The cycling season is well underway by February 26th, but this is when the spring Classics start in earnest with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the traditional 'opening weekend'.
As the first top level one-day race for both men and women, the opening weekend retains an almost mythical symbolism among fans. It marks a shift to the cobbles which will dominate the next two months of the one-day racing calendar.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the first in the series of six Flanders Classics and falls on Saturday 26th February. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne comprises the second half of the opening weekend action on the men’s side, but where that race favours the sprinters, Omloop is one for the cobbled purists. Its undulating terrain takes in many of East Flanders’ infamous ‘hellingen’ and flat cobbled sectors along its traditionally circuitous route.
This year will see the 77th edition of the race for the men and the 17th for the women. The race travels from Ghent to Ninove, with the men riding 204km and the women 128km in characteristic loops through the Flandrian landscape. As ever with the spring classics, the weather conditions are likely to play a significant role, with wind and rain characteristic of late February in Belgium a testing antagonist for the riders.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Men's Route
In a route that is largely unchanged from last year’s, the men will tackle 13 ‘hellingen’ and 9 cobbled sectors.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Men's Race 2022 route
The two most testing climbs of the day are the Muur van Geraardsbergen, or Kapelmuur, and the Bosberg. These are the toughest challenges of the route and, with 17.5km remaining when the race hits the Muur, expect decisive moves to be launched from these two points in the race.
Following the final climb, a 13.5km run-in to the finish will likely see the front runners strung out on the ride into Ninove, with successful attacks having every chance of sticking. The men’s peloton broke with tradition in 2021, however. The race blew apart on the Molenberg with 43km to go, but came back together. Multiple subsequent attacks were neutralised resulting in an uncharacteristic sprint finish for the 76th edition of the race.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Women's Route
The women will ride 9 climbs and 5 cobbled sectors, including the tough Kapelmuur and Bosberg. They will take on the same run-in to the finish as the men's peloton. Van der Breggen rode solo to victory from this point last year after her SD Worx teammate, Demi Vollering, struck out on the Muur, shredding the bunch. It set up Anna van der Breggen perfectly to launch what would be the winning attack on the Bosberg and she held on convincingly to the finish line.Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Women's Race 2022 route
While traditionally strong classics teams will arrive ready for the challenges that await them, a number of other teams have stepped up their interest in classics racing and pose a greater risk than ever before.
The greatest of the threats to the supremacy of the likes of QuickStep Alpha Vinyl comes, arguably, from Ineos Grenadiers. Very much a team in transition, Ineos have continued to invest resources into their classics team in the off-season, adding support for the likes of Tom Pidcock, who will lead the British team at Omloop in the first one-day race of his packed early season schedule.
Jumbo Visma have arguably added the most depth to their classics squad. With the signings of Christophe Laporte, Tosh van der Sande and most recently Tiesj Benoot, the Dutch team are stacking one-day specialists behind Wout van Aert in an effort to deliver him to his main early season goals: Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
With Omloop not one of Van Aert’s primary targets, there is a chance they may ‘do a QuickStep’ and work for another team member. However, van Aert will see Omloop, which he elected not to ride in 2021, as excellent preparation and essentially a dress rehearsal for Flanders.
QuickStep AlphaVinyl triumphed in 2021 but defending champion Davide Ballerini is not on the startlist, possibly as a result of his recent case of covid-19. The Wolfpack are not short of strength in depth when it comes to one-day racing however and with the pairing of 2021 Ronde van Vlaanderen victor Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert, who knocked at the door of some serious success last season, the team will be look to make it difficult for the rest.
Bahrain Victorious’ Sonny Colbrelli has proven his mettle on the cobbles, winning the 2021 edition of Paris-Roubaix, and the European champion begins his 2022 campaign at Omloop aiming to deliver another excellent season.
Astana Qazaqstan Team boast two strong contenders: Alexey Lutsenko, who has hit the ground running in 2022, his comfortable victory at Clásica Jaén presenting the Kazakh as a master of the varied parcours. Riding with him, Gianni Moscon, who also showed great strength on the cobbles in 2021, leading the attacks up the Muur in last year’s race and going solo at Paris-Roubaix before a puncture ended his hopes.
Despite their Pro Team status, Total Energies represent a big concern for the hitters. Peter Sagan makes his one-day debut for the team and will be seeking to make his mark following a frustrating 2021. His loyal domestique Daniel Oss has shown good early season form, as has Anthony Turgis, meaning the French team have a few cards to play during the race.
Other contenders include Trek-Segafredo, who will bank on seasoned local boy Jasper Stuyven, and with his team riding strongly so far in the 2022 season, a decent outside bet could be Uno-X’s Rasmus Tiller.
With fewer racing kilometres with which to judge the already unpredictable women’s peloton, it’s difficult to know who will arrive in Belgium in form. However, in terms of strong contenders for the first major race of the season, there is one clear place to start: Trek-Segafredo’s newly crowned World Champion Elisa Balsamo. The Italian will look to begin her season in the rainbow stripes strongly, and with the likes of Elisa Longho Borghini and Ellen van Dijk supporting her, its possible that Balsamo will deliver.
Team SD Worx have time trial specialist Marlen Reusser to add power to what will likely be a day for Lotte Kopecky. The Belgian champion is strong on the cobbles and will aim to top her 4th in last year’s edition of the race and finish on the podium this time around.
Katia Niewiadoma leads a strong Canyon//SRAM Racing side and she will be hoping to end her winless run following a frustrating couple of seasons. Alice Barnes, who was 5th in last year’s race, will be another option for the team.
Movistar bring perennial favourite Annemiek van Vleuten to her first race of the season. Though her form was uncertain following her crash at Paris-Roubaix Femmes back in October 2021, where she fractured her shoulder and her pelvis, Van Vleuten has silenced any doubters with her dominating win in the Setmana Valenciana a few weeks ago. She has strong youngster Emma Norsgaard for support, and a possible second option for the Spanish team.
Teams with the potential to cause an upset include FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope who have a solid option in the shape of Grace Brown, who finished in the top ten in 2021; UAE Team ADQ, through Italian powerhouse Marta Bastianelli, already off the mark this season with a win at Vuelta CV Feminas; and Team Jumbo Visma. The Dutch team will not bring Marianne Vos to opening weekend, but in 23-year-old Brit Anna Henderson they have a rapidly improving prospect who looks set to make a real impression on the women’s peloton this season.
Despite strong opposition from Jumbo Visma and Ineos, we are backing Astana to roll pedals for the gold medals on opening weekend. Alexey Lutsenko has started the season on a high and will look to keep his winning streak going with a victory on opening weekend.
For the women, it’s always hard to look past Annemiek van Vleuten, and we expect Elisa Balsamo, Marta Cavalli, Lotte Kopecky and Anna Henderson to challenge, but this year, Kasia Niewiadoma is our tip to take the win for Canyon//SRAM Racing, and kick off her season in style.