When the now defunct Belgian newspaper Het Volk first organized Omloop Het Volk in 1945 to capitalize on the growing popularity of bicycling racing in Belgium, and the Tour of Flanders specifically- started by rival sports daily SportsWereld-it did not intend its image to develop into that of a preparatory race for the more famous Ronde. But it has successfully established itself as De Ronde’s little brother, and proudly opens the race calendar in Belgium, and the classics season, at the end of every February.
While the region of Flanders is approximately 30,000 square kilometers, the heart of cycling in the Flemish Ardennes comprises a considerably smaller area. Inside the natural and man made borders- the E40 highway on the northern edge, the E429 on the southern edge, the Dender River to the East and the Schelde River to the West-one can draw a rectangle connecting the towns of Zottegem, Oudenaarde, Ronse and Geraardsbergen. This tiny area of 240 square kilometers is the beating heart of all things cycling in Belgium. If a bike race wants to amount to anything in Flanders, it will lead its riders on a chase across and over the most demanding terrain inside these boundaries, and the 2010 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad does exactly that.
Partnered with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the final weekend of February doesn’t as much ease into the classics racing season as it slams head first into it. Over the next five weeks, every race is in preparation for the biggest races in April, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Very few riders have found success in the April monuments without having suffered through the cold, rain and snow of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Dwars door Vlaanderen, de Vlaamse Pijl, Gent-Wevelgem and the 3 Days of de Panne. While there is no direct formula to predict what races provide the best preparation, what it does show is that in order to excel, one must be wholly committed to racing the northern spring classics.
The early season form needed to race well in the Omloop can translate into a successful spring campaign for the most ambitious, and hardened, specialists. While no rider has ever won the Tour of Flanders and Het Volk in the same year, of the eight times the same rider has finished second in the Omloop and then gone on to finish on the podium in the Ronde, five of those have been winners, including Dutchman Jan Raas twice, in 1979 and 1983. Coming into form too quickly, however, seems to be a jinx. Of the six times a rider has won the Omloop and done the podium of the Ronde, he has failed to do the double. Eddy Merckx, Peter Van Petegem and Johan Museeuw are the only riders to win each multiple times. A wholly Belgian affair? Consider this: only eight non-Belgian riders have won the Omloop- three Italian, three Dutch, one Irish and one Norwegian. For some, the cobbles are in their blood.
When the Belgian daily newspaper Het Nieuwsblad assumed control of Het Volk in 2008, and hence the organization of the race, it brought the finish back to Gent, where it has started every year, and where it finished until 1995. From 1996-2007, the race finished in Lokeren, and typically created a less than exciting finish. With 12 climbs and six sections of cobbles packed into 110 of the final 129 kilometers, the race now dares those with aspirations in April to come to Gent prepared. Some will hold form, others will flame out. The best will animate the Classics looking to etch their names into the history books.
The 65th Omloop is 204 kilometers with five of its 12 climbs on cobbles with an additional 12.3 kilometers of cobbled roads. With the most exciting part of the race coming over 110 kilometers, the final 60 kilometers will be explosive. The race also runs in a different sequence than the Ronde. While the typical procession in the Tour of Flanders that is the Haeghoek cobbles (2000 meters), Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg (absent in the 2010 RVV) Tenbosse, Eikenmolen (also absent from the RVV) and the Muur van Geraardsbergen is its finale, for the Omloop this represents climbs 1-6 with the Muur coming with 95 kilometers remaining. Where the cobbled sections are spread throughout the Ronde, five of the seven sections in the Omloop come in the final 50 kilometers. The Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Wolvenberg and Molenberg come over 16 kilometers and also includes the Donderij (1100 meters) and Holleweg cobbles (2400 meters). The riders then have the Paddestraat (2400 m) and Lippenhoevenstraat (1300 m) in the slightly uphill, more difficult direction followed by the Lange Munte (2500 m) with 20 kilometers to go. While Flanders forces the strongest riders to explode on the final hills to make their decisive move stick, the Omloop is not all about the hills, and this is a pleasant change to the parcours.
Another crucial factor is the weather. The race was cancelled in 1996 and 2004 due to bad weather. Wind, cold, wet and snow are always part of the race, and always a threat to dictate the outcome. The list of hard men who have won the Omloop is a testament to that notion. I asked Peter Van Petegem if it was difficult getting motivated to race such a difficult course so early in the season. “I’m Flemish, so no, it was not difficult. I dreamt of these races growing up in Brakel, and I am proud to have won it three times. But you’ve got to love the stones, eh?”
While a race of 200 kilometers is considered a semi classic, the Omloop breaks down pretty simply- 75 kilometers to warm up and get into the heart of the Flemish Ardennes. 12 climbs and 11.5 kilometers of cobbles over 110 kilometers to wear down your opponents, reel in the break, then launch an attack. Then a final 20 kilometers to make it stick. It’s a wise to move to bet against a group hitting the Sint-Pietersplein together.
I remember buying a copy of VeloNews in early March in 1996. Tom Steels was on the cover after winning Het Volk in atrocious conditions. The start of the Spring Classics had been won by a Belgian hard man. This represented to me a passage from winter to spring, and the early beginnings of another glorious season of cycling. These images have inspired me to ride during the cold winters that have followed since and push my tolerance for harsh conditions to higher levels. There is no better place to be than Belgium in the spring time, even when spring comes early.
The Climbs of the 2010 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Climb Length Avg. Max Surface
1. Leberg 1130 meters 3% 13% paved
2. Berendries 936 meters 7% 12% paved
3. Valkenberg 537 meters 8% 12% paved
4. Tenbosse 453 meters 6% 8% paved
5. Eikenmolen 610 meters 5% 12% paved
6. Muur van Geraardsbergen 1075 meters 9% 20% cobbles
7. Pottelberg 1300 meters 6.5% 7.5% paved
8. Kruisberg 1875 meters 4% 9% cobbles
9. Taaienberg 530 meters 6% 15% cobbles
10. Eikenberg 1252 meters 5% 9% cobbles
11. Wolvenberg 800 meters 4% 17% paved
12. Molenberg 462 meters 7% 14% cobbles
Peter Easton has attended the Spring Classics every year since 2003. Catch up with him on the road with Velo Classic Tours and one of his ten itineraries to the Classics: www.veloclassic.com
Photo Courtesy: Cor Vos ©2000 via Sabine Sunderland