Luke Durbridge and Matteo Trentin are there for Mitchelton-Scott, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Julien Vermote for Dimension Data, Michael Matthews and Edward Theuns for Sunweb, while Fabio Felline is another option for Trek and Dylan van Baarle makes his Classics debut for Sky.
The keys to the race, however, seem to lie once again with Quick-Step. As well as Gilbert, they have former Paris-Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra, multiple Roubaix podium finisher Zdenek Stybar, 2017 Dwars door Vlaanderen champion Yves Lampaert and the precocious Fernando Gaviria, who has more of an emphasis on the Classics this year.
As for Kuurne, the door is also open to those towards the other end of the classics rider-sprinter Venn diagram.
Trentin was in the finale last year and after four stage wins at last year's Vuelta a España, few would want him for company on the finishing straight. Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Arnaud Demare (FDJ), and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) are all riders who can absorb this kind of terrain and pack a fast finish.
If it comes down to a full bunch sprint then it's hard to look past Gaviria, who won four stages at the Giro d'Italia last year on his Grand Tour debut and who has already chalked up four wins this year. Quick-Step will still probably take the race on but they've parachuted in Gaviria's lead-out man Max Richeze for a reason.
Other sprinters to watch could be Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana) and Sacha Modolo (EF-Drapac), both with stage wins this season, along with Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Jurgen Roelandts (BMC).
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