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Who'll win the first battle on the cobbles in 2016?

Photo: Muscat Municipality/Paumer/Kåre Dehlie Thorstad




26.02.2016 @ 23:58 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The cycling season may have been going on for more than a month but for many cycling fans it doesn't start properly until the riders hit the Belgian cobbles and the steep hellingen for the first time in the Belgian opening weekend. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad marks the beginning of the historic European races and kicks off the Belgian classics season, a truly unique part of the European race calendar that sees the riders spend more than a month racing on some of the most legendary and well-known roads in the cycling world. As a mini Tour of Flanders, the opening semi-classic is a hard man's race in which only the true cobbled classics specialists excel and it is a race that every accomplished one-day specialist would love to add to his palmares.


Most professional bike riders already have plenty of racing miles in their legs, making good use of the warm and sunny conditions in places like Australia, Argentina, the Middle East, Algarve, Andalusia, and the French Cote d'Azur to clock up the kilometres. However, while an early win is always appreciated and a welcome boost of confidence, it has until now been all about warm-up and preparation for the bigger races to come.


That will change in the coming weekend when the professional cycling calendar enters its next phase in the traditional Belgian opening weekend. While cycling fans all over the world have appreciated the globalized cycling and the many high-level early season events, there is still a feeling that the season hasn't started for real until the best classics riders have tested themselves on the Belgian cobbles for the first time.


This will happen on Saturday when the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicks off the race calendar consisting of historic races on European soil. From now on, the races are no longer mere training in a laid-back atmosphere, now it is time to clock up the results. For the stage racers, things will get serious at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico that for most are the first important objectives of the season while the classics riders have marked Saturday as the first crucial date on their 2016 schedule. Even though Paris-Nice is not the Tour de France and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is not the Tour of Flanders, the serious racing now begins in earnest.


Omloop Het Nieuwsblad not only kicks off the real European racing season, it is also the start of a truly unique part of the international cycling calendar: the Belgian classics season. During the next month and a half, the riders will do several highly prestigious races in a very tiny area in Europe, racing on the same roads and the same climbs again and again. For some reason, those roads are rarely used during the remainder of the season but during the coming 40 days, they are the scene of repeated battles in one of the most exciting times on the calendar.


Those races all have a very unique nature. In Flanders, it is not about big mountains or time trials. Instead, the races are marked by the legendary hellingen - short, steep climbs that are often cobbled - pavé sectors, wind, rain, and fierce battles for position. In these races, there is no room for riders like Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, or Joaquim Rodriguez. This is the domain of the hard men like Alexander Kristoff, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke and Peter Sagan.


Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has the distinguished honour of kicking it all off and has teamed up with the Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne to form the traditional opening weekend. The combination is a perfect one as it appeals to the same riders but still gives different riders an opportunity to shine. Even though they both include cobbles and hellingen and several riders have won both, Saturday's opener is one for the true classics specialists and Sunday's race to Kuurne is much more of a sprinters race. Even though many riders do both races, this means that there is a certain difference between the line-ups for the events. Several teams bring in some fast finishers for Sunday's race while many of the classics riders often make a late decision after Saturday's race about whether to continue racing the next day as well.


Kuurne is one of the few classics that a sprinter can realistically target but the Omloop is of a completely different nature. Like the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - and to a certain extent also the Dwars door Vlaanderen - it is much more of a mini Tour of Flanders. In these races, the difference is made on the hellingen and the cobbles and by the weather conditions and it often ends up as race of attrition and a gradual elimination race. In the end, only the strongest riders prevail.


The Omloop is not as hard as E3 and the Tour of Flanders but two factors mean that it is often just as selective. First of all, its early position on the calendar means that less climbing is needed to make a selection compared to April when all the contenders are in peak condition. Secondly, the weather conditions can be much more brutal at this time of the year and have created some legendary battles in the past. If the weather conditions are spring-like, however, the final obstacles are so far away from the finish in Ghent that bigger groups have decided the race, with Thor Hushovd's win in 2009 being the most recent example. Those cases are the exceptions as the no more than 3 riders have arrived together at the finish to decide the win in the last 6 editions.


Formerly known as Omloop Het Volk, the race was first held in 1945 - the same year as Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne made its debut - and has kicked off the Belgian season ever since. Due to its calendar date, however, the weather has often played an instrumental role, with the 1986 and 2004 editions being cancelled due to snow. In 2013 the race was able to go on as planned but deteriorating weather conditions meant that the following day's race in Kuurne had to be cancelled. Most of the big Belgian classics riders have won the race at least once, with Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Johan Museeuw, and Peter Van Petegem all featuring on the winners list. Unsurprisingly, the race has been dominated by Belgians and with Seamus McGrath 1959 win being the only exception, the winner was from either the home country or their neighbours in the Netherlands until German Andreas Kappes won the 1991 edition of the race. As a peculiar fact, the race is the only major Belgian classic that Tom Boonen still hasn't won.


Last year’s race was one of the most memorable in recent history. An 8-rider front group had been formed on the Haaghoek cobbles with around 40km to go and after another selection had taken place and Sep Vanmarcke had suffered a puncture, defending champion Ian Stannard found himself in what looked like an impossible position as he was up against the Etixx-QuickStep trio of Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh. Surprisingly, the Belgian team did everything wrong and made several tactical mistakes that allowed the Brit to beat Terpstra in a sprint, with a fatigued Boonen rolling across the line in third. Stannard has opted not to try to make it three in a row but Boonen and Terpstra will both be back and try to make up for last year’s disappointment.


The course

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a truly Flemish classic as it is designed in the same way as most of the biggest Belgian one-day races. The course map is a complicated affair as the riders zigzag their way through a rather small area in the Flemish Ardennes, heading back and forth and often using the same roads numerous times. All the famous hellingen known from the Tour of Flanders are located in this small area and it is easy for the organizers to make changes from year to year, varying the climbs used for the different editions of the race.


This is the pattern used for the design of the courses for races like the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the Tour of Flanders and it is no surprise that these races share the same characteristics. The races all start with a long, flat section to get the legs going before hitting a series of hellingen and pave sectors in the second half of the race. This is where the selection is made before the races end with a flat section to the finish. What make the races different are their distances and start and finishing cities and this is what ultimately determines how difficult the finale is.


Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has usually had the city of Ghent as its center and the race both started and finished there from 1945 to 1995. From 1996 to 2007, the finish was moved to nearby Lokeren but since 2008 the race has been back where it belongs, with the slightly uphill finishing straight in the centre of Ghent on the thoroughfare of Charles de Kerchovelaan in front of the Citadelpark being the well-known scene of the consecration of the winner. As Ghent is a bit farther away from the climbs than Oudenaarde where De Ronde finishes, the race ends with a longer flat section than the major Flemish classic does and in this race, the final obstacles are a series of flat pave sectors that usually create the decisive selection.


As said, the course varies a bit from year to year and compared to last year, the organizers have again made some twists. The distance is largely unchanged – 200.8km compared to last year's 200.2km - but the number of hellingen has gone up from 11 to 13. Eikenmolen and Tenbosse have been added early in the race and will add to the overall toughness of the race but won’t be decisive. However, the main changes come in the finale. The finish (and start) has been moved from Charles de Kechovelaan to Emile Clauslaan which is a shorter, wider and steeper finishing straight. Even more importantly, the Molenberg which has always been the key climb in the finale, has to be skipped due to road works. Instead, the riders will tackle the new climb of Boembekeberg which is a lot less steep. However, it comes just 32.6km from the finish which is closer to the end than the Molenberg.  After the final climb, the series of three consecutive pave sectors will again be the late challenges. The main novelty of 2014 was the reintroduction of the famed Muur van Geraardsbergen which is no longer part of the Tour of Flanders but is back in the Omloop after a three-year absence. However, it comes at a rather early point of the race and will not play the same kind of role as it used to do in the Tour of Flanders.


As usual, the race starts in Ghent – albeit in a new place – with the official start being given in nearby Merelbeke and from there, the riders head along flat roads in a predominantly southern direction to reach the Flemish Ardennes. The race makes a small digression from the direct route to make this section slightly longer but unless it is very windy, the only purpose of this flat portion of the course is to accumulate fatigue and allow the early break to take off.


Things gradually get more nervous as the riders reach the hilly zone, with the pace automatically ramping up as they approach the first climbs. The roads in the Belgian classics are famously known for being narrow and twisty and positioning ahead of the climbs is the key to success. From the point where the riders hit the first climbs, it is a constant battle to stay near the front, with the automatically increased pace reducing the advantage for the early escapees.


Things will kick off in earnest after 56km of racing when the riders hit the Haaghoek pave sector that features numerous times on the course. Within the next 15km, the riders will tackle the Leberg, Berendries, Tenbosse and Eikenmolen in quick succession but they will only serve to test the riders’ legs.


The addition of two new climbs in this section means that there won’t be much room for recovery. After 85km, the riders get the chance to reacquaint themselves with the Muur but despite the climb's important place in cycling history, it will play no major role. 18km later, the next climb is the Valkenberg, and then it is time to pass the feed zone.


The riders will now take on the second part of the course and it starts out rather gently. First up is the second passage of the Haaghoek sector with 88km to go. A little later, they tackle the Kaperij but there should still be no major drama at this point. A few moments later, the finale will kick off and from there it is important to stay near the front all the time, making no room for recovery.


The pace automatically ramps up dramatically and the advantage of the breakaway will crumble as the riders speed towards the Kruisberg which comes when 67km still remain. The biggest favourites will now come to the fore and stay close to the front but it is still too early to make a move for the real contenders. However, it may be the time for some of the lesser known riders to test their legs with an attack as the race from is usually a very aggressive one with several riders trying to get up the road.


The real finale will kick off with 57.4km to go when the riders reach the short, steep, cobbled Taaienberg, one of the most feared hellingen in the Flemish Ardennes. In fact, the scenario is rather predictable as the same happens almost every year. Tom Boonen has two important places to test his early-season condition: at the Tour of Qatar (which he missed this year) and on the Taaienberg in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It is almost guaranteed that the Belgian will take the turn onto the climb in first position and make a huge acceleration on its slopes, forcing the first crucial selection. In the last few years, however, Sep Vanmarcke has won the battle but as he will be absent this year, Boonen will again be expected to come to the fore.


At the top, a small group of favourites usually emerges and depending on its composition, the selection may have been made. Due to a lack of cooperation, however, some kind of regrouping usually takes places but now the door is open for launching attacks as most riders are now on their limit.


From now on, attacks are usually launched in both sides of the roads and it is a question of time before the early breakaway is swallowed up by the select group of favourites. In these races, however, participation in an early escape may be a ticket to the race finale as they may be caught at a time when the crucial selection has taken place.


The Taaienberg is the first climb in a series of three that comes in less than 10km, with the Eikenberg and the Wolvenberg being located 52.0 and 48.9km from the finish respectively.  The Wolvenberg leads directly to the series of three short pave sectors Ruiterstraat, Karel Martelstraat, and Holleweg and 41.5km from the finish, it is time for another passage of the Haaghoek sector.


By this time, a select front group will usually have formed and as most teams will have limited numbers, the race will be difficult to control. The decisive attacks may not necessarily be made on the climbs as teams like Etixx-QuickStep who are likely to have strength in numbers, can try to benefit from their numerical superiority by sending riders up the road.


The Haaghoek is followed by the two final hellingen, Leberg and the new Boembekeberg which come 38.5km and 32.6km from the finish respectively. None of them are as hard as the previous climb of the Molenberg but can do some real damage at this late point of a hard race.


Whatever group of favourites remains after the Molenberg will have to work together to stay away during the final flat 32.6km that take the riders back up north to the finish in Ghent. At the same time, they need to find the right point to launch their crucial attack and they have three perfect options for that final acceleration.


Those are the three pave sectors Paddestraat, Lippenhovestraat, and Lange Munte that come 30.5km, 27.8km, and 20.8km from the finish respectively. The former two were the scene of Vandenbergh's crucial attack three years ago while Sep Vanmarcke attacked on all three sections to gradually whittle down the select front group to just himself, Tom Boonen, and Juan Antonio Flecha one year earlier. In 2014, the decisive move was made after the riders had exited the final pave sector and last year the group of Stannard, Boonen, Terpstra and Vandenbergh was formed even before the climb of the Molenberg.


From there, it is a flat run all the way to the line in Ghent, and by now the strongest riders will have emerged. It will be a matter of staying away from the chase groups while also finding a way to outwit the rivals in the finale but the race usually comes down to a sprint between the strongest handful of riders. As said, there will be a new, harder uphill finishing straight which is shorter, wider and steeper than the previous one. There are no major technical issues in the finale as the riders mostly follow a slightly winding road for many kilometres in the finale



The weather

The weather always plays a huge role in the Flemish classics and due to its early date, Omloop is probably the race that is most affected by the climatic conditions. Recent editions have mostly taken place in very cold conditions but this year it seems that the riders will have very pleasant conditions for their opening battle on the Belgian cobbles.


Saturday is forecasted to be a day of beautiful sunshine as there will barely be a single cloud on the sky. Furthermore, the maximum temperature will be a nice 7 degrees which is much better than the freezing cold that marred the race in the past-


The main challenge will be a moderate northeasterly wind which means that there will be a crosswind for most of the day even though the wind will be coming from every direction when the riders zigzag through the Flemish Ardennes. In the finale there, will be a cross-headwind on the final climb and then the riders will turn into a headwind for the Paddestraat and Lippenhovestraat. There will be a tailwind on the Lange Munte and from there it will mainly be a cross-headwind. It will be a headwind sprint.


The favourites

Early season racing is always very hard to predict. While everybody will be in peak condition for the major classics later in the year, no one is at 100% yet. Furthermore, many of the key contenders have not been going full gas yet and so they haven’t really revealed the true level of their form. All contenders have a few days of racing in their legs but it is very hard to compare the Omani, Algarve and Andalusian climbs with the kind of racing that the riders face on Saturday. The contenders for this race have mainly used those events to prepare and have rarely featured in the top end of the results sheets. The only race which may offer any kind of indication of the skills in this kind of race is the Tour of Qatar but with no climbs, that race is a very different affair too. The riders are also very uncertain about what to expect as they head into their first key goal of the year.


Omloop Het Nieuwsblad may have been decided in a sprint finish in past editions but history proves that it is usually a hard man's race. It is no wonder that no more than 3 riders have arrived at the finish to sprint it out for the win in the last seven editions and it is usually the strongest rider that prevails in Ghent.


The key factor in determining the toughness of the race is usually the weather and this year it seems that the conditions will make the race easier than it has been in the past few years. The bright sunshine will be a vast difference from the freezing cold. However, the wind will be pretty strong and that should produce some nervousness and create the opportunity to use the crosswind to make a selection. Hower, there will be a cross-headwind during the flat run back to Ghent and in general it will mostly be a headwind in the finale. This is clearly in favour of the riders that want some kind of sprint finish.


Furthermore, the course changes will have an impact. The addition of Tenbosse and Eikenmolen will definitely be felt as an important recovery section has been skipped in the first part of the race. This means that the riders will be more fatigued by the time they get to the finale. On the other hand, the omission of Molenberg will have a huge impact. The Boembekeberg is much easier and it will be much harder to create a selection here. This will make the Taaienberg and Kruisberg even more important than usual. Finally, the new finish is harder and it will be more about good legs than sprinting skills in the finale.


A few teams have to make the race hard. As usual, Etixx-QuickStep is the key team that most will be focused on and they will have to carry most of the responsibility in the early part of the race. They have Tom Boonen for a sprint but they know that it will be hard to beat Alexander Kristoff. The Belgian team has more cards to play and need to make the race hard to create a situation where they can use their strength in numbers. Expect Boonen to launch his usual attack on the Taaienberg and create the first major selection.


BMC have a formidable team and also need the race to be as hard as possible. The same goes for Lotto Soudal and those three teams will take the initiative. They all have numerous options and can allow themselves to send riders up the right.


However, the weather conditions will have a big impact on the race. The sunny conditions will make things easier but the key factor will be the headwind in the finale and the absence of the Molenberg. This year the race could very well turn out to be a bit less selective than it has been in the past and it is not completely impossible that we will get the first reduced bunch sprint since 2009.


That plays into the hands of Alexander Kristoff. For the second year in a row, the Norwegian has had a fantastic start to the year and in 2016 he has even left the Middle East with an extra win in his pocket. Moreover, he seemed to be at ease in the crosswinds in Qatar where he always made the splits and he did what he had previously deemed impossible: he beat Mark Cavendish in a real bunch sprint. Furthermore, he was even closer to the best on the climbs in Oman.


Based on those facts, it looks like Kristoff is even stronger than he was 12 months ago. However, he has never been very strong in the opening weekend and he openly admits that he has always suffered there. Last year he could only manage 11th and he was not there when the key selection was made.


Kristoff may not be in his Tour of Flanders condition yet but less may be enough. He probably won’t be able to go with the very best on the Taaienberg but usually a regrouping takes place after that. The easier course and conditions should make things more comfortable for him and as there is no Molenberg, he probably has to be dropped after the Wolvenberg as the final part should be manageable for the big Norwegian. Mostly, a rather big group has been in contention at that point and if 20-25 riders are still together, Kristoff should definitely be there. Then it will be hard to get rid of him in the finale.


However, Kristoff has one big disadvantage: his team. Marco Haller is clearly not at his best yet and this year there is no Luca Paolini. However, Viacheslav Kuznetsov has shown great form in the early part of the season and he has the potential to become a great rider for the classics. He will be the key rider that has to be there in the finale to shut down moves and close any dangerous splits [UPDATE: Kuznetsov won't do the race]. Nobody wants to sprint against Kristoff and so he will definitely be under pressure in the finale. However, alliances will be formed due to the circumstances and with a headwind in the final part, it will be much harder for smaller groups to make it to the finish.


The steeper uphill finish will open the door for more riders to beat Kristoff in a sprint but he is also very strong in those conditions. He is generally very hard to beat in a sprint at the end of a hard race and we doubt that anyone has the speed to do so. An in-form Kristoff is our favourite.


Peter Sagan is returning to the opening weekend for the second time in his career and no one really knows how the world champion is going. He hasn’t raced since San Luis and has preferred to follow the failed Sky formula of preparing the classics at altitude. However, he claims to be in good form and in general the consistent Slovakian is always very competitive.


Sagan has had a few difficult classics seasons but he suddenly returned to form at last year’s Tour of California. Since then, he has been his former self and this makes him hard to beat in a race like this. He is one of the best on the climbs and he is great at positioning himself. No one will get rid of the Slovakian in the key sections.


The main issue will be whether he again blows up in the finale. He has often had a hard time at the end of the long races but this race is 60km shorter than a monument. Nonetheless, it could be a problem to stay competitive throughout the entire race at this point of the season. Furthermore, he doesn’t have a very strong team but an in-form Oscar Gatto can turn out to be crucial when it comes to keeping things together in the finale.


Sagan can win the race from every scenario: he will be one of the best in a hard, selective race and he has a chance in a sprint. In a flat finish, he is not as fast as Kristoff but he definitely has a chance in this kind of finish. In general, he is one of the best in an uphill sprint and Kristoff has to be at his very best to beat the world champion.


Etixx-QuickStep have four strong cards: Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh and Tony Martin. The latter three will ride aggressively and we expect them to play the Martin card from far out. Boonen will test his legs on the Taaienberg but will also keep something in reserve for a sprint.


Boonen has not done many classics in recent years and it remains to be seen whether he can return to the top level. Last year his only cobbled races were Omloop and Kuurne and he was competitive in both even though he blew up spectacularly in the finale. There is no doubt that he is no longer the Boonen of 2012 but he is still one of the best in these races.


He ended the 2015 season with a skull fracture and this has hampered his preparations. However, he looked pretty strong in Valencia and was climbing solidly in Algarve. He claims to be in good condition and like Sagan he can win the race in almost every scenario. As we expect, the race to be slightly less selective, he will be the best Etixx-QuickStep card as he can beat most in a sprint. He has proved that he still has the speed to challenge the best and even though he is not as fast as Kristoff or Sagan, he has a chance at the end of a long race.


BMC have a fantastic team as most of their riders can potentially win the race but their best card is of course the ever-consistent Greg Van Avermaet. The Belgian has had his usual good start to the year and was riding solidly in Qatar and Oman. He is still in search of that big classics win but has had to settle for places of honour. However, his consistency means that he is almost guaranteed to end in the top 10 unless bad luck takes him out of contention.


To win the race, Van Avermaet needs a hard race as he is not fast enough to win a sprint from a bigger group. He will definitely lament the easier course and the nice weather. However, BMC have the team to make this race really tough and could easily find themselves with strength in numbers in the finale. Furthermore, Van Avermaet will benefit from the harder uphill finish where he will have a much better chance to come out on top. Last year he beat Sagan in a steeper finale at the Tour and this proves that he has a chance even against the sprinters.


Lotto Soudal have Jurgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot as their best cards. While the former is unlikely to win the race, the latter is heading towards stardom in the classics. Last year he finished fifth in the Tour of Flanders as a neo-pro and this year he has only become stronger. Furthermore, he showed excellent fom in Mallorca and Algarve and even finished 16th in the latter race which included some tough climbing.


Benoot has proved that he can already match the best on the cobbles and he has the fast sprint to finish if off. Of course he is not as fast as the real sprinters and so he needs a selective race. However, we expect him to be there in the finale and if he can get rid of Kristoff, Sagan and Boonen, he can beat most in a sprint.


This could be the only cobbled classic for Philippe Gilbert in 2016 and he will be highly ambitious as he wants to prove to his team that he deserves a chance in Flanders too. He has had a solid start to the year with his win in Murcia and history proves that he can be competitive on the cobbles. However, even in his great 2011 season, he was not at the level of the very best and he needs a bit of luck to win this race. On the other hand, he is part of the strongest team and if BMC have cards in the finale, he will be one of the best to launch an attack. The uphill sprint suits him down to the ground.


As said, we expect BMC to have strength in numbers and while everybody will be watching Gilbert and Van Avermaet, Daniel Oss will be ready to strike. The Italian has flown under the radar in the classics but last year he was amazingly strong at this time of the year. This year he was also very impressive in Oman and he seems to be on track for a great classics campaign. He will be less marked than Van Avermaet and Gilbert and if he can get clear with a few riders, he has the speed to win a sprint.


Niki Terpstra is always competitive in this race and is one of the strongest on the cobbles. However, unlike most of the favourites, he is not very fast in a sprint and this always makes it harder for him to win, especially in a race that has a pretty long flat final section. The headwind won’t make things easier for him but he is still part of one of the strongest teams. If Etixx-QuickStep can create a situation like last year, Terpstra is generally one of the strongest in a race of attrition and won’t be easy to bring back.


Trek are here without Fabian Cancellara and this opens the door for Jasper Stuyven to make his mark. The Belgian is a huge talent for these races but injury prevented him from showing his potential in 2015. Now he is fully fit and he has been impressively strong all year. In the future, he will be up there with the best in these races and he could be so already now. With his fast sprint, he can even finish it off.


Jurgen Roelandts has been close on numerous occasions but it has always been difficult for him to win. He is not as fast as the fastest and he is rarely able to follow the very best on the climbs. However, he is now part of a much stronger Lotto Soudal team which may have as many as three cards in the finale: Benoot, Jens Debusschere and Roelandts. This will give him more opportunities and he still remains very fast in a sprint.


Arnaud Demare still wants to prove himself on the cobbles and he has shown glimpses of his potential. Last year bad luck took him out of contention in all the monuments and so we didn’t really get the chance to see what he can do. He won’t be strong enough to stay with the best on the climbs but he won’t be far off. This year there is a bigger chance of a sprint from a bigger group and if he is there, he is one of the select few that can win this kind of uphill sprint.


Orica-GreenEDGE are here with Jens Keukeleire. With his sixth place in Roubaix in 2015, he has started to show himself at the front end of the monuments but he has had less success in Flanders. However, his potential for the Flemish classics is huge and in theory they should suit him better than Roubaix. His condition is a bit of an unknown as he has arrived straight from a training camp in South Africa. This is new approach to the season for Keukeleire so it remains to be seen how it works out. If it’s successful, he can win this race.


We are curious to see how Giacomo Nizzolo will do here. The Italian has not had any success in the Flemish classics yet but during the last year he has made a lot of progress. He was very impressive in Dubai where he was second behind Lobato in the queen stage and he almost matched Nibali on the climbs in last year’s Tre Valli Varesine. On paper he should be strong in these races as he is great at positioning himself and strong on short climbs. He is not there in a selective race but if it comes down to a sprint from a bigger group, he will be a very dangerous contender on the uphill finishing straight.


***** Alexander Kristoff

**** Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen

*** Greg Van Avermaet, Tiesj Benoot, Philippe Gilbert, Daniel Oss, Niki Terpstra

** Jasper Stuyven, Jurgen Roelandts, Arnaud Demare, Jens Keukeleire, Giacomo Nizzolo

* Jens Debusschere, Sylvain Chavanel, Edward Theuns, Tony Martin, Luke Rowe, Stijn Vandenbergh, Moreno Hofland, Dries Devenyns, Marco Marcato Jempy Drucker, Matthieu Ladagnous, Oliver Naesen



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