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OMLOOP HET NIEUWSBLAD

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
28.02.2015 @ 13:30 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. While an early win is always appreciated and a welcome boost of confidence, however, it has until now been all about warm-up and preparation for the bigger races to come.

 

That all changes in the coming weekend when the professional cycling calendar enters its next phase with 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 happens 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 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 2015 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 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 give 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, it's 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, however, the exceptions as the no more than 3 riders have arrived together at the finish to decide the win in the last 5 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 the race developed into one of those races of attrition as cold weather wreaked havoc on the peloton. A small group of favourites went clear on the hellingen and as it is often the case, the final selection was made of the pave sectors late in the race when fatigue and a lack of team support make it possible to make a race-winning move. After a number of promising attacks had been brought back, Ian Stannard and Greg Van Avermaet escaped and they managed to hold off their chasers before the Brit created a big surprise by beating the usually faster Belgian in the sprint. 24 seconds later Edvald Boasson Hagen made it two Sky riders on the podium when he beat Sep Vanmarcke and Niki Terpstra in a three-rider sprint while the rest of the favourites came in 1.34 too late. Stannard, Van Avermaet and Boasson Hagen will all be back in the race, trying to repeat their successful performance.

 

The course

The 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.

 

The 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 - 200km compared to last year's 198km - but the number of hellingen has gone up from 10 to 11. The Berendries will be back in the early part and will replace the Hostellerie and the Kaperij has been introduced to make the flat section between the Valkenberg and the start of the finale a bit shorter. From the moment, the riders hit the Kruisberg after 132km of racing, the course is identical to last year’s. 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, 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 kick off in earnest after 59km of racing when the riders hit the Haaghoek pave sector that features numerous times on the course. Within the next 10km, the riders tackle the Leberg and the Berendries but they will only serve to test the riders’ legs as things calm down with another flat section after the final of those climbs.

 

After 83km, 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 follow until the next climb, the Valkenberg, and then it is time to pass the feed zone.

 

The riders 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 90km 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 kicks 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 71km 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 now on usually is a very aggressive one with several riders trying to get up the road.

 

The real finale kicks off with 61.5km 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 every year. Tom Boonen has two important places to test his early-season condition: at the Tour of Qatar 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. Last year, however, it was Sep Vanmarcke who won the battle and he will probably challenge Boonen for the honour of making the first key attack in the race.

 

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 56.2 and 53.1km from the finish respectively.  The Wolvenberg leads directly to the series of three short pave sectors Ruiterstraat, Karel Martelstraat, and Holleweg and 45.7km 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 is 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, the Leberg and the Molenberg which come 42.7km and 37.2km from the finish respectively. While the former is not overly difficult, the latter is a nasty, cobbled climb that can do some real damage at this late point of a hard race.

 

Whatever group of favourites remain after the Molenberg will have to work together to stay away during the final flat 37.2km 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 31.1km, 28.5km, and 21.6km from the finish respectively. The former two were the scene of Vandenbergh's crucial attack two year 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. Last year, however, they decisive move was made after the riders had exited the final pave sector.

 

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 on the slightly uphill finishing straight in the centre of Ghent on the thoroughfare of Charles de Kerchovelaan in front of the Citadelpark. There are no major technical issues in the finale as the riders mostly follow a straight road, with the final left-hand turn coming 1.7km from the finish. The final kilometre has an average gradient of around 1.5%.

 

 

 

The weather

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

 

The riders are expected to wake up to beautiful Belgian sunshine and they should get the race off to a very sunny start. As the day goes on, more clouds are a set to appear and rain is forecasted for the evening. However, it is likely to stay dry for the duration of the race. The temperature is expected to reach a maximum of 7-8 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a southerly direction and it is set to increase slightly towards the end of the race. This means that the riders will mainly have a headwind in the flat opening section while there will be a mix of cross-, tail- and headwind as they zigzag their way through the hilly zone. After the Molenberg, the riders will first tackle a cross-tailwind section as they go over the first two pave sectors in the finale and then they turn into a tailwind. There’s a short crosswind section for the Lange Munte pave and then it’s a solid tailwind all the way back to the finish in Ghent, including for the final 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 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 also a very different affair. 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 six 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 a bit easier than it has been in the past few years. 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. Furthermore, there will be a tailwind during the flat run back to Ghent and this is definitely in favour of the attackers. Compared to recent years, a sprint from a bigger group is more likely but the most realistic scenario is a hard edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. From the moment when Tom Boonen or Sep Vanmarcke rips the peloton apart on the Taaienberg, it will be a race of survival, with only the strongest riders emerging at the front when the riders finish the Molenberg and start the final flat section.

 

This means that we have to search for the name of the winner in the pool of the greatest classics specialists that can survive the selection on the climbs and still be strong enough to survive the gradual elimination that is likely to take place on the final pave sectors. A fast finish is certainly no disadvantage as it is rare for a rider to arrive in Ghent on his own. Finally, the level of team support will be crucial as the tactical battle in a small group of favourites usually plays a big role and strength in numbers is very often the deciding factor in the race.

 

In general, the biggest classics specialists haven’t really won any races yet but one name stands out as a major exception. While Tom Boonen had the unusual experience of returning empty-handed from the Middle East, Alexander Kristoff dominated the races in Qatar and Oman, winning three stages and finishing second overall in the former and winning a stage in the latter. The Norwegian has usually had very slow starts to his seasons but after he took a massive step up in 2014, his progress has clearly continued in 2015. Despite travelling to Qatar with very modest expectations, he completely dominated that race and from now on he will only get better.

 

This year Kristoff has huge ambitions for the classics and he claims that he is among the riders that can win the Tour of Flanders. His performance in last year’s edition of the biggest Flemish race proves that he is right. Back then, he was probably the strongest rider in the final part of the race but lacked the confidence to try to stay with the best on the final climbs. Instead, he set off in lone pursuit and he nearly made it back to the four riders that sprinted for the win.

 

However, his slow start to the season means that he has never been a protagonist in Het Nieuwsblad where his best result is last year’s 77th place. Going into the race in great condition, this is set to change in 2015 and he is guaranteed to be a protagonist. He was unpleasantly surprised by his climbing level in Oman where he had expected to be better in the hilly stage 2 and he is unlikely to be able to stay with the very best on the hellingen. He won’t be far behind though and when the decisive group is formed behind the Molenberg, there is a big chance that he will be there. In fact, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad should suit him better than the bigger Flemish classics as it has a longer distance from the top of the final climb to the finish.

 

Kristoff would have preferred a longer distance but at this time of the year, a 200km classic will be a race of attrition and this is where he is one of the best in the world. Unlike most of the favourites, he can win from a number of different scenarios. He is very hard to beat in a sprint at the end of a long hard race and he will be the obvious favourite if the nice weather conditions will make the race less selective. Furthermore, he is brutally strong in the final flat section and it will be very hard for anyone to drop him on the flat pave sectors.

 

His main disadvantage is his team. Luca Paolini is not scheduled to ride and unless Viacheslav Kuznetsov and Alexey Tsatevich really step up, he is likely to be isolated in the finale. He will probably be up against several riders from Etixx-QuickStep and Sky and it will be very hard for him to go with all attacks. Furthermore, no one wants to go to the finish with the Norwegian and this means that most of his moves will probably be doomed. To win the race, Kristoff has to be tactically smart but as he is the strongest rider and can win from several different scenarios, he is our winner pick.

 

Last year Sep Vanmarcke was arguably the strongest rider on the hellingen in all the major classics and it was certainly the case in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. This year he will only have become stronger and we expect him to be the man to beat in the major cobbled classics.

 

For several years, Vanmarcke has been a key contender in the Omloop and this year he again arrives in Ghent with great condition. While most of his rivals have been riding in the Middle East, he has had his usual low-key preparation in the Volta ao Algarve and even though he has achieved no major results, a closer look at the results sheets show that he is riding very well. Vanmarcke climbed really well in a terrain that is usually too hard for him and he was even involved in the attacks in the mountains.

 

Even though he is a past winner, however, the Omloop is a tricky race for Vanmarcke as the final climbs come far from the finish. With Lars Boom having left the team, he is likely to be isolated in the finale and this will make things very complicated for the Belgian. Last year he was involved in almost all the attacking but he missed the move that made it to the finish.  Like Kristoff, he will have a hard time covering all attacks and he may again miss out. In the end, however, it may all come down to who has most left and here the LottoNL-Jumbo may turn out to be the strongest. With his fast sprint, he can win from a small group that makes it to the finish and this makes him an obvious favourite.

 

Last year Greg Van Avermaet underlined his status as a perennial runner-up when he was surprisingly beaten by Ian Stannard in the sprint. However, the race marked the start of a very good campaign for the BMC leade who has clearly become a lot stronger and now goes into every major race as one of the big favourites.

 

Van Avermaet rode very strongly in both Qatar and Oman where he narrowly missed out on a stage victory and nothing suggests that he won’t line up for the race in great condition. If he doesn’t have any kind of bad luck, he will make the final selection and then it will be all about handling the tactical game right. This is the only cobbled classics where he will be riding alongside Philippe Gilbert and with an in-form Marcus Burghardt also on the roster, they could have several cards to play in the finale. This will be a clear advantage for Van Avermaet as they can shut down all dangerous moves, meaning that there is a greater chance that Van Avermaet is in the one that makes it to the finish. He is usually very strong at the end of long races and if he can finally avoid spending too much energy, he has the sprint to beat most of the favourites in the finale.

 

As usual, Etixx-QuickStep go into race with numerous cards to play and the team are guaranteed to have numerous cards to play in the finale. Most of their best riders are in great condition and they should be able to cover all the attacks late in the race. This provides each of their riders with a clear tactical advantage and most of them are capable of winning the race.

 

All eyes will of course be on Tom Boonen but this time their Belgian star may not be their best winner option. Instead, Zdenek Stybar seems to be in incredible condition and a number of circumstances suggest that he will have a better chance than his team leader. While Boonen will probably have to wait for a sprint finish as only Kristoff would want to bring him to the line, Stybar has a bigger chance of making it into the move that sticks. After finishing third in the Vuelta a Murcia and mixing it up with the very best in the Volta ao Algarve where the terrain should actually be too tough for him, he doesn’t seem to have been set back by his long recovery from injury and he clearly has the condition to be there in the end. Furthermore, he is very fast in a sprint – just remember how he has won stages of the Eneco Tour and the Vuelta a Espana in the past – and this means that he will be a very good winner candidate if he makes the right move in the finale.

 

Of course Boonen remains a strong candidate in the only cobbled classic he hasn’t won. He may not be as strong as he once was but he is still one of the very best for these races. He seems to be in very good condition and this year he probably climbed better than ever before in Oman. Furthermore, he will benefit from the warmer temperatures as his skinny body usually suffers in the cold.

 

However, Boonen faces a number of challenges. Firstly, only a select few riders want to go on the attack with the Belgian and unless he can go into a solo move, he probably has to rely on a sprint from a smaller group. Here Kristoff is likely to be a key rival and Boonen will have a hard time beating the Norwegian. On the other hand, a rider like Vanmarcke has beaten Boonen in a sprint in the past and so he may be willing to drag the Etixx leader to the finish line. Boonen definitely has a few options but as he is no longer the fastest of the favourites, things will be more complicated.

 

The third Etixx-QuickStep weapon is Niki Terpstra but he has a harder time than both Stybar and Boonen. Compared to most of the favourites, the Paris-Roubaix winner is not very fast and this means that he probably has to arrive alone at the finish. However, Etixx-QuickStep usually have so many cards to play that Terpstra will find himself in a great position to go on the attack. In Qatar, he proved that he is excellent condition and in Roubaix he proved how he can benefit from his team to make a solo move.

 

This year Philippe Gilbert will briefly return to the cobbles for this single race and as a former podium finisher in the Tour of Flanders, he is an obvious contender. His good performances in Qatar and Haut Var clearly indicate that he is riding very strongly at the moment and he should be able to make the selection. With Van Avermaet at his side, he will have a few cards to play and there is a solid chance that he will make the move that sticks. Van Avermaet will be the protected rider in case of a sprint finish but from a small move, Gilbert has the speed to win.

 

Last year Ian Stannard took a memorable win in Ghent but that turned out to be the highlight of an injury-marred season. This year he is back in the races that he loves and he seems to be riding extremely well. In Qatar, he was stronger than ever before and there is no doubt that he will be a key contender in all the major classics. As he is part of a strong Sky team, he will have options in the finale and he should be eager to go on the attack. He is not very fast in a sprint but last year he proved that the usual hierarchy may be changed at the end of a tough race.

 

Sky have another very good card to play as they line up Luke Rowe for the race. Last year the Brit showed signs of his talents on the cobbles and this year he is evidently a lot stronger. He rode very well in Qatar and he is set for a breakthrough in the classics. Compared to Stannard, he is faster in a sprint and this will provide him with a bigger chance if makes the right move in the finale.

 

Sylvain Chavanel had a disastrous 2014 classics campaign and this year he hopes to turn things around. However, he seems to come into these races in very good condition as he finished in the top 10 in the Vuelta a Andalucia which is usually way too hard for him. Unfortunately, he usually needs a few classics to find his legs on the cobbles but with his good form, things may be different this time. He knows how to attack in the finale and has a fast sprint to finish it off.

 

A few years ago, Jurgen Roelandts looked like he would become one of the big classics riders but the Belgian has had a hard time living up to the expectations. This year, however, he has finally been giving carte blanche to prepare the way he wants and he no longer has to do lead-out for André Greipel in the first part of the season. This means that he goes into this race with less racing in his legs and he doesn’t seem to be as strong as he usually is, with the later classics being his major targets. However, he is very strong in these kinds of races and with a fast sprint and a bit of luck, he may come away with the win.

 

Last year Edvald Boasson Hagen was one of the strongest riders in this race but his third place turned out to be the highlight in a dismal year. Now he has added a bit more weight and gone back to the way he used to prepare for the biggest races and this seems to pay off. He climbed solidly in Oman and even though he is not at his former level yet, he seems to be stronger than he has been for a couple of years. With his fast sprint, he is an obvious contender if he makes the right move in the finale.

 

Two years Matthieu Ladagnous had an excellent classics campaign but after a crash in Qatar, he was not at his best for last year’s cobbled races. Now he is back at 100% and he seems to be incredibly strong at the moment. He rode really well in Haut Var where he finished fourth overall and this means that he is likely to be there in the finale. At the end of a hard race, he has a fast sprint – especially when it is slightly uphill – and so he may come away with the win if he makes the right move.

 

Heinrich Haussler seems to be back to his best after a couple of dismal years and he could be going into a good classics campaign. However, he lines up at this race as a bit of a dark horse as he wasn’t originally scheduled to do the race. IAM claim that he is mainly there to get a feeling for the cobbles again but he may create a surprise. He rode really well in Qatar and if he can get close to his 2009 level, he will be one of the strongest in these races.

 

UPDATE: Jurgen Roelandts has fallen ill and won't take the start

 

***** Alexander Kristoff

**** Sep Vanmarcke, Greg Van Avermaet

*** Zdenek Stybar, Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert

** Ian Stannard, Sylvain Chavanel, Jurgen Roelandts, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Luke Rowe, Matthieu Ladagnous, Henrich Haussler

* Jempy Drucker, Nikias Arndt, Arnaud Demare, Dries Devenyns, Marcus Burghardt, Marco Marcato, Edward Theuns Salvatore Puccio, Bradley Wiggins, Matteo Trentin, Stijn Vandenbergh, Johan Le Bon, Tiesj Benoot, Ramon Sinkeldam, Björn Thurau, Maciej Paterski, Tyler Farrar, Reinardt van Rensburg, Angelo Tulik, Björn Leukemans

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