Big guns lining up for Belgian season openers

Spring classics season clicks into gear this weekend with a pair of “semi-classics” that will serve as an appetizer for the coming weeks

Photo: Graham Watson

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Spring classics season clicks into gear this weekend with a pair of “semi-classics” that will serve as an appetizer of what lies in store in the coming weeks.

Many of the top names that promise to be protagonists in the cobblestone classics will trek to Gent Saturday morning for the season-opener of the Belgian calendar with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (former Het Volk). Some teams will switch out riders for the more sprint-friendly Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne on Sunday, but what’s sure is that everyone is starting to rev up their engines for the season’s first monuments.

Sebastian Langeveld (GreenEdge) lines up with the No. 1 as defending champion after his thrilling duel with 2010 champion Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), who pipped the Spaniard by centimeters in a photo finish.

BMC brings its big dogs, with former winners Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd leading the squad backed by Marcus Burghardt, Alessandro Ballan and Taylor Phinney.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step brings some horsepower with Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Gerald Ciolek. Flecha leads a motivated Team Sky outfit that also includes Michael Barry, Bernard Eisel and Chris Sutton, who replaces a sick Edvald Boasson Hagen.

Lars Boom and Matti Breschel lead Rabobank while Heinrich Haussler, David Millar and Paris-Roubaix champion Johan Vansummeren headline Garmin-Barracuda.

There’s a strong North American contingent, with Dominique Rollin (FDJ-Big Mat), David Veilleux (Europcar), Joe Eldridge (Team Type 1-Sanofi) and SpiderTech bringing a full North American squad.

The 204km “omloop” tackles some of the cobblestone sections that will be featured in April’s Tour of Flanders and some of the hills around Gent dubbed the “Flanders Ardennes,” though they are not nearly as long nor as steep as the real Ardennes featured in Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April.

The route hits the Haaghoek cobbled climb three times as well as traverses the Leberg sector and a new climb at Valkenberg. Other climbs include the Tenbosse, Kruisberg, Eikenberg and Wolvenberg.

The punishing hills in the high early-season race tend to break up the bunch, and there’s the third and final passage over the Haaghoek as the day’s 10th and final climb. Three rough cobblestone sections on the flats can also put the pack past the breaking point.

Sprinters have more chances in Sunday’s 198km KBK, which features eight climbs and plenty of cobbles, but typically finishes in a reduced bunch sprint.

Chris Sutton (Sky) lines up as defending champion, though world champion teammate Mark Cavendish will be the five-star favorite if he can make it over the early “bergs” that tend to break up the pack. Hushovd and Gilbert will skip KBK, but Boonen will be trying to become the first rider to win the race three times.

Several other sprinters who skip Saturday’s fun will be lining up, including Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol).

Long gone are the days when pros use these early season races as preparation for the spring classics. This weekend’s battles should clearly reveal who’s in fighting shape to challenge for Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix in the coming weeks.

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