Sunday, March 2, 2014

One to get ready.

198 kilometers of cobbled goodness was on the menu today. 
198 windy, rainy, cobbled kilometers. This is what the 2014 edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite had in store for the pro peloton today. As the first minor offering of the venerable spring races held in Europe and collectively known as "The Cobbled Classics" it holds a very dear place in the hearts of road racing fans across the globe.

It speaks to the depth of history of these classics when a 69 year old race in the heart of Flanders is only afforded "minor" status.  It was first run in 1945; then known as the "Omloop Het Vok" it was named after the Flemish newspaper of the same name. It was their response to the other classic race of the region known as the Tour of Flanders and sponsored by their main competition in print: The Het Nieuwsblad. With the Tour of Flanders having started over 40 years earlier and already considered a Monumental edition of the spring classics, the Het Vok has traditionally been used primarily as a prep race for the other bigger classic races of the region. In 2008 the competition between the papers ended forever as the presses of the Het Vok stopped running and in what I can only assume was a final indignation, the race sponsorship was taken over by their rival Het Nieuwsblad and the name was changed to read as it does today. 

A "Minor" position in any other form of road racing would most likely mean that it would be a challenge to get the top teams and top riders to participate. Not so when it comes to the spring classics, as a race like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is only considered minor compared to a handful of races. As the kick off to arguably the best set of racing contests of the year it is truly a classic, and treated as such by the pro teams chosen to participate. This was more than evident today as the start list included many of the top classics riders in the field today. Names like Boonen, Boom, Terpstra, Phinney, Van Avermaet, VanMarcke, Boassen Hagen, Chavanel, Van Summeren dotted the 208 rider deep field and every major pro team was represented well.
The IAM Cycling team takes to the front to honor fallen teammate Kristoff Goddaert Photo credit: AP
The day got off to a solemn start as the IAM Cycling team took to the front of the field in honor of their fallen teammate Kristoff Goddaert who was tragically killed in a training accident in Antwerp 10 days earlier. After a moment of silence for him and also for Belgium's legendary art promoter Jan Hoet who also recently passed they led the peloton out in slow procession that belied the frenzied racing that was about to transpire. 

Almost immediately 8 riders pierced through the Belgian fog and broke clear of the field. They animated the first three quarters of the race and it wasn't until 150k in that the remaining four riders were finally caught by the peloton. The fierce racing on the cobbles and bergs compounded by the beautifully typical Belgian weather wreaked havoc throughout the field with such big names as Hushovd and Pichot forced to call it a day after crashes. Less than half of the original start list made it to the finish, and much of that damage can be attributed to the duo of Niki Terpstra and Edvald Boasson Hagen who took to the front and forced the issue for most of the remaining 42k. They were joined off and on by Lars Boom, Sep Vanmarcke, Arnaud DéMare and others but the Sky and Omega riders were doing the lions share of the work and stayed off the front until just under 20k to go.   
Edvald Boasson Hagen and Niki Terpstra were arguably the strongest riders of the day, but as is often the case the strongest don't always win. Photo credit: Tim de Waele/TDW Sport
By that time a break had formed between a 20 deep lead pack and the rest of the peloton that would not  close, thus ending any hopes the great Tom Boonen might have had of adding his first Omloop trophy to an already legendary classics palmares. Up front the racing remained frenetic, with Terpstra and Boom hammering on the bergs and Boasson Hagen, Vanmarcke, Stannard and Van Avermaet closing it back up over the cobbles. It went on like this until just under 10k when everything came back together and the pace settled for just a moment. That was all British strongman Ian Stannard needed to make his escape. He set a blistering pace that was matched only by the Belgian rouleur Greg Van Avermaet and they quickly broke free of the rest. 

It looked like the race had come down to those two but the power duo from earlier in the day of Niki Terpstra and Edvald Boasson Hagen gave one last push to catch the leaders. Joined this time by the Belgian Belkin (say that 5 times fast) rider Sep Vanmarcke they made a valiant effort to bring it back together and for a moment it looked like it just might happen, but Stannard and Van Avermaet played it smart and continued to work together taking turns pulling until the final turn when the sprint began. Though the final sprint was close it never really felt in doubt as Team Sky's Stannard maintained a slight lead and confirmed his strength over the last 8k, sprinting exhaustedly over the line barely a bike length ahead of the Belgian Omega Pharma Quickstep hope.  24 seconds later Sky's day got even better as Norwegian Boasson Hagen won the sprint for the podium. 
Stannard was the strongest at the end. Photo credit: EPA
It was a marvelous effort by Stannard and confirmed his place as one of the current hardmen of the peloton after some early signs of promise in his career. Along with Boassen Hagen, he must now be considered Team Sky's top prospect in the remaining classics on the upcoming spring calendar - which would in turn make him a favorite in the peloton overall considering his teams place at the top of the pro tour rankings. 
Greg Van Avermaet takes a moment post race - Photo credit: Tim de Waele/TDW Sport
For Van Avermaet it was another valiant effort, but yet another close call. While most riders would be over the moon with a second place in a race such as the Omloop, for him it must be considered a slight disappointment as he has a growing list of top placings with only the top step of the podium being out of his grasp thus far. His exhaustion and frustration seemed to overwhelm him at the end of the race and he sat with face in hands in the finishing tent contemplating how close he was yet again. 

He'll have another opportunity to get that monkey off his back tomorrow as the second race of the opening classics weekend kicks off in Kuurne. With the KBK (or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne) being a bit more open to open to the sprinters, it would seem even slightly better suited to his talents as his sprinting ability is only slightly behind that of the pure sprinters in the field. 

Racing gets going early here in the states, so get over to, find a feed that works and then settle in for more great Flanders style racing. 

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