Each year, the racing season seems to start a little bit earlier than the year before. Scratch that. It's not a feeling or a sense or something that you can say seems like it's so, because it is. It's a fact. The off season has gotten significantly shorter compared to years gone by, and riders are fitter early on than ever before. No matter how many races pop up in January and early February though, one race, above them all, signifies the opening of the season - the race formerly known as Gent-Gent, then the Omloop Het Volk, and now, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
It's Belgium's first race of each season, it's a festival of all things cobbles, and it never disappoints (except on those few unfortunate years where snow ends all hope of a race). If Saturday's Omloop isn't enough, there's another one to come on Sunday. It's a doubleheader in Belgium, known as Opening weekend. The hillier, mini-Tour of Flanders Omloop Het Nieuwsblad goes first, then it's followed by the more sane, sprinter friendly, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Expectations are always high (some might say unjustifiably so) for the riders who have their hopes set on success just a month later in Flanders's biggest race, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, as well as the rest of the Northern Classics, which culminate, of course, with Paris-Roubaix. It's hard to do either of these two races in relative obscurity if you're anyone other than a fledgling neo-pro on an invited Continental team. If you aren't - you're under the microscope.
The hype and pressure on these two February races have come to such a boiling point that some of the sport's biggest stars have elected to not even participate. Both Garmin-Cervelo's Heinrich Haussler and Leopard Trek's Fabian Cancellara opted out of the two Belgian races in favor of peaceful, stress-free training.
In the end, for riders like Haussler and Cancellara, there seems to be more to lose rather than to gain in giving it a go at the end of February on the cobbles. If they win, all eyes will be on them already, the pressure will mount even more than it does under normal conditions. If they don't win, then the pressure for better results follows - what went wrong? why didn't they win? Are they sick? Even worse, there's no guarantee that you make it through races like these unscathed, both in the press and in the flesh. Crashes were abundant this weekend, luckily, most of them weren't big deals, but the possibility is certainly there, and a crash right now would ruin the spring, no questions.Langeveld Takes His First Big Win
For those that didn't opt out for training in the sun of southern Europe, they had their hands full up north this weekend. On a terrible, ugly February Saturday, Rabobank's Sebastian Langeveld took the biggest win of his career in an incredibly close sprint against last year's Het Nieuwsblad winner, Juan Antonio Flecha. The 26 year old Dutchman has been a candidate for Classics glory for some time, but Saturday's ride finally confirmed the possibilities. The powerful young rider leapt out of the field with 50 kilometers remaining, and only ever saw Juan Antonio Flecha after that.
Flecha, for his part, was impressive - he bridged a one minute gap, made what was likely a tactical error in the finale with a late attack, and still nearly stole the win from the Dutchman. Flecha's performance was a continuation of last year's ride and a continuation from the years before that as well. The Spaniard has long been a contender in the north, but the big wins have for the most part eluded him, save for 2010's solo February triumph. While Boonen and Cancellara were the big names of the cobbles last year, it's well worth nothing that it was Flecha who last had contact with the mighty duo. Still though, Flecha has always been half a step behind the true Olympians of the sport. With that said, he seems poised to take his spot on Olympus. If those two race at about the same level this year, and Flecha continues his slow ascent upward, it seems fair to think that we could have another Classics dominator on our hands.Especially…
Especially if the former Tour de France stage winner can count on the team he had behind him this weekend. Team Sky were roundly criticized for their 2010 performance in general. Their first year was anything but a fairy tale, but far from the failure some deposited on their shoulders. Whatever you think of 2010, 2011 looks like it could be the year that everyone expected last year.
Sky put two riders on the podium on Saturday in Gent in Flecha and Matt Hayman, but the best was yet to come. At the end of another aggressive, typically tough day on Sunday, it was Sky's Chris Sutton who pushed his front wheel across the line first in Kuurne and raised his hands to the sky. The Australian took the biggest win of his career by any stretch of the imagination, despite his own protestations that his stage win at the Tour Down Under was pretty significant last year.
It wasn't just the podium finishes either - three out of six possible over the two days - the whole team was present and impressive throughout. Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen might have seemed the logical bet for glory on Sunday in Kuurne, but his leadout for Sutton was the stuff sprinters dream of.
While Boasson Hagen hasn't won any Classics just yet, he's rightly considered a major contender, so it seems right that he'd be left to leadouts at the moment. If his form is coming on slowly and correctly, he'll be benefiting from the work of his teammates come the first Sunday in April for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Questions In Belgium
While Sky came out of this first weekend in glorious sunshine, and Rabobank proved that they have a team even without World Championship runner-up and Dwars Door Vlaanderen winner, Matti Breschel, the stern eye of criticism is hard at work at home in Belgium. For the second straight year, the Belgians were shut out at home, and the country's two biggest stars, Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert, were left with nothing to show for their efforts.
If the country's stars didn't produce, the stars's teammates did manage to show themselves, if not in spectacular fashion, at least in encouraging ways. Gilbert admitted after the Omloop on Saturday that he just didn't have it, so he told former Belgian National Champion and still only 25 years old, Jürgen Roelandts, to race for himself. Roelandts did just that and ended up the last rider on Flecha's wheel when he made the decisive move on Saturday. Unfortunately, he didn't have enough to follow, but he came agonizingly close. He managed 9th on the day. Not earth shattering, but certainly not embarrassing. If he continues to improve over the next month, just like his teammate, Gilbert, will, he'll be a huge asset for the Wallonian, as he seeks out his first ever win in Vlaanderens Mooiste, Flanders's Most Beautiful, that is, the Tour of Flanders.
On Sunday, many have criticized new Omega Pharma-Lotto sprinter, Andre Greipel. Greipel finished a disappointing third place in the bunch kick, which seemed perfectly suited for him, and then whined that he had no leadout, when moments before saying that, he says he lost the wheel of his leadout man. It wasn't a wise excuse, but it doesn't take away from the fact that though he only finished 3rd, it was his biggest result in a Spring Classic ever. You have to start somewhere. Next time, if Greipel doesn't lose that wheel and doesn't have to make a huge effort to get back into the sprint, you're talking about a winner. Obviously, that's a big if.
After leaving HTC-Highroad for the chance to race the sport's biggest races in 2011, Greipel has more question marks surrounding him than a boat riddled with holes in the middle of a large body of water. He has performed unbelievably well in the second tier races, but is he good enough to win the best races? Hence the question marks. Lots of them. With that in mind, Sunday's result at KBK wasn't a failure by any stretch of the imagination. It wasn't a huge triumph, but it was a step forward. Winning sprints in the early season Spanish races are one thing - getting sprint wins after horrendously hard Belgian classics is quite another.
Just ask Garmin-Cervelo's Tyler Farrar. He has had a great start to the season, but didn't put together a good sprint yesterday in Kuurne. He admitted frustration at missing a big opportunity afterwards, but was it really a huge loss? No, certainly not. He's obviously going well, and like he said, every now and then, you're going to botch a sprint. Good thing it was Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and not a major classic. Apart from Farrar, who looked solid, despite some bad luck, his team continued to be an exclamation point. Hushovd, clothed in his beautiful World Champion kit, smeared with mud, looked strong, and more encouragingly, Martijn Maaskant, looks back to top form. Garmin-Cervelo is a team with the capabilities of man-handling the Classics if the support crew is in order and Hushovd, Farrar, and Haussler are in top form. This weekend didn't show anything mind boggling, but it did show that things are in order.
Back to the Belgian teams. Omega Pharma had an ok weekend - nothing to celebrate, but nothing to cry about either. Then again, there shouldn't be anything to cry about since it's February. Moving over to Omega Pharma's arch-rivals, we run into Patrick Lefevere's boys in blue, Quick-Step. When you talk about Quick-Step, you only need to talk about one rider really, Tom Boonen. Sure, he has an excellent supporting cast around him, but the team lives and dies on the thighs of Tom Boonen. With that in mind, Boonen had a reasonable weekend. Exactly the kind of weekend we should expect from a top tier favorite in one month.
His late move on Sunday in hopes of upsetting the bunch sprint was an interesting one, but hey, if he didn't want to sprint, and he wanted to attack - who cares. It's KBK, and he has won it twice already. The Belgian almost god has said that he doesn't have much interest in field sprints anymore, and in this case, a field sprint was on the horizon, so what do you do when you don't want to sprint and you don't want to sit up?
Attack, of course. It didn't amount to much, but it was a display of defiance and a chance for everyone to take note - Boonen is back. His knee is good. His form is good. You can bet he'll be a major factor when the race distances go over 250-kilometers and the stakes are history and legend.In The End
...the stars didn't shine so brightly. They're not supposed to though. There's still a solid month of training and racing to go before the superstars sharpen up their #2 pencils for their final exams. Haussler and Cancellara didn't show up in favor of training. Boonen and Gilbert pretty much did the same thing, except they showed up for the Belgian opener to do their training. There's not much to be taken from the results today - consider this weekend a presidential primary, and it's not New Hampshire or Iowa. Sure, it's important, but it's more important for the lesser riders than it is for the riders who are going to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in a little over a month.
You can be sure that the likes of Boonen, Cancellara, Haussler, Gilbert, and Hushovd will be ready when it's time to throw down. Until then, watch them build, and watch everyone else fight for the scraps, because a win this past weekend and no result on March 27 at Gent-Wevelgem, or April 3rd at the Tour of Flanders, or April 10 at Paris-Roubaix, would be a huge disappointment by any stretch of the imagination for the favorites.