by Mathias Dewaelsche

The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad took place on Saturday, and from that day, the spring classic cycling madness in Belgium will build up until it reaches a climax on April 7th, the day of the Tour of Flanders.

One-hundred forty-three riders in the Elite Women’s race and 173 riders in the Elite Men’s race conquered the Flemish cobblestones and hills on Saturday.

Both races were won by late attacks, and the day’s affairs were not without some controversy.

Blaak Scales the Wall to Win for Elite Women

In the early stages of the day’s racing, as a break of four went off the front of the Elite Men’s field, the rest of the peloton slowed to speeds at times below 30 km/hr.

At the same time, Nicole Hanselmann (Bigla) got off to an early break of her own, attacking just seven kilometers into the race and opening up a quick advantage on the rest of the Elite Women’s field.

Thirty kilometers into the 123km contest, Hanselmann’s lead was 45 seconds on a chase of 3 and a minute and a half on the peloton. As she neared the town of Sint-Denijs-Boekel, a race marshall slowed her up, and then a few minutes later, officials stopped the entire Elite Women’s field for several minutes in the small town located a bit over 30km into the race.

We previously wrote about the race neutralization and how it happened.

The one lonely leader in the Women’s race at the time of the neutralization was allowed to restart with her time gap, but she was eventually caught before the climb of the Molenberg. “We came too close to the men’s so we had to get a neutral time gap again, so it was a bit sad for me because I was in a good mood and when the bunch sees you stopping, they just get a new motivation to catch you,” Hanselmann said in an interview with Cycling News.

Once things came back together, the attacks started to come, beginning with the Molenberg climb located a little under 60km to go. A group of three Canyon // SRAM women attacked on that climb, and then a little later, Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton – Scott) accelerated on the Berendries.

The next attack came with 32km to go when Chantal Blaak (Boels – Dolmans) and Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon // SRAM) got a small gap off the front. After their move got chased down, Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb) put in a small attack, but as the peloton neared the last two climbs of the day, the riders bunched up once again.

On “The Wall,” Chantal Blaak (Boels – Dolmans) put pressure on the other race leaders. Anna van der Breggen (Boels – Dolmans) and Marta Bastianelli (Team Virtu Cycling) followed, but on the descent that twisted through the streets of Geraardsbergen, Blaak left them behind.

Blaak was still solo over the last climb of the day—the Bosberg—and after clearing it, she powered alone toward the finish in Ninove. As the kilometers ticked down, the chase group of seven showed little coordination, allowing Blaak to put her head down and hold her gap for the win.

Blaak finished third in 2011 and second in both 2016 and 2017 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, so the win got the proverbial monkey off her back at the race.

The defending European Champion Bastianelli won the sprint for second and Jip van den Bos (Boels – Dolmans) rounded out the podium in third.

Alexis Ryan (Canyon // SRAM) was the top U.S. finisher in fifth.

One late addition to the start list made after our Thursday preview of the race was Van Vleuten. The 2018 Time Trial World Champion and Women’s WorldTour overall leader suffered a broken bone in her knee at the 2018 Road Race World Championships in Austria. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was her first race back after the injury.

In a pre-race interview with, Van Vleuten said she expected to work as a support rider. That was not the case, as she attacked several times at the front and ended up finishing in the lead chase and fourth overall.

Full Elite Women’s results are available here.

A full replay of the Elite Women’s race is available from Proximus Sports.

Late Attack Gets Stybar an Omloop Win

A few days before the race, Taylor Phinney (EF Education First) was still the only American rider announced to compete in the Omloop for men. His team EF Education, the team of Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First), made a late call though and decided to throw American rider Alex Howes to the lions as well. In an interview the night before the race, Howes made clear he was looking forward to going into battle.

That the 31-year-old wasn’t joking around soon became soon. Together with Belgian riders Tom Devriendt (Wanty – Groupe Gobert) and Roy Jans (Corendon – Circus) and Luxemburg rider Tom Wirtgen (Wallonie- Bruxelles), he went into the first breakaway of the day. The four-headed leading group soon got a 12-minute advantage. That break is the one that put the Men’s peloton into a lull, allowing the Elite Women’s leader to catch them.

A little more than 100 km until the finish in the Men’s race, the peloton decided to raise the pace. After the climb of the Valkenberg 65km out, the lead was down to Howes and Devriendt, with the rest of the peloton chasing them.

The 8th of 13 climbs, the Molenberg sits about 40km from the race finish. The climb is very narrow, so it was very important to be in front if you didn’t want to miss the boat. Belgian rider Baptiste Planckaert (Wallonie Bruxelles) got a jump on the climb and attacked when the pace dropped in the peloton. He bridged up to Devriendt, who had dropped the American Howes.

In the chase, Wout van Aert’s Jumbo – Visma team asserted itself on the Molenberg, with Danny Van Poppel (Jumbo – Visma) taking the lead, with Van Aert a few spots behind him. The team’s effort caught the two leaders and formed a new lead selection that included a number of the race favorites. Michael Valgren Andersen (Team Dimension Data), last year’s winner, Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), Vanmarcke and Jasper Stuyven (Trek – Segafredo) were among those who missed the move.

On the cobblestones of the Haaghoek, Vanmarcke tried to close the gap with support of Stuyven’s Trek-Segafredo team. At the foot of the climb of the Berendries, the gap wasn’t closed yet and soon it became clear that Vanmarcke wasn’t having a good day—he had to let the chasing group go.

“I saw my heartbeat was high during the whole race, higher than normal,” Vanmarcke said after the race. “I couldn’t keep up on the Molenberg. From then on I rode in service of Langeveld. The shape is okay, I won last week. Trying to forget fast.”

In the leading group, Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Pro Cycling) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto – Soudal) accelerated up the Berendries. Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton – Scott) and Van Aert weren’t able to keep up with the pace they created but were able to join again after the climb. The signs weren’t good for them though knowing that the notorious Muur van Geraardsbergen was coming up next.

The Muur van Geraardsbergen wasn’t the thing that caused the first split in the leading group though. Taking a corner, Benoot crashed. Because of the crash, a gap opened up for the ones who were sitting in front of him, which were Lutsenko, Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Daniel Oss (Bora – Hansgrohe), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Dylan Teuns (Bahrain – Merida).

At the foot of the Muur, the chasing group led by Team Sky was only 11 seconds back. Stybar led up the steep climb that tops out at a grade of 20 percent, and Oss was not able to keep pace with the remaining five leaders.

With several of the teams happy with the break, Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton – Scott) took it upon himself to try to close the gap on his own. However, his move would peter out on the final climb of the day at the Bosberg.

Ahead of him, Van Avermaet accelerated up the 13th and final climb, and Stybar was the only one able to hold the wheel of the Olympic Champion. However, at the top of the Bosberg, the gap created was rather small. The other three in the lead group were able to close the gap at the top of the climb.

Behind them, the now-dropped Oss took over the lead of the chase 35 seconds back.

With the climbs now behind them, the action picked up inside 8km to go when Van Avermaet attacked. Wellens went after him, however, and the first attack was knocked down.

Three kilometers from the finish, the leaders started gambling a bit. Instead of attacking, Lutsenko pulled up the pace again. Instead of the Kazakh champion, Wellens attacked. Van Avermaet now chased after the rider who knocked down his attack.

Once Wellens was caught again, Stybar attacked. It was again Van Avermaet who tried to close the gap, but he soon had to give up. Lutsenko tried to pull them back to Stybar’s wheel but didn’t succeed.

With the meters to Ninove ticking down, Teuns—who won the Junior Omloop previously—counterattacked and a little later, Van Avermaet did the same. Both moves got knocked down, and Stybar stayed away solo to get his second win of the season. The win was Stybar’s first win of the Omloop.

“I had to wait a long time for this,” Stybar told Sporza after the race. “I was good in the Omloop every year.”

Van Avermaet won the sprint for second, and Wellens took the third podium spot.

“I had the intention to let nobody escape anymore,” Van Avermaet told Sporza. “When Stybar attacked, my head said I had to go after him, but my legs said no.”

After his early break, Howes finished 58th, and Taylor Phinney (EF Education First) took 62nd.

Full race results are available here.

For a quick recap of the race, check out the Mini How the Race Was Won by Cosmo Catalano.