A year on from the Opening Weekend which marked the beginning of a Classics season that wouldn’t finish until eight months later, hopes are that the 2021 editions of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne herald the start of an unbroken spring Classics campaign through to Paris-Roubaix in mid-April.
The weekend double of Omloop and Kuurne traditionally comes over one weekend in late February or early March, and it’s no different this year. For some, the races mark the start of the ‘real’ racing season, and this year it’s truer than ever amid the swathe of early-season race cancellations.
As such, we’ve had precious few opportunities to evaluate the early form of the biggest Classics contenders in the peloton, with just a handful of stage races in France and the UAE making up the majority of the racing action so far.
Some of the riders who head to Belgium this weekend have already shown their form this spring, such as Lotto Soudal’s Tim Wellens, who won the Étoile de Bessèges, or Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Julian Alaphilippe, who was second at the Tour de la Provence. Plenty more, though, will be looking at the two races to get the first result of 2021 on the board.
After the miserable, cold Opening Weekend which featured heavy rain and harsh winds last year, the riders lining up at either race will at least enjoy warm – if cloudy – days back on the cobbles, with temperatures expected to hang in the mid-teens across the weekend.
Both races have seen cancellations due to snow in the past 20 years, while Kuurne was famously struck by cyclone Xynthia, bringing torrential rain and wind as only 26 men finished. The 175 riders who line up this weekend will be grateful that they’ll be avoiding those sorts of conditions.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Saturday sees the 76th edition of the race, long known as Omloop Het Volk. The race dates all the way back to 1945, with three cancellations along the way, the last of which came in 2004 due to the snow.
The race has been part of the WorldTour since 2017, though its prestige predates its inclusion in the sport’s top level of races. Legends of the sport such as Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Peter Van Petegem and Johan Museeuw have been among the winners over the decades, while Philippe Gilbert, Ian Stannard and Greg Van Avermaet have all won the race twice in the past 15 years.
The 2021 edition follows what is now a tried-and-trusted parcours, with the old finale of the Tour of Flanders bolted on in 2018 after years of the race having started and finished in Gent. Meanwhile, Ninove will host the finish for the third year in a row.
Heading south from Gent, 13 bergs and 14 cobbled stretches will await the peloton before reaching the finish line 200 kilometres later, with numerous other unnamed hills lining the route, too.
After an opening 40-kilometre ride over rolling roads, the break should be away by the time the riders reach the first difficulties of the day – the Leberg and the cobbled section just before.
From there, the route is almost impossible to follow without a local’s knowledge of the roads, twisting through the Flemish countryside and turning back on itself several times in order to fit the best climbs of the area onto the parcours.
The 90 kilometres after the Leberg will see the riders take on five hills and cobbled sections before a brief lull after the Valkenberg and an intense closing 60 kilometres.
Packed into that final run are the Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Leberg again, Berendries, Elverenberg and five cobbled sections – and that’s before the final one-two punch of the Muur and Bosberg. After that final test comes a 13-kilometre run to the line – just enough to tempt a lone attacker without being too short to make the finale a foregone conclusion.
Omloop has delivered each year since the finale revamp, with small groups contesting the run-in. Michael Valgren and Zdenek Štybar won with attacks in the final kilometres in 2018 and 2019, while last year, Jasper Stuyven beat Yves Lampaert from a late two-man attack.
While Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is something of a mini Tour of Flanders, Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is a different proposition. While the race does feature several Flemish bergs, it’s more suited to the sprinters given the race features 50 kilometres of flat roads to the finish.
Despite its reputation, however, the race’s outcome – a triumph for the sprinters or for the attackers – has been more or less a coin flip for the past decade.
Dylan Groenewegen, Mark Cavendish (twice), and Chris Sutton have all won from large groups since 2010, while the race has seen small groups or lone riders triumph six times since Bobbie Traksel’s famous win that year, with Bob Jungels and Kasper Asgreen winning with late attacks in 2019 and 2020.
After a small reduction in climbing last time out, race organisers have removed one climb and added two in its place for 2021, with safety concerns voiced by teams behind the decision to add Tiegemberg and Boembeek where the early climb of the Eikenmolen was last year.
Much of the climbing comes in the mid-section of the race, with the Bossenaarstraat, Mont Saint Laurent, La Houppe, Kanarieberg, Kruisberg, Hotond, La Trieu, Oude Kwaremont and Kluisberg all coming between kilometres 77 and 150.
From there on out, the race is as complicated as the riders want to make it. While the largely flat 50-kilometre run-in offers few difficulties compared to the previous 50, the riders, teams and weather usually provide enough to keep the race interesting to the line.
Given the status of both race as the openers for the Classics season, it’s no surprise that many of those who have ambitions to win the likes of Flanders and Roubaix will be lining up this weekend.
As ever, though, there are a handful of big-name absences. Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan will miss both races for the fourth year. The Slovak, who won Kuurne in 2017, caught COVID-19 at a recent training camp and, while he has recovered, won’t be taking part.
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo) also skips both races. Meanwhile, Alpecin-Fenix’s Mathieu van der Poel opted to skip both races for the UAE Tour, though could now be in line to start Omloop after his team was forced to leave the UAE after one day when a team staff member tested positive for the virus.
As the traditional Classics powerhouse, it’s no surprise that Deceuninck-QuickStep are once again the strongest collective force this weekend. The Belgian team has won four of the past seven editions of Kuurne through Kasper Asgreen, Bob Jungels, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish, though they’ve only won once at Omloop since 2005 (Zdenek Štybar two years ago). In fact, their most memorable feat in recent editions of the race was contriving to lose against Ian Stannard in 2015.
This time, they bring a wrecking crew to Saturday’s race, with Julian Alaphilippe at the head. In Asgreen, Štybar and Yves Lampaert they have a further trio of potential race winners. Davide Ballerini and Florian Sénéchal have both already taken wins in 2021, while the peloton’s number one workhorse Tim Declercq finished second at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne last year, though should be on domestique duty.
For the more sprint friendly Kuurne, the team have added Álvaro Hodeg to the lineup as an option should the peloton contest the finish. Štybar, Lampaert and Asgreen double up, too, giving the team plenty of options on Sunday.
Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven will be the only man in the peloton who has both races on his palmarès. The Belgian will be start both races alongside former world champion Mads Pedersen and Edward Theuns, making up one of the strongest leading trios taking part this weekend.
Lotto Soudal’s Classics duo Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb didn’t get a chance to race together in the autumn Classics last year, and they won’t this weekend either as the Belgian takes on Omloop alongside Tim Wellens while Degenkolb takes on Kuurne.
The new-look AG2R Citroën will bring their new-look Classics pairing to both races, with long-time Classics leader Oliver Naesen joined by two-time Omloop winner Greg Van Avermaet in a versatile group that could win either race. Over at UAE Team Emirates it’s a similar story as Alexander Kristoff – twice a runner-up at Kuurne – is joined by Matteo Trentin.
Team DSM are another strong-looking squad, with Tiesj Benoot and Søren Kragh Andersen taking on both races. Sprinter Max Kanter gives them an option on Sunday, while at Omloop Romain Bardet continues the cobbled adventure he began at Flanders last year. His compatriot, Groupama-FDJ leader Arnaud Démare, will start both races.
Elsewhere, there are new beginnings at Ineos Grenadiers and Israel Start-Up Nation as Tom Pidcock and Sep Vanmarcke make their Classics debuts with their new teams.
Other riders to watch include Nils Politt, who leads Bora-Hansgrohe at both races, the Total Direct Énergie pairing of Niki Terpstra and Edvald Boasson Hagen, also at both races, and fastmen Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) and Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels p/b KTM), to race Kuurne.