The cobbled Classics begin in earnest with Belgium's Opening Weekend and the double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. For the purists, these races represent the true start of the European road season, but there have been several prequels across several continents, with riders arriving in Belgium in varying form. It makes predicting the outcome of both races - especially Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with its modified course - even harder to call, but with a number of high-profile Classics stars on the start line, the racing should be as compelling as ever.
First up is Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, with a new finish in Ninove replacing last season's finale in Meerbeke. The race will once again start in Gent, with the riders facing both cobbles and bergs, while the Kapelmuur and the Bosberg will feature as before.
In total, riders will tackle nine sectors of cobbles - including the Haaghoeck three times, along with 13 Hellingen. These include three ascents of the Leberg, the Berendries - on which Rolf Sorensen dispatched with Laurent Jalabert before going on to win the 1996 Tour of Flanders - and then the Kapelmuur and Bosberg, which both come inside the final 17km of racing.
With 13 kilometers between the descent of the final climb and the finish a strong team will fancy their chances at either controlling the main group or posting their leaders on the attack over the final set of climbs. As with all of the cobbled classics - and as shown with Michael Valgren's win in 2018 - numbers and strength in depth are key. Last year the Dane was well supported by his then Astana teammates before making a number of attacks and eventually breaking clear with just under three kilometers remaining.
The new finish is far more technical than in previous years, with several corners before the line. This should ensure that even if a small group contest for the win, positioning will be key.
Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne used to be somewhat of an anti-climax in comparison to its Saturday rival, but in recent years Sunday's event has sparked aggressive racing in a bid to unsettle the sprinters in the field. Given that the final climb comes roughly 50 kilometers from the finish, the fast men - including defending champion Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) - always hold the advantage, but weather conditions and the strength of teams after Saturday's racing can become significant factors.
In terms of the parcours, this atypically straight-forward affair, but the cluster of climbs in the mid-section of the race have the potential to tear the race apart. Last year a group containing Julien Duval (AG2R La Mondiale), Loic Vliegen (BMC Racing) and Julien Vermote (Dimension Data) almost held off the peloton, before Lotto Jumbo took the win through Groenewegen. The Dutchman had missed out on a key split earlier in the race during the climbs, but solid teamwork brought both him and several sprint rivals back into contention.
Julien Duval, Julien Vermote and Loic Vliegen at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in 2018 (Getty Images)
As expected, both races are stacked with Classics specialists, and while Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the UAE Team Emirates pair of Alexandre Kristoff and Fernando Gaviria are missing, the likes of Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and defending champions Michael Valgren (Dimension Data) and Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) are all set to attend either one or both of this weekend's races.
Van Avermaet will carry the pressure of the home crowd, with the Belgian fans set to enjoy their first glimpse of the former Paris-Roubaix winner in his new CCC Team kit. Van Avermaet, a former two-time winner of Omloop, will be looking to lay down a marker after an already successful start to the campaign.
Trek-Segafredo arrive with options that include Jasper Stuyven, Edward Theuns and the exciting Mads Pedersen. Other riders of note among the pre-race favourites include Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates), Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Dylan Van Baarle (Team Sky), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Arnaud Demare (Groupama FDJ), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) and Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida).
Cyclingnews will have complete live coverage from both races.
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