Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2017 Preview – Ciclismo Internacional

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2017 Preview

By David Hunter

Gent – Gent 198.3km

The traditional start of the cycling season.

It’s great to see these climbs and cobble sectors again, welcome back my old friends!

The racing really begins around the Kruisberg, at 129km. From that point the peloton will be at full gas as they all look to be in front for the Taaienberg. This can be the most important point in the race.

Crucial Moments

Taaienberg – 530m at 6.6%, with a maximum of 15.8%. It is on cobbles, but everyone takes the gutter. Despite being with 60km to go, the crucial move went here last year. It is a point where everyone wants to be at the front, go full gas up the climb, then you look around and see who’s with you. Usually marks the start of the real racing.

Eikenberg – 1.2km at 5.2%, with a maximum of 10%. Usually not as crucial as the Taaienberg, but I think it’s harder. The length of climb does make it possible to drop riders.

Haaghoek – 2km of cobbles, although riders can take to the grass verge. Etixx used this point to split the race back in 2015. It’s a hugely important sector of cobbles, as it leads straight into a hard climb.

Leberg – 950m at 4.2%, with a maximum of 13.8%. Coming straight after the Haaghoek makes this a really demanding climb. On paper, it’s the easiest of the climbs I’ve mentioned, but legs are tired at this point in the race.

The Run For Home

The last climb, the Molenberg, comes with 36km to go. We do still have three sectors of cobbles left, but these are not that difficult and it’s hard to drop another rider. We then have a long road north back to Gent. Depending on the situation in the race, moves can go at any point on the road home. Last year, a strong headwind stopped Tiesj Benoot from attacking out of the lead group.

The Finale

A right hand turn leads into the uphill sprint. The last 400m rises at around 3%. If it’s all together coming into the final straight, we’re in for an exciting finish.

Contenders

Edward Theuns – the local boy. He was disappointed with his performance in 2016, the main problem was his positioning for the Taaienberg. After a good recover from injury, he arrives as one of the team leader’s, Jasper Stuyven will also be protected. Theuns is one of those great riders that likes to attack and not just wait for a sprint, where he would also have a great chance.

Luke Rowe – after a successful period in Australia, the Sky boys are back in Belgium. Rowe was particularly impressive, finishing 5th in the Cadel race and taking a stage in the Sun Tour. He was great here in 2016, it was his move that forced the break on the Taaienberg. He is now growing into a senior role with the team, I expect a big win from him in the near future.

Ian Stannard – the last two times he’s raced here, he’s won! He missed the 2016 edition, but he’s back to see if he can win his third crown. Like Rowe, he also had a good time in Australia, taking a win in the Sun Tour. Stannard is a beast of a rider and starts the race as one of the big favourites. I get the feeling, he would like a tough day.

Oli Naesen – I’m really looking forward to seeing what Oli can do in this race. He just missed the crucial move in 2016 and needs to ensure he is positioned well for the Taaienberg. Now riding for AG2R, he will have support, which should help him in key points of the race. He ended 2016 as one of the strongest riders in the peloton, I hope he starts 2017 in the same way. If he arrives in a small group, he packs a fast finish.

Lars Boom – back at Lotto Jumbo, I hope we see the best of Boom. At his very best, he is a massive threat, but it’s been a while since he’s been at that level. The team do have other options to play, their back-up plan is riding for a sprint with Dylan Groenewgen. That frees Boom up to ride aggressively.

Alexander Kristoff – he took one win in Besseges, then three in Oman. The Norwegian is doing what he normally does, starting the season in fine form. This is a race he never performs well in, his best finish was 11th in 2015. Most years you’ll see him roll over the line around 100th place, before focusing his efforts on Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. If he gets dropped early, the team do have other options in Sven Erik Bystrom, Tony Martin and Viacheslav Kuznetsov.

Tiesj Benoot – in great early season form. The young Belgian is another local to the area and knows every inch of the course. He was very impressive in 2016, finishing 3rd behind Van Avermaet and Sagan. After picking up the white jersey in Volta ao Algarve, he has been resting up ahead of this race. Could this be his first pro win? He’d certainly be a very popular winner.

Arnaud Demare – the Frenchman has started the season well, already picking up two wins and a sensation TT performace in Algarve. Winner of Milan-San Remo in 2016, he really should be contending in races like this. Good on the climbs and handles himself on cobbles, the chances of him doing well are good. Going against him is a lack of support in his team. If Demare is to win, he’ll have to be lucky as well as strong.

Tom Boonen – we still don’t know how much his crash in Oman has slowed him down. This race is missing from his palmarés, quite something considering the races he’s won. Riding for Quick-Step ensures that Boonen will have a say in the outcome of this race, no matter what happens. He started the season in great form, having trained very hard throughout the winter. While all other riders have to carefully manage their season, Boonen is going full gas until April. That does put him ahead of the others, in terms of condition.

Niki Terpstra – his performances in 2016 were not up to his usual high standard, so I expect him to start 2017 with a bang. The Dutchman is a master of poor conditions, he’ll be hoping for rain and wind on Saturday. He lacks a sprint, so needs to attack from distance, if he wants to win. His presence strengthens the Quick-Step hand, but we need to wait and see what role he fills.

Peter Sagan – he started the season well in the Tour Down Under and has recently just completed an altitude camp. Remember that in 2016, despite always being involved, Sagan didn’t actually win until Gent-Wevelgem. I wonder what his current shape is like? His team don’t look the strongest, but this isn’t new for the world champion. He will be attentive as usually and race at the very front for the closing 60km.

Greg Van Avermaet – the current champion and a very consistent rider in this race. He surprised many by out-sprinting Sagan in 2016, it just shows that you can never underestimate how fast he is. BMC will look to deliver to the front of the race for the Taaienberg, then they will take stock. He can handle himself from the break, but the team won’t be happy if he is outnumbered by Quick-Step. If the race comes back together, he is now good at timing his attacks. Van Avermaet can win this race anywhere inside the final 60km!

How Do You Beat Sagan & Van Avermaet?

There are a few teams that simply outnumber and outclass the others. QuickStep and Team Sky are the strongest looking squads. No surprises there then! They have to try and send riders up the road, isolating GVA and Sagan. Both arrive with strong teams, but neither squad has the strength of QuickStep and Sky. However, these two often use attack as the best form of defence. Last year, they attacked on the Taaienberg and never came back.

When you are riding against two riders of their strength it is very hard to beat them. If I was the DS of QuickStep, I would attack on the Taaienberg and try to place three men in the front group, but I would also want the bunch to stay within distance. The problem with having multiple men in the front group is the burden of expectancy. If you have numbers, the pressure is on to work.

I would then get the front three riders to rotate attacks, trying to slow down the main favourites. If you get away solo, brilliant! If you think you’ll lose a sprint, instruct the riders in the peloton to start chasing and reset. Put bluntly, it’s bloody difficult to beat Sagan and Van Avermaet.

Weather

Weather prediction in this part of the world seems to be very difficult! Everyday the forecast seems to change, at the moment they are saying dry, with the wind coming from the south-west. That does mean crosswind for a large section of the race, but we’ll have to see if it splits it up. Even though it’s dry, this week has been very wet in Gent. That means the cobbles will be slippy and very exciting to watch!

Prediction Time

A move will go on the Taaienberg, but I’m not sure it will be the winning move. We have so many riders already on good form, we could see a different race to previous years. I struggled to narrow my contenders list down and I’m struggling to pick a winner. Given the strength of their squads, I think the winner will come from Quick-Step or Team Sky. Given that he seems ahead of others at this point, I think that Tom Boonen will eventually win his first Omloop crown.

Here is my video preview with Michael Valgren https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXUrOnGtd0c&feature=youtu.be

David Hunter

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