Race preview: The 2021 road season ‘proper’ starts this Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the heart of cycling mad Flanders. Ed Hood would normally be ‘Roadside’ in Belgium, but… Here is his preview of the season opener.
Het Volk, Gent-Gent or Het Nieuwsblad
The racing year is well underway already, with results from New Zealand, Australia, South America, Spain and France. But is it? Not according to PEZ soothsayer Viktor; “flim, flam, glamour races, the season only starts with Gent-Gent!”
No real racing before ‘Gent-Gent’
Whilst most now refer to Het Nieuwsblad as the ‘Omloop,’ old timers still call it, ‘Gent-Gent’ from the days when it was ‘Het Volk’ and newspapers weren’t keen on giving rival journals free publicity. Vik has a point, the race is well up there in the rankings of races a Belgian would commit homicide for, second only to de Ronde.
Het Volk 1984
This will be edition 76 and the fact that 57 of the 75 editions held thus far have been won by Home Boys endorses my previous statement. Which nation is second in the rankings? The Netherlands and Italy are on a distant four each with GB an honourable fourth ranked on two wins thanks to that big man, Ian Stannard – but more of him shortly.
Ian Stannard in the Omloop 2014
I’d love to give you the specifics of the parcours but the organisers are keeping that under wraps to discourage diehard fans from sleeping up trees and in ditches to dodge security. Last year’s parcours looked like this:
It’s a safe bet that 2021 will be along similar lines, as I said last year: ‘Some 200 unforgiving kilometres through unglamorous Flemish farmland including nine sections of cobbles – ‘kasseien’ – and 13 mostly cobbled, short sharp jousts with gravity called, ‘hellingen’. The last two are tapped right into the nostalgia well – the savage Muur van Geraardsbergen/Kapelmuur at 183 kilometres and the less severe but deceptively strength sapping Bosberg at 187 kilometres. This duo is straight out of the ‘pre finishing loop’ era of the Tour of Flanders.
Before we ponder who’s going to raise their arms at the finish, let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane and look at a dozen editions of the race we see as noteworthy.
Jean Bogaerts – Two time winner
1945: and the very first edition was called the ‘Omloop van Vlaanderen’ but this upset the rival Het Nieuwsblad newspaper because it sounded too much like ‘Ronde van Vlaanderen’ which was their baby; hence it became ‘Het Volk’ with Belgian hard man, Jean Bogaerts taking the first of two wins – he’d win again in 1951.
Albert Sercu in 1947
1947: have you ever wondered why the late, great Patrick Sercu was so fast and versatile? He chose his parents well; with dad Albert winning this edition of Het Volk.
Ernest Sterckx – Triple winner
1956: Ernest Sterckx becomes the first triple winner after wins in ’52 and ’53 – a real Belgian ‘Classicer’ with wins in Fleche Wallonne, Gent-Wevelgem and two wins in Paris-Brussels, which was a huge race back in those days.
Shay Elliott ahead of Anquetil
1959: Shay Elliott of Ireland makes history as the first ‘Anglo’ to win a Classic, it would be 55 years before the feat was repeated by that man, Stannard. And on the subject of Irish hard men, this was a race well suited to the skill set of ‘King Kelly’ but second to Etienne De Wilde in 1989 was as a close as he got – and there were also two third places for him.
Roger’s first win
1969: Roger De Vlaeminck wins, ‘yes, but he won a lot of races,’ I hear you say. This was his FIRST ever professional event – class, he’d win again a decade later in 1979.
1980: Eddy Merck’s right hand man, Jos Bruyere becomes the second rider to, ‘do the triple’ after wins in ’74 and ’75. A giant of a man, hard as nails, oblivious to atrocious weather his palmarès include two Liege-Bastogne-Liege wins and a long spell in the maillot jaune in 1978.
De Fons on De Muur
1982: Englishman Graham Jones was class and it took a man of even greater class, Home Boy, Fons de Wolf to deny Jones the win in this edition. A good year for Anglos, Jones second, Kelly third and the late Paul Sherwen eighth. Jones could have been so much more but in true Gallic style of the time was raced to a frazzle by Peugeot.
The late Gerrie Kneteman and Paul Sherwen in Omloop Het Volk 1983
1988: Rony Van Holen wins and it’s one of the few times in recent history when you might say; ‘who?’ of an Omloop winner. Despite sporting an extravagant mullet, Van Holen was classy; World Junior Road Race Champion in 1977 he won an enormous number of races as an amateur and whilst he perhaps never reached the heights expected as a pro he won the Pino Cerami, Brabantse Pijl, Samyn and the Jef Scherens twice.
Johan Museeuw, Frank Vandenbroucke and three time Het Volk winner Peter van Petegem on the Molenberg
2002: and ‘De Pete’ aka Peter Van Petegem joins ‘Recordmen’ Sterckx and Bruyere on three wins after his ’97 and ’98 wins. A real Flandrian hard man with two Rondes and a Paris-Roubaix among his palmarès. Vik and I were over in Belgium for the National Championships one year and passed the great man in our car whilst he was out on a training run. We rolled down the window and gave him a shout; a nod and a grunt were returned. When we told our Belgian buddies, they reckoned we must have caught him in a chatty mood.
Juan Antonio Flecha 2010
2010: A Spaniard winning a cobbled classic? And one born in Argentina? Juan Antonio Flecha provided the fledgling Team Sky with a huge boost when he won the Omloop and got their season off to a terrific start – however, that was as good as it got for the team that year; before their remorseless ascendancy began.
Ian Stannard in the Omloop 2015
2015: we’d watched Ian Stannard beat GVA to win in 2014 but this year, when he was away in the final with THREE Quick-Steps – Super Stars Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra plus human freight train, Stijn Vandenbergh, his chances of a repeat win looked slim. ‘Stunned silence’ doesn’t adequately describe the eerie quiet in the bar where we watched the last few kilometres, when Stannard rolled all three of them – remarkable.
The latest winner – Jasper Stuyven
2020: takes us up to date with big, strong Jasper Stuyven becoming the ninth man in history to boast the Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on his palmarès; he won the latter in 2016. As yet, no one has ever managed to win both races in the same year. And on the subject of ‘Big Jasper’ he’s one of seven – nine if you count GVA and Phil Gil’s two each – previous winners.
A young Philippe Gilbert in 2006
And whilst Sebastian Langeveld (EF Nippo) and Sep Vanmarcke (Israel) are both, long, long shots for the win, ‘Big Sep’ may well make top 10. The other five previous winners are all ‘possible’ albeit Old Father Time is catching up with Philippe Gilbert and to see him win would be a surprise – it’s 13 years since his first win here. Team mate Tim Wellens maybe a better bet for Lotto Soudal? Denmark’s sole winner of the race, Michael Valgreen (EF Nippo) hasn’t recently replicated his 2018 form which saw him win the Omloop, the Amstel and narrowly lose out to Oliver Naesen at Plouay.
No. 3 for Greg Van Avermaet?
Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën) is a double winner here and has been going well in the French ‘Flim Flam’ races this year but at 35 years-of-age, the stats are against him, only Paolini at 36 and Museeuw at 37 are older winners.
Styby – Worker or winner?
Zdenek Stybar, winner in 2019 is the same age and the same comments about GVA apply to him; however his Deceuninck – Quick-Step team has Yves Lampaert, Kasper Asgreen, Florian Senechal and another French guy who we’ll talk about in a moment. That leaves Jasper Stuyven, we have no indication of his 2021 form but he won’t be here to make up the numbers, that’s for sure – and he’s backed at Trek-Segafredo by strongmen Mads Pedersen and Edward Theuns. A big factor in a race like this is the weather, if it’s good then many more riders can be considered ‘possible’ given the 200K distance – 90 minutes less racing than a ‘full’ classic. But if it’s bad then men like GVA and Phil Gil come into their own – and don’t forget UAE Norseman, Alex Kristoff – remember Stage One of last year’s Tour de France?
Kristoff likes it hard
And now, ‘that other Frenchman,’ le Champion du Monde, Julian Alaphilippe, who has the team, the form – witness Provence – the cobbles and bergs hold no fears – witness Flanders until he self-destructed – BUT. . . The stats are against him, NO Frenchman has ever won here; you have to go all the way back to 1994 and Fred Moncassin’s second place to find Gallic representation on the podium – and before that the only other podium finish for La Republique was Duclos Lassale, second in ’81. But ‘Ala’ is special and his flamboyant style a joy to watch – perhaps he can, ‘be the one.’
The World champion could be the first French winner of Het Nieuwsblad – Barring motos and early celebrations
AND. . .
It looks like Mathieu van der Poel will start the Omloop depending on a negative PCR or rapid test (24 hours before the start) in Belgium
Breaking news: with Alpecin-Fenix OUT of the UAE Tour due to a Covid (+) within the organisation, will we see MVDP on the start line? We can hope. . .
# Race reports and results from Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on PEZ over the weekend and more news in EUROTRASH Monday. #
There will be no fans roadside on Saturday