Race Preview: None of the racing really counts for anything until Het Nieuwsblad – The season proper starts this Saturday. Yes, we’ve been in Australia, South America and southern Europe, but now things get serious. The guys who want to put a Classic on their palmarès will be well to the fore on the roads round Gent and Kuurne this weekend. Ed Hood takes his usual look at the course and riders for the Classic season openers.
The hellingen and the kasseien
This Saturday will be the 74 edition (or 71st depending upon whether you count the three cancelled editions) of what most would agree is the start of the ‘real’ season, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race steeped in tradition and one which most Belgian riders would sacrifice body parts in order to win.
Etiene De Wilde hard man on the cobbles and the wooden boards
Let’s deal with the name first, the race was named after the sponsoring Flemish newspaper Het Volk, literally, ‘The People.’ But Het Volk ceased publication a few years back and the race now carries the name of another Flemish paper, ‘Het Nieuwsblad.’ In Flemish newspapers and some of the other media, the race was never referred to as ‘Het Volk’ – free publicity for rivals isn’t a concept that finds much favour within the Media – and the race was known locally as Gent-Gent. My buddy and fluent Flemish speaker, Ivan, never refers to it as Het Volk, always Gent-Gent; but to old sad guys like me, it will always be Het Volk. However! With the current parcours – of which, more later, we may have to consider ‘Gent-Ninove’?
The Het Nieuwsblad parcour
Known as a ‘semi-classic’ or a ‘mini Tour of Flanders,’ this year’s race is again on the WorldTour roster – race distance will be 200 kilometres, as opposed to the somewhat more savage 260+ kilometres of the ‘Ronde’. Both races have shared many of the same climbs over the years – or ‘hellingen’ in Flemish – with Leberg, Berendries and Valkenburg names you’ll find in both sets of parcours; albeit Het Volk has a mere 13 savage ascents, the Ronde has 17 climbs.
Het Nieuwsblad recon with Lotto Soudal
The legendary, cobbled and vicious Kapelmuur at Geraardsbergen is the penultimate dice with Newton’s Sir Isaac discovery of the day followed by the Bosberg to replicate those classic Flanders finishes I remember from my youth where big Edwig Van Hooydonck [aka Eddy Bosberg] twice launched the race winning move.
Edwig ‘Eddy Bosberg’ Van Hooydonck
The Leberg is tackled three times; as well as the Kapelmuur, the Bosberg and Molenburg are cobbled – just to make things more interesting. The climbs occupy a relatively small geographic area; most rear up the ridge above the town of Oudenaarde – home to the Tour of Flanders museum – with the parcours twisting and turning to bring the riders in to the ramps from different directions.
Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen
With the Kapelmuur coming at 170K then the Bosberg just 12.8K from the finish in Ninove it’s a short enough distance for a strong man to ‘hang on.’ In Flemish, cobbles are ‘kasseien,’ another feature which it shares with the bigger race in April and which helps give these races their particular character. There are seven official sectors with the switchback Haaghoek tackled three times. Hills and cobbled stretches are tangibles; where they come is easy to write on a piece of tape and stick to the extension – what’s not so easy to plan for is the weather.
The weather plays a big part in Gent-Gent
Twice in my life time, Het Volk has succumbed to snow, and if it’s wet, cold and windy then much of the field are beaten before they start; days where riders like Merckx and Museeuw would be rubbing their hands in anticipation. Both men won this race twice during their careers (’71 & ’73 and ’00 & ’03 respectively).
Good weather for World Champion Freddy Maertens in Het Volk 1977
The joint ‘record men’ on three each are Ernest Sterckx ’52, ’53, ‘56; Eddy Merckx’s man mountain right hand, Jos Bruyere ’74, ’75, ’80; and most recently, Peter Van Petegem ’97, ’98, ’02 – no surprise that all three are Belgian and renowned as hard as nails.
Three time winner Peter Van Petegem
If you take a look at one of those websites which has the national flag of the winner displayed beside his name, there’s a heck of a lot of red, yellow and black on display. Of the 73 editions (including three cancelled) Belgians have won 56; in joint second are the Netherlands and Italy – on four each.
Six other nations have won; Ireland, with the late, great Seamus Elliot in ’59; Germany with the sadly recently deceased Andreas Kappes in ’90, exploiting his stellar early season form from the six day circuit; hard as nails Viking Thor Hushovd for Norway in 2009; that very rare bird, a Spanish ‘man of the cobbles’ Juan Antonio Flecha in 2010 – and in doing so saved Team Sky’s inaugural season; Great Britain and Team Sky’s beast of a man, Ian Stannard – twice, in 2014 and 2015 [the only non-Belgian to win the race more than once] and Dane Michael Valgren just last year.
Valgren 2018 winner
Generally the winner will be a hard, physical rider who has no problems in the positioning melee which precedes every climb and the drag race which follows over the top of every climb. Occasionally if the wind isn’t too strong and there’s not too much rain or snow, then class can win out – take Pippo Pozzato’s (Liquigas) 2007 win as an example.
Pippo in 2007
Ed’s Top Tips for the Het Nieuwsblad Win:
And on that note of possible winners, let’s start with another Italian, Bahrain-Merida’s fast man, Sonny Colbrelli. He was top ten here last year; ended the season on a high with wins in the Coppa Bernocchi and Gran Piemonte not to mention runner up spots in the Coppa Sabatini and Montreal World Tour race. He’s won already this year with a stage in Oman and a podium is well within his capabilities.
Former world and Belgian champion, Phil Gilbert (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) has to be considered, he’s won this race twice in the past, has a proven track record over the hellingen and kasseien and has a stage win La Provence under his belt already in 2019.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb and Australia) hasn’t raced this year but remember 2016 when his first race of the year was the Paris-Nice prologue? He won that, in case you’d forgotten and won’t be here to make up the numbers.
A Belgian in a Spanish team? That’s where big strong Belgian Jurgen Roelandts (Movistar) is for 2019; the fact that no one will fancy a Spanish team jersey to do anything in this race plays to his favour.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo and Belgium) was top 10 in EVERY major cobbled Classic last year with his form running right through to the autumn with podiums in the Brussels Cycling Classic, GP Wallonie, Quebec, Championship of Flanders and GP Scherens. He’s quality and a big win will come soon – maybe even on Saturday?
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott and Italy) proved he could handle bad weather on the streets of Glasgow last year when he became European Champion on a foul day. He has three wins already this year; a stage in Valenciana and two in the Ruta – he’s good to go.
Michael Valgren (Dimension Data and Denmark) may have benefitted from not being that well fancied when he clipped off to win here last year but everyone knew exactly who he was when he finished fourth in the Ronde and won the Amstel. The ‘but’? – Dimension Data isn’t Astana…
Mud, rain, cold? All part of the job for a former world champion crosser like Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma and Belgium). Third in the Strada Bianche and top 10 in Flanders last year, not to mention a GC win in the Tour of Denmark; and he’s a year stronger and wiser now…
We can be sure it won’t be as hot as it was in Rio when Greg Van Avermaet (CCC and Belgium) won the Olympic gold; but like Gilbert he’s won here twice and will be keen to join, Sterckx, Big Jos and de Pete as joint ‘recordman.’ The form is there with a win in Valenciana and podiums in Oman. He’ll be easy to pick out in his new bright orange trim.
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First and Belgium) was made for these races – big, strong, oblivious to the weather but maybe just too honest with his efforts. That said, he’s won here before and been on the podium the last two years – and it’ll do team morale no harm that EF are off to a great start to the season.
Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal and Belgium) has three wins already; one in Mallorca and two in the Ruta – but is he tough enough? He did win the Brabantse Pijl, last year, so maybe?
Kuurne – Brussels – Kuurne is the Sunday ‘consolation’ race – and whilst it’s a nice race to have on your palmarès as a UCi 1HC it’s not Het Nieuwsblad – UCi WT. For the fans that’s no bad thing – the buses line up along the main drag in Kuurne and you can wander from bus to bus and mix with the riders. Recordman is Big Tom Boonen who never managed to win Het Nieuwsblad but did so three times here.
Tommeke was first in Kuurne three times
There are 12 nasty climbs within it’s 200K but the big difference from Saturday in the parcours is that the last 50K are flat. Generally it’s a sprinters’ race with Dutch fast man Dylan Groenewegen taking the honours last year but just two years ago aforementioned Jasper Stuyven won solo.
Groenewegen is on form
For the winner, take all the names above and add the likes of Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma and The Netherlands), Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ and France), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis and France), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe and Germany), Astana’s rapid Italian, Davide Ballerini – let’s not forget Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s young flyer Fabio Jakobsen or maybe even Arkea-Samsic’s ageing Gorilla, Andre Greipel.
# PEZ will be there, roadside, battling with the cold, the wind, grumpy frites stand owners and barmen who always serve the locals first – it’s a dirty job but… For live TV go to SteephillTV. #
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,700 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.