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The wait is almost over and the cobbles are nearly here.
Nearly two months of pavé bashing will begin Saturday and Sunday with the opening weekend.
With flyaway races dominating the early-season landscape, and a host of other events already undertaken in Europe, the two-day romp through the Flemish countryside is no longer the start of the cycling season, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.
It kicks off the classics season and begins the storylines that we’ll see continue to develop across the spring.
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The opening weekend consists of four races, two for the men and two for the women.
Both will race Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which now has equal prize money for both races, on the Saturday before a split schedule on Sunday. It’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne for the men, while the women head east for Omloop van het Hageland.
The weekend often provides a heady mix of classics stars and sprinters that lends itself to some unpredictable racing.
What to expect in the men’s races
We’re going to have to wait a little bit longer for the resumption of the Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel rivalry with both riders look set to skip the weekend. The pair locked horns throughout the final months of the cyclocross season and gave us a dramatic finale to the world championships.
Their road racing return can’t come soon enough.
Jumbo-Visma still boasts a top-tier team that lit up the opening weekend in 2022. Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte will once again be let off the leash, along with new signing Dylan van Baarle. All three are making their season debut at the race and will be keen to make an impact.
There is a strong North American men’s contingent heading to Belgium this weekend with six U.S. riders and four Canadians. Magnus Sheffield (Ineos Grenadiers) is back after an impressive classics campaign last season, but there are some surprise entries in there too.
Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) arrives hot off the heels of the first stage and GC wins his career at the Tour of Oman. After having a go in his debut season with Movistar back in 2020, Jorgenson asked the team management to send him back to Belgium for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
Joining Jorgenson and Sheffield is opening weekend rookie Kevin Vermaerke (Team DSM). The 22-year-old has a busy classics season planned as he looks to build on his experiences from last year.
The other North Americans descending on Belgium this weekend are Lawson Craddock (Jayco-AlUla), Guillaume Boivin (Israel-Premier Tech), and the Human Powered Health quartet of Stephen Bassett, Pier-André Coté, Adam de Vos, and Ben Perry.
Jorgenson isn’t the only GC rider having a go this weekend with Bauke Mollema dipping his toe into the cobbles for Trek-Segafredo.
There will be one less climb to ride compared to last year’s race, but the denouement will still come on the tricky combination of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg.
The clash with the UAE Tour this weekend will provide for an interesting dynamic in the men’s races, particularly Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne where the fast men often dominate. Soudal Quick-Step has drafted in Fabio Jakobsen for last year’s race, while Groupama-FDJ and UAE Team Emirates have Arnaud Démare and Pascal Ackermann respectively, but the sprint field is not as heavy as it might be without the clash.
Could this help any breakaway hopefuls? We’ll have to wait and see.
What to expect in the women’s races
Over on the women’s side, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has been promoted to the WorldTour. It was already a pretty prestigious race for the women, but the promotion adds a little more to it and the additional points on offer won’t hurt.
It is a star-studded start list for Saturday with all of the top riders set to race. A few extra kilometers of have been added to the race route, but it remains to be seen if it makes any real difference.
Annemiek van Vleuten is the headline act after her victory over Demi Vollering last season. She comes to the race after finishing fourth at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana last week, her first non-podium finish in a stage race since 2020.
Was that performance a one-off or does Van Vleuten need a little more time to hit her real peak? That’s a question we may have answered by the end of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Perhaps the most interesting question for “ONH” this weekend is how will SD Worx manage its plethora of top riders. The team has always had this problem, but it seems much more pronounced this year with the signing of Lorena Wiebes.
Wiebes third at last year’s race and definitely has the skills to take a win with the support of her team. How much will SD Worx dedicate to the Dutch speedster and how much will they dedicate to going on the attack?
Amidst all of this, it is Trek-Segafredo that has been the dominant force so far this year. How they approach the race could dictate how things play out across the whole weekend.
Omloop van het Hageland has been the second event of the opening weekend since 2005. Over that time, the race has more often than not been won by a sprinter, but it’s more than your average sprint contest.
While Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne regularly sees big bunch gallops, Omloop van het Hageland is usually contested from fairly small groups as the peloton splits over the narrow cobbled sectors.
Most of the biggest sprinters in the pack will be in attendance, including defending champion Marta Bastianelli, Wiebes, and Emma Johansson all on the start list.