Oscar Smith reports on the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the gloriously unpredictable Classics season opener.
The classics season has well and truly got underway with two Belgian classics races crammed into one weekend of racing. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend kicked off the Flandrian classics season, taking in all the cobbles and Flemish hills that the organisers could cram into 200km. Starting and finishing in Ghent, the birthplace of Bradley Wiggins, this year the riders had to cope with 13 hills and 18km of gruelling Belgian blocks on their way through the rolling countryside.
Though most of the action was expected to take place on one of the infamous cobbled climbs, either the Leberg or the mighty Muur van Geraardsbergen (with sections of road at a 20% gradient), the real action took place on the shorter Taaienberg. It was there that Luke Rowe launched an attack, which went clear with only a few riders, but would become the decisive move of the day. A breakaway group of eight riders, including the respected classics rider Greg Van Avermaet, formed, and managed to build a small gap over the peloton.
A large crash at 40km left the peloton in tatters allowing the breakaway group to establish a substantial lead, which at one point reached five and a half minutes. World Champion, Peter Sagan, saw the danger and managed to bridge the gap across to the breakaway group.
Although the peloton, led by the experienced Ettix-QuickStep and Katusha teams, began to gain back some time on the breakaway, the leaders held on to a tiny gap and by the final kilometre it was clear to see it was going to be a two horse race between Sagan and Van Avermaet in the sprint. Van Avermaet made his move around the final bend and the world champion was unable to follow. So, to the delight of the locals and despite excellent rides by both Rowe and Sagan, the Omloop was finally won by a Belgian, after three years of British and Italian victories.
After the race, Rowe said he had "mixed emotions", adding," To finish fourth and miss out on the podium is disappointing".
The victorious Van Avermaet said of the win, “It was really important for me to win the first Classics race of the season.” He also looked forward to the rest of his classics season saying, “My main goal is still the Tour of Flanders and to have this win already in my pocket is the best way to start the season”.