After a winter of anticipation, fans flock to see their home teams open up their…
When a cycling team comes to town, the Belgians are ready. They gather by the streets to take pictures of the teams and stop their cars in the middle of the roads so they can wave to their local heroes. Children gather on the “bergs” (or climbs in Flemish) to cheer on riders. They live and breathe cycling— and this phenomenon is on full display on the eve of “Opening Weekend.”
“Opening Weekend”, which features the Omloop Het-Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, marks the start of the Spring Classics. The double-header delivers full-on attritional racing on the Cobbled hellingen (‘little hills’) of the Flemish countryside, the beating heart of professional road cycling this time of year.
Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad starts from Gent and will see the riders tackling 200 kilometres in the saddle, over 13 hills, including the iconic Muur-Kapelmuur and the Bosberg, en route to the finish line in Ninove.
We line up with a mixed squad of young talent and experienced riders. Sebastian Langeveld, the 2011 winner of the race, will race the Omloop for the 12th time in his career and is as eager as ever to kick off his classics season.
“I used to watch these races as a kid with my father and it was always a big moment. The hard-core fans live and breathe cycling and really look forward to the cobbled classics. As a rider I no longer get as nervous as I did in the past but the excitement level is still very present,” said Langeveld.
Cobblestones have played an intrinsic part of Flemish bike racing culture for decades. The brutality of the rough pavé, often matched with equally harsh and inclement weather, provide a heart-racing backdrop to fierce racing among classics specialists.
“These days, it’s game on from start to finish and you have to be 100 percent focused the whole day. Almost the entire field is able to do a proper race while 10 years ago, when I started, there were 40 to 50 riders at maximum who were able to ride the final. The last couple of years in the classics it’s been full gas from the start, but there are still points in the race where things really take off,” explained Langeveld. “In Omloop the route has changed a bit in the last few years and we’re basically doing the final of Flanders with the Muur and the Bosberg. That’s a crucial part of the race. If you can survive those climbs you can make a good selection there.”
After the Omloop, it’s the 73rd edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday, which provides the second taste of cobblestones in 24 hours. The course features a total of 12 climbs including the Oude-Kwaremont and is traditionally more sprinter friendly.
“Staff and riders alike have a kind of love-hate relationship with the Cobbled Classics. On the one hand these are historical and beautiful races in a country where cycling is absolutely alive. On the other hand, they are such hard races in terms of equipment and logistics where everything has to be planned and executed perfectly, but still it can all be over in a split second due to a mechanical or a flat tire at the wrong moment,” explains DS Andreas Klier. “These races show more often their brutal side than their beauty but you can clearly see the disappointment on the faces of riders if you tell them they’re not riding a certain cobbled classic that year.”
Joining Langeveld in EF Education–NIPPO roster for the Opening Weekend are seasoned Classics riders Jens Keukeleire, Mitch Docker, Moreno Hofland, and Tom Scully. Young guns Jonas Rutsch and Julius van den Berg complete the motivated seven-rider line-up.
“I think the team will race with a free mindset, try to enjoy the races, and who knows, maybe someone punches the lucky ticket? We will try to make the best out of it looking ahead to the bigger classics later on,” Klier said. “The race dynamics have changed quite a lot in the past few years. In Omloop you have a long run in before the first obstacles come up but that doesn’t mean that I can say ‘Ok we only focus from the Molenberg onwards’. There comes a moment where you’re basically jumping from one hurdle to the next and you need very good legs to stay in the picture. I expect very open and aggressive races, with early cuts in the peloton which may already be decisive.”
Finally, the Classics are here.
Our roster for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne Brussels Kuurne:
- Mitchell Docker (AUS)
- Moreno Hofland (NED)
- Jens Keukeleire (BEL)
- Sebastian Langeveld (NED)
- Jonas Rutsch (GER)
- Thomas Scully (NZL)
- Julius Van Den Berg (NED)