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After a horrible 2013 season, Tom Boonen is back in the races that he loves and he will be eager to prove to the cycling world that he is back to the level that saw him completely dominate the 2012 editions of the cobbled classics

Photo: OPQS / Tim De Waele

OMLOOP HET NIEUWSBLAD

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
01.03.2014 @ 14:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The cycling season may have been going on for more than a month but for many cycling fans, it doesn't start properly until the riders hit the Belgian cobbles and the steep hellingen for the first time in the Belgian opening weekend. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad marks the beginning of the historic European races and kicks off the Belgian classics season, a truly unique part of the European race calendar that sees the riders spend more than a month racing on some of the most legendary and well-known roads in the cycling world. As a mini Tour of Flanders, the opening semi-classic is a hard man's race in which only the true cobbled classics specialist excel and it is a race that every accomplished one-day specialist would love to add to his palmares.

 

Most professional bike riders already have plenty of racing miles in their legs, making good use of the warm and sunny conditions in places like Australia, ArGhentina, the Middle East, Algarve, Andalusia, and the French Cote d'Azur to clock up the kilometres. While an early win is always appreciated and a welcome boost of confidence, however, it has until now been all about warm-up and preparation for the bigger races to come.

 

That all changes in the coming weekend when the professional cycling calendar enters its next phase with the traditional Belgian opening weekend. While cycling fans all over the world have appreciated the globalized cycling and the many high-level early season events, there is still a feeling that the season hasn't started for real until the best classics riders have tested themselves on the Belgian cobbles for the first time.

 

This happens on Saturday when the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicks off the race calendar consisting of historic races on European soil. From now on, the races are no longer mere training in a laid-back atmosphere, now it is time to clock up the results. For the stage racers, things get serious at the Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico that for most are the first important objectives of the season while the classics riders have marked Saturday as the first crucial date on their 2014 schedule. Even though Paris-Nice is not the Tour de France and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is not the Tour of Flanders, the serious racing now begins in earnest.

 

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad not only kicks off the real European racing season, it is also the start of a truly unique part of the international cycling calendar: the Belgian classics season. During the next month and a half, the riders will do several highly prestigious races in a very tiny area in Europe, racing on the same roads and the same climbs again and again. For some reason, those roads are rarely used during the remainder of the season but during the coming 40 days, they are the scene of repeated battles in one of the most exciting times on the calendar.

 

Those races all have a very unique nature. In Flanders, it is not about big mountains or time trials. Instead, the races are marked by the legendary hellingen - short, steep climbs that are often cobbled - pavé sectors, wind, rain, and fierce battles for position. In these races, there is no room for riders like Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, or Joaquim Rodriguez. This is the domain of the hard men like Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Peter Sagan.

 

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has the distinguished honour of kicking it all off and has teamed up with the Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne to form the traditional opening weekend. The combination is a perfect one as it appeals to the same riders but still give different riders an opportunity to shine. Even though they both include cobbles and hellingen and several riders have won both, Saturday's opener is one for the true classics specialists and Sunday's race to Kuurne is much more of a sprinters race. Even though many riders do both races, this means that there is a certain difference between the line-ups for the events. Several teams bring in some fast finishers for Sunday's race while many of the classics riders often make a late decision after Saturday's race about whether to continue racing the next day as well.

 

Kuurne is one of the few classics that a sprinter can realistically target but the Omloop is of a completely different nature. Like the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - and to a certain extent also the Dwars door Vlaanderen - it is much more of a mini Tour of Flanders. In these races, the difference is made on the hellingen and the cobbles and by the weather conditions and it often ends up as race of attrition and a gradual elimination race. In the end, only the strongest riders prevail.

 

The Omloop is not as hard as E3 and the Tour of Flanders but two factors mean that it is often just as selective. First of all, it's early position on the calendar means that less climbing is needed to make a selection compared to April when all the contenders are in peak condition. Secondly, the weather conditions can be much more brutal at this time of the year and have created some legendary battles in the past. If the weather conditions are spring-like, however, the final obstacles are so far away from the finish in Ghent that bigger groups have decided the race, with Thor Hushovd's win in 2009 being the most recent example. Those cases are, however, the exceptions as the no more than 3 riders have arrived together at the finish to decide the win in the last 4 editions

 

Formerly known as Omloop Het Volk, the race was first held in 1945 - the same year as Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne made its debut - and has kicked off the Belgian season ever since. Due to its calendar date, however, the weather has often played an instrumental role, with the 1986 and 2004 being cancelled due to snow. Last year's race was able to go on as planned but deteriorating weather conditions meant that the following day's race in Kuurne had to be cancelled. Most of the big Belgian classics riders have won the race at least once, with Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Johan Museeuw, and Peter Van Petegem all featuring on the winners list. Unsurprisingly, the race has been dominated by Belgians and with Seamus McGrath 1959 winbeing the only exception, the winner was from either the home country or their neighbours in the Netherlands until German Andreas Kappes win the 1991 edition of the race. As a peculiar fact, the race is the only major Belgian classic that Tom Boonen still hasn't won.

 

Last year the race developed into one of those races of attrition, with a small group of favourites going clear on the hellingen. As it is often the case, the final selection was made on the final pave sectors, with Stijn Vandenbergh and Luca Paolini getting clear to decide the race in a sprint finish. While Vandenbergh was arguably the strongest rider, Paolini was the fastest, allowing the veteran Italian to take his first big win in a cobbled classic. Sven Vandousselaere had a standout performance in an otherwise anonymous career when he won the sprint from an elite selection to take third. Paolini and Vandenbergh are back again for this year's edition - with the latter being part of an incredibly strong Omega Pharma-Quick Step roster - while Vandousselaere's lack of results have seen him step down to continental level with the Vastgoedservice team which won't be present in this year's race.

 

The course

The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a truly Flemish classic as it is designed in the same way as most of the biggest Belgian one-day races. The course map is a complicated affair as the riders zigzag their way through a rather small area in the Flemish Ardennes, heading back and forth and often using the same roads numerous times. All the famous hellingen known from the Tour of Flanders are located in this small area and it is easy for the organizers to make changes from year to year, varying the climbs used for the different editions of the race.

 

This is the pattern used for the design of the courses for races like the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the Tour of Flanders and it is no surprise that these races share the same characteristics. The races all start with a long, flat section to get the legs going before hitting a series of hellingen and pave sectors in the second half of the race. This is where the selection is made before the races end with a flat section to the finish. What make the races different are their distances and start and finishing cities and this is what ultimately determines how difficult the finale is.

 

The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has usually had the city of Ghent as its center and the race both started and finished there from 1945 to 1995. From 1996 to 2007, the finish was moved to nearby Lokeren but since 2008 the race has been back where it belongs, with the slightly uphill finishing straight in the centre of Ghent on the thoroughfare of Charles de Kerchovelaan in front of the Citadelpark being the well-known scene of the consecration of the winner. As Ghent is a bit farther away from the climbs than Oudenaarde where De Ronde finishes, the race ends with a longer flat section than the major Flemish classic does.

 

As said, the course varies a bit from year to year and compared to last year, the organizers have again made some twists. The distance is largely unchanged - 198km compared to last year's 199km - but the number of hellingen has gone down from 12 to 10 as road construction have forced the organizers to skip the early climbs of Berendries, Tenbosse, and Eikenmolen. The main novelty is the reintroduction of the famed Muur van Geraardsbergen which is no longer part of the Tour of Flanders but is back in the Omloop after a three-year absence. However, it comes at a rather early point of the race and will not play the same kind of role as it used to do in the Tour of Flanders.

 

As usual, the race starts in Ghent, with the official start being given in nearby Merelbeke and from there, the riders head along flat roads in a predominantly southern direction to reach the Flemish Ardennes. The race makes a small digression from the direct route to make this section slightly longer but unless it is very windy, the only purpose of this flat portion of the course is to accumulate fatigue and allow the early break to take off.

 

Things gradually get more nervous as the riders reach the hilly zone, with the pace automatically ramping up as they approach the first climbs. The roads in the Belgian classics are famously known for being narrow and twisty and positioning ahead of the climbs is the key to success. From the point where the riders hit the first climbs, it is a constant battle to stay near the front, with the automatically increased pace reducing the advantage for the early escapees.

 

Things kick off in earnest after 56.2km of racing when the riders hit the Haaghoek pave sector that features numerous times on the course. Within the next 10km, the riders tackle the Leberg and the Hostellerie but they will only serve to test the riders legs as things calm down with another flat section after the final of those climbs.

 

After 81.1km, the riders get the chance to reacquaint themselves with the Muur but despite the climb's important place in cycling history, it will play no major role. 18.2km follow until the next climb, the Valkenberg, and then it is time to pass the feed zone.

 

The riders now take on the second part of the course and it starts out rather Ghently. First up is the second passage of the Haaghoek sector with 89.9km to go. There should still be no major drama but a few moments later, the finale kicks off and from there it is important to stay near the front all the time, making no room for recovery.

 

The pace automatically ramps up dramatically and the advantage of the breakaway will crumble as the riders speed towards the Kruisberg which comes when 71.1km still remain. The biggest favourites will now come to the fore and stay close to the front but it is still too early to make a move for the real contenders. However, it may be the time for some of the lesser known riders to test their legs with an attack as the race from now on usually is a very aggressive one with several riders trying to get up the road.

 

The real finale kicks off with 61.5km to go when the riders reach the short, steep, cobbled Taaienberg, one of the most feared hellingen in the Flemish Ardennes. In fact, the scenario is rather predictable as the same happens every year. Tom Boonen has two important places to test his early-season condition: at the Tour of Qatar and on the Taaienberg in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It is almost guaranteed that the Belgian will take the turn onto the climb in first position and make a huge acceleration on its slopes, forcing the first crucial selection.

 

At the top, a small group of favourites usually emerges and depending on its composition, the selection may have been made. Due to a lack of cooperation, however, some kind of regrouping usually takes places but now the door is open for launching attacks as most riders are now on their limit.

 

From now on, attacks are usually launched in both sides of the roads and it is a question of time before the early breakaway is swallowed up by the select group of favourites. In these races, however, participation in an early escape may be a ticket to the race finale as they may be caught at a time when the crucial selection has taken place.

 

The Taaienberg is the first climb in a series of three that comes in less than 10km, with the Eikenberg and the Wolvenberg being located 56.2 and 53.1km from the finish respectively.  The Wolvenberg leads directly to the series of three short pave sectors Ruiterstraat, Karel Martelstraat, and Holleweg and 45.7km from the finish, it is time for another passage of the Haaghoek sector.

 

By this time, a select front group will usually have formed and as most teams will have limited numbers, the race is difficult to control. The decisive attacks may not necessarily be made on the climbs as teams like Omega Pharma-Quick Step who are likely to have strength in numbers can try to benefit from their numerical superiority by sending riders up the road.

 

The Haaghoek is follow by the two final hellingen, the Leberg and the Molenberg which come 42.7km and 37.2km from the finish respectively. While the former is not overly difficult, the latter is a nasty, cobbled climb that can do some real damage at this late point of a hard race.

 

Whatever group of favourites remain after the Molenberg will have to work together to stay away during the final flat 37.2km that take the riders back up north to the finish in Ghent. At the same time, they need to find the right point to launch their crucial attack and they have three perfect options for that final acceleration.

 

Those are the three pave sectors Paddestraat, Lippenhovestraat, and Lange Munte, that come 31.1km, 28.5km, and 21.6km from the finish respectively. The former two were the scene of Vandenbergh's crucial attack one year ago while Sep Vanmarcke attacked on all three sections to gradually whittle down the select front group to just himself, Tom Boonen, and Juan Antonio Flecha one year earlier.

 

From there, it is a flat run all the way to the line in Ghent, and by now the strongest riders will have emerged. It will be a matter of staying away from the chase groups while also finding a way to outwit the rivals in the finale but the race usually comes down to a sprint between the strongest handful of riders on the slightly uphill finishing straight in the centre of Ghent on the thoroughfare of Charles de Kerchovelaan in front of the Citadelpark.

 

 

 

The weather

The weather always plays a huge role in the Flemish classics and due to its early date, the Omloop is probably the race that is most affected by the climatic conditions. Last year the race was held in freezing cold but this year there is no risk of cancellation.

 

Rain will have fallen overnight but by the time the riders leave Ghent, it should be cloudy but dry. There may be an occasional shower but as we get closer to the finish, the riders may even get the chance to see the sun. The temperatures will be a pleasant 8 degrees, meaning that there is a vast difference from last year's brutal race.

 

Belgium is known for its windy conditions but Saturday will be an unusually calm day. There will be a light wind from  a westerly direction whose strength will decline as the day goes on. This means that the riders will mostly have a tailwind on the late hellingen and on the Paddestraat and the Lippenhovestraat before turning into a headwind for the Lange Munte. There will mostly be a crosswind on the final flat stretch back to Ghent.

 

The favourites

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad may have been decided in a sprint finish in past editions but history proves that it is usually a hard man's race. It is no wonder that no more than 3 riders have arrived at the finish to sprint it out for the win in the last five editions and it is usually the strongest rider that prevails in Ghent.

 

The key factor in determining the toughness of the race is usually the weather and with Saturday shaping up to be wet day, we should be in for hard day of attrition. This speaks against a larger group arriving at the finish to decide the race in a sprint. The lack of windy conditions will make things easier but will also make it easier to stay away in the finale, especially as there is no headwind in the run-in to the finish. A sprint finish is not impossible but the most realistic scenario is a hard edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. From the moment when Tom Boonen rips the peloton apart on the Taaienberg, it will be a race of survival, with only the strongest riders emerging at the front when the riders finish the Molenberg and start the final flat section.

 

This means that we have to search for the name of the winner in the pool of the greatest classics specialists that can survive the selection on the climbs and still be strong enough to survive the gradual elimination that is likely to take place on the final pave sectors. Finally, a fast finish is certainly no disadvantage as it is rare for a rider to arrive on his own in Ghent to take the win.

 

In the absence of Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan, only one of the three giants for the cobbled races will be present at the start line in Ghent. After a horrible 2013 season, Tom Boonen is back in the races that he loves the most and he will be eager to prove to the cycling world that he is back to the level that saw him completely dominate the 2012 editions of the cobbled classics. When the multiple monument winner has been injury-free, he has usually come out to the new season with all guns blazing and it has been no different this time around.

 

Boonen started his season in the Tour de San Luis where he mixed it up in a few sprints but it was an outstanding time trial (he took 7th) and some solid climbing in the high mountains that gave the real indications of his form level. He went on to the Tour of Qatar where he was his usual superior self, ripping the peloton to pieces in the fierce crosswinds, taking two stage wins - even by beating André Greipel in a close sprint - and finishing 2nd overall. The inclusion of a time trial and team tactics prevented him from taking another overall win but nothing suggests that he was any weaker than in 2012 when he won the race overall.

 

Most recently he did the Tour of Oman where he followed tradition and had a more anonymous performance. He tested himself in a few sprints but those big bunch sprints are no longer his forte and he mostly worked quietly on his condition. This has set himself well up for the opening weekend and there is no doubt that Boonen is the man to beat.

 

If Boonen was going all out for the win and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team were riding in complete service of their captain as they will be doing later in the season, it would be hard to imagine anyone beating him but the Omloop is a different matter than the Tour of Flanders. It is a peculiar fact that the race is the only major Belgian race that Boonen is yet to win and this is a testament to the different approach he has to the opening weekend compared to later races.

 

There is no doubt that Boonen would love to win the race and he will certainly not hold anything back. However, it is first and foremost a preparation event and he will be more concerned with his feelings when he accelerate on the Taaienberg than he will with the final result.

 

This different approach also opens the door for team tactics to come into play. When the selection has been made, the formidable Omega Pharma-Quick Step team is likely to have strength in numbers in a group where most of the leaders are likely to be isolated. The team could choose to play it defensively and put all their moneys in a sprint win for Boonen but that has rarely happened in the Omloop. Instead, the team is likely to try to send riders up the road, meaning that Boonen could find himself caught out behind.

 

It is hard to imagine that anyone will be able to drop Boonen on either the climbs or the late pave sectors and as he has proved numerous times - most recently when he beat André Greipel in the Tour of Qatar - he is almost unbeatable in a sprint at the end of a hard race. What may prevent Boonen from winning the race is probably only bad luck or team tactics, with the latter being a very important factor - if he avoids an upset like in 2012 when he was surprisingly beaten by Sep Vanmarcke in the sprint. However, Boonen will be a bit more eager to win this time as he needs to be assured that he can get back to his top level and this makes him the favourite to win.

 

The rider who last beat a fit Boonen in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, was Sep Vanmarcke, and the Belkin rider could again be his fiercest challenger. Vanmarcke has long been regarded as a big talent for the cobbled races but the true extent of his potential was revealed last year when he finished 2nd in Paris-Roubaix. One even needs to remember that a bad crash in Tirreno-Adriatico had derailed his preparation completely but with limited warm-up he still managed to get very close to the win in the biggest race of them all.

 

Paris-Roubaix is different from the Flemish classics but those races suit Vanmarcke just as well as the Hell of the North. He is a punchy climber, handles the positioning extremely well, and has a very fast sprint to finish everything off. Barring accident, he will be a dominant figure in this year's classics and he could easily turn out to be number four on the list of giants for the cobbled races.

 

In the Omloop, the condition is a crucial factor as all riders are not yet at a fitness level where they can be expected to compete for the win. However, indications are that Vanmarcke is riding at an extremely high level right from the beginning. Until now, he has only done the Volta ao Algarve and even though he didn't feature near the top of the results, the signs were very encouraging. Vanmarcke usually finishes far back in tough climbing stages and time trials but in Portugal he was 19th in the race against the clock and 46th on the Alto do Malhao. This is a massive improvement compared to his previous showings, especially compared to his 2012 performance when he went on to win the Omloop.

 

Vanmarcke is certainly not as fast as Boonen but as he proved in 2012 he has the speed to beat the Belgian star. However, his best chance may come by attacking with another Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider in the finale and benefit from team tactics. If that scenario occurs, he will be very hard to beat in a sprint.

 

Omega Pharma-Quick Step are like to have strength in number in the finale and one of the riders that is almost guaranteed to be present is newly crowned cyclo-cross champion Zdenek Stybar. As that Worlds win proved, he is in excellent condition and he underlined that fact even more when he finished in the select group of favourites on the hard fourth stage of the Tour of Oman.

 

Omega Pharma-Quick Step are likely to play it offensively in the race finale and that includes having riders marking the late moves. This will be a task for Stybar while Boonen will be saved for the final sprint. If Stybar gets clear in a late move, he will be hard to beat. With Boonen behind, he can allow himself to follow wheels and he is a very fast sprinter. Just recall how he beat renowned sprinter Maximilano Richeze to win a stage of the Eneco Tour and Philippe Gilbert to take a Vuelta stage victory.

 

Stybar has not yet been among the best in the Flemish classics but he didn't get his first taste of those races until last season. His excellent performance in Paris-Roubaix proves that he has all the capabilities to shine on the cobbles and the hellingen suit him perfectly as he proved when he won the stage of the Eneco Tour that finished on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. He may have to sacrifice himself for Boonen but could also benefit from team tactics to take his first big one-day win.

 

Niki Terpstra finds himself in a similar position and will be one of the riders for Omega Pharma-Quick Step that will be expected to cover the late moves. Anyone who witnessed the first stage of the Tour of Qatar saw just how strong the Dutchman is at the moment and he should be present in the finale. The overall win in Qatar will have provided him with plenty of confidence and he will be a danger man.

 

Terpstra's best results have come in Paris-Roubaix though and even though he has won the Dwars door Vlaanderen, he still hasn't shined in the biggest Flemish races. His less explosive nature makes him less suited to the hellingen than the pave sectors in Roubaix and he will have to take the win by escaping in the finale. Compared to Stybar, he is not as fast and he will have a harder time winning a final sprint. However, he edged out a fast rider like Greg Van Avermaet to take 3rd in last year's Paris-Roubaix and with a background on the track, he knows how to finish races off.

 

BMC line up a strong roster with several options but as it has become the standard, their best weapon is likely to be Greg Van Avermaet. Until now, the versatile and hugely consistent Belgian has not got the recognition he deserves but this year things have changed as he is now the designated BMC captain for the Tour of Flanders. Van Avermaet may rarely win the biggest races - the 2011 Paris-Tours is his only major one-day victory - but he has finished in the top 10 in virtually all classics, both on cobbles and in the Ardennes.

 

Van Avermaet is usually very strong right from the beginning of the season and it is a testament to his consistency that he has finished 5th in the Omloop twice in a row. This year he again seems to be riding well right from the gun. Bad positioning derailed his Tour of Qatar but an unusually high 17th in the TT proved his condition. He went on to ride a very aggressive Tour of Oman where the favourites had a hard time catching him on the hard fourth stage.

 

There is little doubt that Van Avermaet will be present in the finale but even though he is fast, he needs to find a way to avoid sprinting against Tom Boonen. That requires him to play it smart in the finale and his aggressive nature should suit him well. If he manages to get clear in  a late group, he has the speed to win the race.

 

One rider who knows how to create such a scenario is last year's winner Luca Paolini. 12 months ago he wasn't the strongest rider in the race but he was one of the smartest and this allowed him to take a beautiful win. As the defending champion, he will be a marked man this time but his vast experience will be a handy tool to again come away with the win.

 

Unlike many of his rivals, Paolini has not showed much in the early races and most recently did the Dubai Tour where he prepared the sprints for Alexander Porsev. However, he was an aggressive presence in the finale of the hardest stage and this indicates that he is riding well. Last year he was riding near the back of the Vuelta a Andalucia peloton before going on to win in Ghent and nothing suggests that he will not be ready for Saturday's race.

 

Like anybody else, Paolini knows that he needs to avoid a sprint against Boonen but his wily nature will allow him to find the right break to join in the finale. Like Van Avermaet, Stybar, and  Vanmarcke, he is a very fast finisher and he has the speed to make it two in a row.

 

Jurgen Roelandts finished 3rd in last year's Tour of Flanders and no one doubts that he has the abilities to mix it up with the best in the Flemish races. He is the undisputed leader of Lotto Belisol and he will be ready to carry the weight of expectations for one of the home teams.

 

Roelandts may have finished 2nd in the Tour of Qatar but actually we haven't been too impressed by his form. He laid the foundations for that runner-up spot by getting into the late breakaway on stage 1 but he had no response to Terpsta's late acceleration. In the Tour of Oman, he didn't climb impressively on the fourth stage where the team had expressed their confidence in their classics leader.

 

We will be surprised if Roelandts is not present when the selection is made but we doubt that he has the condition to survive when the going gets really tough near the very end. His main asset is his fast sprint but like anybody else he needs to get rid of Boonen. He needs to play it smart in the finale but if he can benefit from team tactics, his sprint may allow him to come away with the win.

 

Garmin-Sharp made a coup when they signed Sebastian Langeveld as their leader for the cobbled classics. The Dutchman is one of the few riders who have actually won the Omloop as he beat Juan Antonio Flecha in a close sprint three years ago. He had his 2012 spring classics campaign ruined by a crash in the Tour of Flanders but in last year's edition of the biggest Flemish race, he was arguably the strongest behind Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan. His lack of sprint meant that he couldn't finish better than 10th though.

 

This year he again has his eyes on the biggest races and he recently told Belgian media that he is still not in his best condition. He showed solid form in the Dubai Tour but like his Garmin teammates he hasn't raced since as he has been attending the team training camp. This makes his form a bit of a question but he has promised to give it 200% in a quest to take the win.

 

Langeveld should be strong enough to make it into the finale and from there everything can happens when team tactics come into play. He needs to play it wisely and make it into a late move but he is hampered by his lack of sprint. Against most of the favourites he doesn't stand a chance in a final dash to the line and this makes him a more likely podium finisher than a winner candidate.

 

Lars Boom has always had big ambitions in the Flemish classics but he still needs to prove that he can be amongst the very best in those races. On paper, he has all the capabilities to perform well but until now he has always struggled against the best on the hellingen.

 

We doubt that Boom will be in contention in the Tour of Flanders but at this early point of the season he could win the race. He is usually very strong right from the very beginning and his performance in the Qatar TT suggests that it is no different this time around. If he makes it into the finale, he will form a dangerous duo with Vanmarcke that Omega Pharma-Quick Step have to be aware of. If he escapes in near the end, he has the fast sprint that could allow him to take the win.

 

Finally, Stijn Vandenbergh deserves a mention. Last year the lanky Belgian finished 2nd after being the strongest rider in the race and this year we again expect him to be one of the very best. He climbed excellently on the Green Mountain in the Tour of Oman, suggesting that he is in very good condition, and he should be one of the many Omega Pharma-Quick Step cards in the finale.

 

He is one of the riders that will be asked to cover late moves but compared to Stybar and Terpstra he has a much smaller chance of coming away with the win. He has no fast sprint and this is a severe disadvantage that may see him once again become relegated to a support role in the strongest team in the race.

 

***** Tom Boonen

**** Sep Vanmarcke, Zdenek Stybar

*** Niki Terpstra, Greg Van Avermaet, Luca Paolini

** Jurgen Roelandts, Sebastian Langeveld, Lars Boom, Stijn Vandenbergh

* Sylvain Chavanel, Arnaud Demare, Taylor Phinney, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Ian Stannard

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