Saturday 1st March,
The 69th running of the Het Volk, now known as the Omloop Het Niewsblad after the newspaper that sponsors it, takes place this Saturday. The iconic and chaotic Kapelmuur returns for the first time in three years following its removal last year because of roadworks.
It's a race for hardmen, who thrive on the cobbles and in the cold, as coming on the 1st day of March there is the possibility of foul weather. It was nearly cancelled last year due to snow, but it survived (K-B-K the next day didn't make it though). It is a prelude and a prep to the monuments to come in the weeks ahead. It's like a dress rehearsel for the Tour of Flanders, with many of the roads and hills shared by the two races. It's the first big one day race in Europe and it's going to be exciting!
A look at the list of winners tell's you all you need to know about what sort of rider is suited to this race - Merckx, Maertens, Museeuw, Gilbert, Ballerini, Hushovd, Steels, Paolini.. Hard men, strong men. Being Belgian helps - Seamus Elliott of Ireland in 1959 was the first and only foreigner to win the race in its first 20 years, and in its first 60 years, only 7 foreigners triumphed over the Belge.
More recently the Belgians have found it harder going, winning only two of the last seven runnings. The most surprising ommission from the list of winners though is the name of Tom Boonen, who has yet to claim the top step of the podium. Outsprinted in 2012 by Sep Vanmarcke, then of Garmin- Barracuda and 10th in 2011. Despite having a section of cobbles named after him (the Taaienberg is also known as the Boonenberg) he has yet to win it. With the start to the season he has had, he has to be on the shortlist of favourites though this year, although the competition is going to be fierce and he has his eye on bigger prizes in a month or so.
Being so early in the season makes it difficult to know who exactly will be really going for it, or who is thinking about the bigger prizes further along their race schedules. How far in to the red will those with ambitions for the monuments really want to push themselves? Some also are possibly fatigued a little after all the travelling and racing in various parts of the world, Boonen himself remarked recently that he had almost ridden the equivalent of a Grand Tour already this year! It could then be the sort of race where team-mates like Stybar get to have a go.
The weather can play a major part in how the race unflolds, as if the temperature is really cold, there is the complication for the riders of trying to keep warm, then having to peel off layers as the race heats up. So far the weather forecast doesn't appear to be so bad, with temperatures of 10º predicted, with a chance of rain. Winds of 15mph coming from the west shouldn't bother them too much but will mean they should have a slight tailwind on the home stretch.
The route is very similar to last year's with the notable difference of the re-inclusion of the Kapelmuur - a regular component of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen until it was removed in 2011. Although it comes very early in the race (after only 84kms) it could still cause some to lose touch, if those up front really put the hammer down. You would have to imagine though that the break of the day will be cresting it alone 3 or 4 minutes ahead of the peloton.
The riders tackle 199km on the route between Merelbeke and Ghent and cross 10 hills and 14 cobbled sections along the way. That's two fewer climbs than last year but it also sees the return of the infamous Mur de Grammont, also known as the Mur de Gerardsbergen, the Kapelmuur or simply the 'Muur' or 'wall'. They hit the Muur after 84km so it's scope for doing real damage is limited to maybe causing some weaker riders to lose touch or launch some early hopefuls up the road to act as carrots for the big teams to chase. The first cobbled section doesn't come until 56km in with the Haaghoek, and that's followed quickly by the first two climbs of the day.
With nearly 100km gone things start to heat up with the passing of the Valkenburg and then the second of three times over the Haaghoek as they head in to the tougher south-west corner of the route around Ronse and Maarkedal, which also includes the Donderij stretch of cobbles which is long but actually quite smooth, I rode it two years ago when at the Tour of Flanders (right).
With 70km to go things will really start to thin out and we will start to get more of a picture as to who is in with a chance and not. They climb the Wolvenberg with 50km to go and that's quickly followed by the cobbled strips of Ruiterstraat, Karel Martelstraat and Holleweg. The decisive move last year come though on the cobbled sections of the Paddestraat and Lippenhovestraat with about 35km to go when Vandeburgh accelerated and only Paolini could stay with him. Watch this part for possibly more of the same this year.
Overall Contenders and Favourites
As mentioned already, this is a race for hardmen, classics specialists. And there are plenty of them lining up for this year's race. The full list of starters for the 2014 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad can be found here.
I have to start with Omega Pharma Quick Step though as they will hold several cards in this race. Tom Boonen has been in good form in the early season races, racing to a very good 3rd place in stage 3 of the Tour de San Luis and winning stages 2 and 4 in the winds of Qatar. He also has posted 7 other top 10 finishes this year and is very pleased with where he is at at this point in the season. His team have been on fire with a number of wins including a stage and the overall for Nikki Terpstra in Qatar, stages and the overall for Kwiatkowski and a stage for Cavendish in the Algarve and Meersman in the Trofeo Platja de Muro.
The question hanging over him though is whether he is going to be going full gas for this or using it as the perfect prep for Flanders and Paris-Roubaix which are much bigger targets for him, something he openly admits himself. It may well be that Boonen plays the ultimate team game and attacks earlier than maybe he normally would, leading to the other teams needing to chase and setting up one of the able OPQS lieutenants to attack later on for the victory. Either way, at the 5/2 he opened at tonight (Thursday) I'm not greatly interested. Would have wanted about 5/1 given the wide open nature of the race.
Zdenek Stybar should also be considered a strong candidate for the race. He too has been in good form this year, winning the World Cyclo-Cross Championships for a 3rd time and a couple of top 10 placings in Oman, he is 10/1 with Skybet and that offers some small each way value I think. Last year's brilliant but unlucky runner-up Stijn Vandenburgh returns to try to go one place better and they also have young Van Keirsbulck and Nikki Terpstra ready to go with the moves that could make it.
There are a number of previous winners lining up again this year with Nick Nuyens the oldest winner of the race from 9 years ago. He is not the rider he was ever since peaking with his shock Tour of Flanders win in 2011 and I have no interest in backing him. Thor Hushovd won in 2009 but also is a shadow of his former self. He did very well at the Artic Race of Norway towards the end of 2013 but I can't see anything better than about 30th again for the big man.
Sebastian Langeveld, left, won this in 2011 but has struggled a little since. Maybe his move to Garmin might see a return to form for him and he could be a real dark horse with a strong support team with him of Van Summeren, Bauer, Farrar and Nuyens. He got 5th in the E3 Prijs, 10th in Flanders and 7th in Paris Roubaix last year, showing just how good he can be on this terrain. At 33/1 with Ladbrokes he looked decent each-way value, is 14-16/1 generally.
Sep Vanmarcke of Belkin won in 2012 with a superb performance that saw him outsprint Tom Boonen and Flecha, and he followed that up with his 2nd behind Cancellara in the 2013 Paris-Roubaix when riding for the then Blanco squad. He is sure to be a major player in this race and the monuments to come again. Riding alongside him for Belkin will be Lars Boom and he could be in the mix in the last 40kms or so too, still looking to make up for trying to muscle in on Boonen in 2012 when he ended up on the floor.. 12th that year was the bearded wonder Luca Paolini and he followed that up with victory over Boonen (again!) in 2013. He has also finished 5th in 2011 and 4th in 2010, so it's clearly a course and race he relishes. He is 37 this year though and you have to wonder can he really pull off another top 5 finish? Not for me, even at 33/1.
BMC also have a star man in Greg Van Avermaet - 5th here the last two years running, he has also posted a number of top tens in races like the RVV, PR and Gent-Wevelgem. He is sure to be involved at the business end of the race and maybe even have Taylor Phinney still there to help him out. Phinney has been flying in early season and has never been in better shape at this point in the season he has said. I am looking forward to seeing how these two guys go against OPQS. I took some 20/1 with Ladbrokes tonight, expected him to be around 16/1, he is as low as 9/1 with Skybet.
IAM Cycling bring Heinrich Hausler and Sylvain Chavanel and they are sure to be heavily involved too given their experience of this and similar races. Chavanel attacked solo on the Haaghoek last year but never got more than about 30" on the chasing group that included Vandenburgh and Paolini. With the tragic death of their colleague Kristof Goddaert fresh in their minds there could be extra motivation for IAM to perform in his homeland. Chavanel is 20/1 to make the break count this year..
Lotto's main man is probably going to be Jurgen Roelandts who was 8th here last year, coming in in that chasing group, but they also have Sieberg and Lars Bak. He's too short for me though around 10-11/1. Team Giant-Shimano might have a few dark horses in Dries Devenyns and Janse Van Rensburg. Devenyns was in that break of 5 with less than 40km to in 2012 but worked for Boonen and fell away as the three were left to battle it out. Van Rensberg had some superb results with MTN Qhubeka in 2012 but struggled a little to find his feet last year in his first year as a World Tour rider with Argos-Shimano. He could be one to sneak in the back door and packs a very strong sprint for the finish.
Sky have got three strong hands in Ian Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Luke Rowe (a self-confessed fan of the cobbles), and if I was to pick one based on what I have seen so far this season, I would have to side with Stannard. EBH wasn't that impressive when favourite for some stages last week, whereas Stannard put in some powerful rides to finish 4th in the overall GC at the Tour of Qatar. Stannard could be one to follow, watch, wait and could pick the race winning move when it goes. If you want to back a Sky rider take Stannard at 33/1.
The most likely scenario is that it will be a small break that will fight out the finish, maybe 3-6 guys, probably the guys that I've mentioned above. But what happens if it came to a larger bunch with some sprinters in there? There are quite a few sprinters starting and maybe, just maybe some of them will be involved in the finish, it's not unheard of. When Hushovd won it in 2009 it was from a little bunch and only for Flecha slipping the net in 2010, Haussler and Farrar were sprinting for victory. Démare is here and in great form, as is Kristoff, both of whom have victories under their belts this year. Démare is possibly more suited to this rolling sort of course, but Kristoff has shown great strength lately too. Gerard Ciolek is also here, fresh from his sprint victory last Saturday in Andalucia and we saw in Milan-San-Remo and the Tour of Britain that he can handle hilly, cold courses. Kristoff is 33/1, Ciolek is 40/1 and Démare is 50/1 if you think a sprinter will be involved (I don't!)
I haven't counted how many riders I have named above, but as you can see there are a lot of potential winners in this year's race! As I said before, I think there could be 3-6 riders fighting it out with 10km to go and I am thinking Van Avermaet, Langeveld, Stybar, Stannard, Chavanel, Boom, Roelandts and Boonen will almost certainly be there.
1pt each- way on Greg Van Avermaet at 20/1 with Ladbrokes
0.5pts each-way on Sebastian Langeveld at 33/1 with Ladbrokes
1pt win on Zdenek Stybar at 10/1 with Skybet