Opening Weekend Preview… Back to the Cobbles!

    Culture check… it’s nice to see lots of evidence around the sport of cycling that this remains “opening weekend,” despite plenty of evidence to the contrary that, well, people are racing their bikes already. At the UCI level. World Tour even. Because I am old, I can remember the Tour of Qatar from the mid-aughts, when guys would go down there and soft-pedal for a few hours until it was time for Tom Boonen to sprint. Now… I would not be so dismissive of the action we have seen in Spain, Portugal, France, and even the UAE. Guys are racing their bikes pretty hard, and if we are overreacting to those early season results, it’s simply not as ridiculous as it used to be.

    It is still an overreaction, though, since it’s a long season and results tend to reflect who is ahead or behind, accidentally and/or on purpose, in their training. Josh Tarling is ahead, can we agree on that? Maybe Jay Vine too? And definitely Tim Merlier, unless you want to note that he’s always pretty fast in February, so perhaps he is simply on time. Wout Van Aert is definitely behind, with seven race starts and only one win! The shame of it all.

    Riders passing the Pont d’Arc in the Ardèche region
    Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

    Anyway, this weekend we have the opening of Belgium classics racing at the Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, in addition to the Faun Ardèche Classic and the Faun Drôme Classic, two races in the adjoining Ardèche and Drôme regions of southeastern France, between Lyon and Marseilles. The Tour de France passes through both regions relentlessly, either entering or leaving the Alps phase, and often with spectacular action for those middle-mountain stage-chasing days. Both of this weekend’s classics feature plenty of climbs, with longer climbs to nearly 700m altitude on Saturday, and shorter, punchy bits at lower altitudes on Sunday. The “Faun” in Faun Ardèche and Faun Drôme is a company that makes… garbage trucks? Anyway, garbage collection is not as sexy as business time, but it’s still very important.

    On the women’s side, it’s an equally busy weekend, and more definitively the start of real hostilities, with the Omloop and its companion race, the Omloop van het Hageland, running Saturday and Sunday, plus the Clasica de Almeria in Spain. The Hageland is an old name for an area in Flemish Brabant. Here is an absolutely classic Belgian map that explains perfectly where the Hageland is.

    Het Hageland

    Or, like most Belgian maps, it explains perfectly why you should never ask anyone, not even a Belgian, to explain their political geography.

    The Omloop Still Can’t Predict De Ronde

    Coming into this weekend, which kicks off the Cobbled Classics, we should take it all with a few grains of salt, insofar as the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has still yet to predict the Ronde van Vlaanderen winner, not even once, in its previous 78 editions. I saw at least one article debunking the notion that it can’t be done simply because of their respective places on the calendar, five weeks apart. The argument there is that we do see riders finishing high up in both races, so clearly it’s possible to be fit enough to win in both late February and early April. OK, but not many guys are on that schedule — or put another way, just because it’s possible doesn’t make it a good idea.


    Photo by JASPER JACOBS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

    Other reasons why no Omloop winner has ever won Flanders would be that the Omloop teams aren’t just not featuring their main guy, they are looking to give some run to other riders. We have seen this often enough where a mildly surprising Omloop winner talks afterwards about how he wanted to repay his team for giving him a chance — not something the van der Poels of the world have to point out anymore. The point is that it’s a long year for team-building too, and you can accomplish a lot by letting the young dogs off the leash at this weekend’s events.

    And then there are those extra 60km at Flanders. The Omloop should never be confused with a Monument, in terms of the effort involved. Even if it were raced at April speeds, having two fewer hours in the saddle changes who can win. And lastly… welcome to the Spring Classics. Expect the Unexpected.

    Ronde 2017, the Muur van Geraardsbergen

    Tim de Wael/Getty Images

    De Muur, De Merrier

    A lot of older cycling fans are gonna need the Fainting Couch this weekend. We may even need to construct an entire Fainting Stadium for everyone who is set to be overwhelmed with emotions at the sight of the peloton racing, really racing, over the Muur van Geraardsbergen on Saturday.

    The Muur, of course, was long a feature of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, to the point where it had its own recurring characters along the roadside.

    Tom Boonen and Screaming Guy
    Lars Ronbog, Getty

    Grace Verbeke on the Muur

    Grace Verbeke and Colnago Sweater Guy

    Now that it’s the penultimate ascent of the Omloop, the Muur is gone but hardly forgotten. It does occasionally show up at De Ronde still, most recently in 2017 when Philippe Gilbert made his seemingly-suicidal-but-really-race-winning move on the famed hill, the first time that had occurred since the 2010 Ronde when Boonen got dropped by Cancellara right in front of my stupid American tourist face.

    Boonen vs Cancellara. 2010 RvV Kapelmuur

    Boonen vs Cancellara. 2010 RvV Kapelmuur
    ef2204 PdC Photogroup

    [Borrowing fainting couch again.]

    Ten meters later, there was a gap, and the rest is history. Oh, and did I mention that the only other time I made the hump from Seattle to Flanders for de Ronde was 2017? The implications, of course, are that if you want the Tour of Flanders to be decided on its (arguably) most beautiful hill, get my ass to Flanders.

    Anyway, I can’t say if the Muur will decide Saturday’s Omloop, but it will certainly separate the wheat from the chaff. It has been a mini-old Flanders since 2018, before which it was famously Gent’s big classic, with a finish in the city for a while, and then on the outskirts (Sint-petersplein?), before yielding to the awesome powers of Ronde Nostalgia.

    2024 Omloop

    So… is this a good thing? It depends on what sort of racing you want to see. The knock on a Muur-Bosberg finish is that the entire race just stays focused on the last two climbs, but that was always up for debate during the Ronde days, and the race was won all sorts of different ways. Last year was a perfect example of how of course the Muur matters but is hardly the place where everyone has to attack. Winner Dylan van Baarle attacked coming off the Muur, one move of several reshufflings, before staying away for the win. The Muur, at 1.2km of mostly hard climbing with a couple places to catch one’s breath, will be on everyone’s mind, but the race will be raced before and after too.

    How Bout The Ladies?

    Some key differences between the Men’s and Women’s event are that the latter is just 127km, 75 fewer than the men, and that you can expect pretty much a star-studded battle no matter what. I don’t stay in close enough contact with the women’s scene to offer analysis, but my hunch is that the shorter distance and the fewer events with this high a profile just helps turn up the action. Here’s the race profile:

    Omloop WE 2024

    The last couple hours mirror the men, and the old Ronde, so however you look at it, this is an incredibly exciting event. Add in all the stars — Balsamo, the SD Worx stars, Niewiadoma, Vos are the headliners — and there is no part of Saturday’s coverage that you will want to miss. Last year Lotte Kopecky kicked off her season-long rampage with a solo win here, while her teammate Demi Vollering won the sprint for second. Balsamo and Trek should offer the most resistance this time, coming in off a win in Valencia and with Elisa Long Borghini and a hopefully revived Lizzie Deignan, the 2012 winner, by her side, making this a two-superteam showdown.

    18th Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite 2023 - Women’s Elite

    Kopecky alone in 2023
    Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

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