With a number of women cyclocrossers starring on the road and Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel racing expanded road schedules this spring, we will be previewing some of the spring classics that pique our interest. Up first is Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the first of the six Flanders Classics.
by Mathias Dewaelsche
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the race that kicks off the Belgian road season and is Wout Van Aert’s first task for his new Jumbo – Visma team. After a strong performance last year, the expectations are high for the three-time cyclocross world champion.
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is part of the UCI WorldTour for both the women and men and is, therefore, the first important European race of the season for many teams. This year’s race marks the 14th edition of the Elite Women’s race and the 74th Elite Men’s race.
Last year’s Elite Women’s race was won by Christina Molling Siggard (Team VIRTU Cycling) in a bit of a surprise sprint win. Cyclocross Worlds runner-up Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb) won the race in 2017 and British rider Lizzie Deignan (Trek – Segafredo Women) won in 2016.
The 2018 Elite Men’s edition was won by Danish rider Michael Valgren Andersen (Team Dimension Data), who escaped an elite group in the final kilometers. The 2016 and 2017 editions were won by Olympic Champion Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), who defeated Peter Sagan (BORA – Hansgrohe) twice in an uphill sprint. Sagan will not compete in this year’s edition, yet there are enough opponents left for Van Aert.
This post kicks off our coverage of the 2019 road spring classics. The Elite Women’s races have long featured a number of cyclocrossers and U.S. road stars, and the Elite Men’s races have taken on additional interest thanks to Van Aert and now Mathieu van der Poel’s (Corendon – Circus) focus on the road classics.
Both the Elite Women and Elite Men’s courses of the 2019 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad meander between the Flemish medieval city of Ghent and the Flemish town of Ninove, where from 1973 to 2011 the finish line of the Tour of Flanders was.
The Women’s course is 123km long and features 5 cobblestone sections and 10 climbs.
The Men’s course covers 200km and has 9 cobblestone sections and 13 hills.
In this preview, we’ll take a closer look at the main cobblestone section and the three cobblestone hills on the course that are on both the Elite Women and Elite Men’s routes.
Cobbles – Haaghoek
The Haaghoek is the name of the main cobblestone section in this year’s edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The section is located in a valley, so it starts with a descent and ends with a tough strip uphill.
Measuring 1.7km in length, the Elite Women pass through the Haaghoek once, while the Elite Men’s route goes through three times.
Cobbled Climb – Molenberg
The Molenberg is the first of three cobblestone hills. The 0.5 km–long hill has an average gradient of 7 percent and a maximum gradient of 17 percent. It was on this climb that Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen left the other riders behind in the 2010 edition of the Tour of Flanders.
Cobbled Climb – Muur van Geraardsbergen
The Muur (translated: the Wall) is one of Flanders’ most iconic hills.
It was on this climb that in that same 2010 edition of the Tour of Flanders Fabian Cancellara left his companion Tom Boonen behind. The 1km–long Muur has an average gradient of 9.2 percent and a maximum gradient of 20 percent.
Cobbled Climb – Bosberg
The Bosberg is the last hill of the day, following the Muur. The paved forest street is 1.4km long, has an average gradient of 5 percent and a maximum gradient of 11 percent.
Women to Watch
The full Elite Women’s provisional start list is available here. Starters include some familiar cyclocross faces, Americans and other favorites.
Lucinda Brand and Christine Majerus (Boels – Dolmans) have been mainstays in the Women’s road peloton in recent years, and that will be no different this year. The two last raced at the Cyclocross World Championships in Bogense a month ago, with Brand getting her best finish yet with her silver medal ride.
Brand won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2017 and returns as one of the favorites to win in 2019.
While there is only one American starting in the Elite Men’s race—more on that in a bit—there are a number of American riders starting for the Elite Women, and many of them have podium aspirations.
Last year, Alexis Ryan (Canyon // SRAM Racing) finished second in the group sprint.
Coryn Rivera returns for Team Sunweb after finishing sixth at Omloop last year and winning the first Elite U.S. Road National Championship of her career.
Former Junior cyclocross star Skylar Schneider returns for her second year with Boels – Dolmans and will be racing Omloop alongside her teammate Majerus.
Ruth Winder has already picked up a win this season for the new Trek – Segafredo Women team and will be looking to help the team continue its early-season success.
Rounding out the U.S. women is former United Health Care Pro Cycling team member Leah Thomas, who is now racing for Bigla Pro Cycling.
Surprise 2018 winner Siggard of Denmark returns facing the tall task of defending her title.
The Boels – Dolmans team brings an impressive one-two punch with Anna van der Breggen wearing the rainbow stripes and Chantal Blaak wearing the Dutch champion’s colors. Blaak finished second in 2016 and 2017, so she will no doubt be looking to get to the top step at Omloop.
Last year’s third-place finisher Maria Giulia Confalonieri (Valcar Cylance Cycling) is not racing for her Italian team, and Jolien D’Hoore (Mitchelton – Scott) is not racing this year since she is at Track Worlds in Poland, where she finished third in the Women’s Scratch race on Wednesday.
Men Who Can Challenge Van Aert
As ’cross fans, we will obviously be on full Wout Watch during the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but Van Aert faces stiff competition in his first road race of the season. We take a look at some of the top contenders for the podium.
The full provisional start list is available here.
Greg Van Avermaet
Olympic Champion Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) will for sure be one of the main contenders. The two-time winner of the Omloop already proved to be in good shape in the Vuelta a Valencia where he won the third stage.
In the Omloop’s big brother, the Tour of Flanders, he has already finished in the top 10 7 times, of which two times 2nd and one time 3rd.
The multitalented Tiesj Benoot (Lotto – Soudal), who turns only 25 on March 11th has already finished 5th and 8th in the Tour of Flanders, finished 20th in the 2017 Tour de France and won last year’s edition of the Strade Bianche. In the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he already finished third behind Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan.
The 2012 World Champion Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) doesn’t need to prove anything anymore to be one of the favorites. Although he turns 37 on July 5th, he already showed his good shape in the Tour La Provence where he won the third stage.
The veteran Gilbert already won the Omloop in 2006 and 2008, where he showed the international cycling world his talent for the first times. Since then, he won the Amstel Gold Race four times, Liège-Bastogne-Liège once, the Giro di Lombardia twice, the Tour of Flanders once and became World Champion in Valkenburg in 2012.
Cobblestone specialist Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) is always there for the spring classics. He won the 2012 edition of the Omloop (in a sprint against Tom Boonen) and has collected several podium spots in Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix since.
Although the West Fleming deserves to win a big one once, the Omloop is still the race topping his career achievements.
Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) surprised everybody last year by winning the Tour of Flanders and its little brother, the E3 Harelbeke. Terpstra and Sagan are the only two riders in the current peloton who won the two main cobblestone classics (Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix). The closest Terpstra came to winning in the Omloop was in 2015, when he was defeated in a sprint by Ian Stannard.
British rider Ian Stannard (Team Sky) has already won the Omloop twice. In the 2014 edition, he defeated Greg Van Avermaet in the sprint. In the 2015 edition, he did the same with Terpstra after he dropped Terpstra’s teammates Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh.
Michael Valgren Andersen
Since his performances last year, Danish rider Michael Valgren Andersen (Team Dimension Data) has to be considered as one of the main contenders for the spring classics. A few weeks after his win in the 2018 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad he also won the 2018 Amstel Gold Race
After Niki Terpstra left the Quick-Step team, Yves Lampaert (Deceunick – Quick-Step) got promoted to one of the leaders of the now Deceunick – Quick-Step team for this year’s spring classics. The West-Flemish rider already proved to have potential as a classic rider by winning the 2017 and 2018 Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton – Scott) already finished third once in the Tour of Flanders’ little brother, the E3 Harelbeke. In 2018, he became European Champion in Glasgow after defeating Van der Poel and Van Aert in the sprint.
The 23-year-old Danish rider Mads Pedersen (Trek – Segafredo) surprised the international cycling world last year by finishing 2nd in the Tour of Flanders. A few days earlier he finished fifth in Dwars door Vlaanderen as well. In 2013, he won the U19 Paris-Roubaix.
Twenty-seven-year-old Belgian rider Tim Wellens (Lotto – Soudal) might be in his best shape ever. The 2018 Brabantse Pijl winner already won the 2019 Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana and two stages in the 2019 Ruta del Sol
Also, the 26-year-old Kazakh rider Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Pro Team) might be in his best shape ever. The Kazakh national champion won the 2019 Tour of Oman and took the victory in Stages 2, 3 and 5.
Also riding the Omloop
Czech rider Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) started his cycling career in cyclocross. In the Czech city of Tabor in 2010 and in the German city of Sankt-Wendel in 2011, he took his first two world titles.
Since 2013 he has been focusing on road racing, but in early 2014 he decided to once more participate in the World Championships cyclocross in the Dutch town of Hoogerheide. In the last lap of that World Championship, he dropped cyclocross legend Sven Nys and took his third professional cyclocross world title.
Since then Stybar proved to be an excellent spring classic rider. He won the Strade Bianche (2015) and finished second twice in Paris-Roubaix (2015 and 2017). In the Volta ao Algarve, Stybar showed that he is ready for the 2019 spring classics by winning the last stage.
Dutch rider Lars Boom (Roompot – Charles) also started his cycling career in cyclocross. In the Italian city of Treviso, he became world champion in 2008. Unlike Stybar, Boom hasn’t managed to get on the podium of a spring classic yet, although he came close in 2015 with a 6th place in the Tour of Flanders and a 4th place in Paris-Roubaix.
The One American
Taylor Phinney (EF Education First) will be the only American rider at the start of the 2019 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. With Sep Vanmarcke taking on the role of leader of his team in the spring classics, Phinney’s task will probably be to help him take the victory.
As a U23 rider, Phinney won the 2010 U23 Paris-Roubaix. In 2018 he finished 8th among the professional riders.
What They’re Saying
Van Aert raced his last cyclocross race at Maldegem the week after Worlds. After that, he escaped “the circus of cyclocross” to head to Girona, Italy with his wife Sarah for a short break and then to start his training for the upcoming spring classics.
Van Aert’s new team Lotto – Visma did a short interview with the Belgians during his Italian “vacation.” It’s in Dutch but subtitled in English.
In an interview with Cycling Weekly, Greg Van Avermaet said he is anxious to give his new CCC Team program a proper kickoff.
“It would be really special to get a good result for CCC Team at opening weekend, so this is definitely the goal,” Van Avermaet said after his recon rides.
The defending Elite Women’s champ Siggard recently spoke with Cycling News about being the defending champion.
“I’m super excited to be wearing number 1,” Siggaard said. “I don’t feel more pressure than what I put on myself. The team wants to perform as much as we always do, so we’ll fight for it.”
How to Watch
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place on Saturday, March 2.
The Elite Men’s race starts from Ghent at 11:35 a.m. Belgian time (5:35 a.m. EST) and the Elite Women’s race starts at 11:43 a.m. Belgian time (5:43 a.m. EST).
The Elite Women’s race is expected to finish around 3 p.m. Belgian time (9 a.m. EST), and the Elite Men’s race is expected to finish around 4:30 p.m. Belgian time (10:30 a.m. EST).
The Elite Women’s race is scheduled to be streamed via the Proximus Sports Facebook page.