Women's professional cycling is just days away from UCI 1.1 Omloop Het Nieuwsbald, set to start in Gent and finish in Meerbeke on Saturday. The excitement, nervousness and eagerness amongst racers, fans and media ahead of this race are at their highest.
It's not part of the Women's WorldTour - maybe it should be - but it might not matter because Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is already so well known for being the doorway that opens to one of the most anticipated blocks of racing each year - the spring Classics. It always attracts the top teams and it is always a showstopper.
Lucinda Brand, Lizzie Deignan, Anna van der Breggen, Amy Pieters, Tiffany Cromwell, Loes Gunnewijk, Emma Johansson (twice), Suzanne de Goede and Kirsten Wild are the women who have won previous editions, and any cyclist who calls themselves a Classics rider will aim to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at some point in their careers.
This year's race is 122km with seven climbs and three cobblestone sectors. It will be full-on racing just to get to Oudenaarde, where teams will want to set up, if they haven't already, for the first climb - Katteberg (59.7km).
The climb is important because two successive cobble sections directly follow - Ruiterstraat (60.5km), Jagerij (63.2km) - then a climb over the Molenberg (69.4km), and back to the cobbles along the Haaghoek (77.3km).
Good positioning will be just as important going into the cobble sectors as it will be coming out of them, since five nearly back-to-back climbs will feature in the last 20km of the race.
The course routes over pitches: Leberg (80.3km), Berendries (84.4km), Valkenberg (89.7km) and Tenbosse (96km). After passing through Geraardsbergen, the course goes over the Muur-Kapelmuur (106.3km) and the seventh and final climb over the Bosberg (110.2km).
There are only 12 kilometres from the Bosberg to the finish line in Meerbeke. Those last kilometres proved to be the most decisive in splitting up whoever was left in the small breaks after the climbs. It is where last year Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) made her solo move to victory.
Blaak, Van Vleuten make European debuts in Gent
Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) will be wearing bib number one as she toes the start line in Gent, returning to defend her title just weeks after securing the bronze medal at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Valkenburg.
It was an all-Dutch podium last year as Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) was second and Annemiek van Vleuten (then Orica-Scott) finished third. Brand will again have support from Ellen Van Dijk, who played a crucial role in her 2017 victory.
Former winner Deignan is not on the Boels-Dolmans roster, but the team will showcase their newest world champion Chantal Blaak. A team mixed with veterans and newcomers, neo-pro Skylar Schneider will make her debut with the team.
Mitchelton-Scott look like they have the strongest team on paper, with time trial world champion Annemiek Van Vleuten, who was third last year, and Santos Women's Tour winner Amanda Spratt. They also have newly signed Classics-specialist Jolien D'hoore.
D'hoore, who spent the last three seasons with Wiggle High5, will be competing at the upcoming Track World Championships in the Madison but will then put her track racing aside to focus on the Classics.
Canyon-SRAM will start with former winner Cromwell and strong contender Elena Cecchini, who spent the winter focused on being in top shape coming into the spring block.
Other riders to watch are Thalita de Jong, who heads the newly formed Experza-Footlogix, which took over the Sport Vlaanderen team. Chloe Hosking will lead Ale Cipollini and Lauren Kitchen starts with her new team FDJ.
Preview the full start list here.
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