As far as winners go, there were no surprises in the men’s and women’s editions of Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Pre-race favourites, Wout van Aert and Annemiek van Vleuten, reigned victorious. However, despite the predictability of the rider on the top step of the podium, the manner in which each of them raced wasn’t so widely expected. Commonly thought of as a pure climber, Van Vleuten edged out fast-legged Demi Vollering in a sprint to the line, while Wout van Aert managed to go solo despite being the most marked man in the race.
Though Fabio Jakobsen saved the day in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday, we didn’t see the usual dominance of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, as rival team Jumbo-Visma looked to take the mantle as this season’s Classics team to beat. With that being said, here are the main takeaways from opening weekend 2022.
There’s bigger things than bike racing
"One would think that human beings are more intelligent than going to war nowadays. Apparently, that’s not the case everywhere." These were the words of Wout van Aert, the winner of Omloop het Nieuwsblad, after he crossed the line first in Ninove on Saturday. His victory celebration wasn’t rife with wild gestures, instead, the Belgian made a powerful statement, simply putting up two fingers to symbolise peace.
It was universally acknowledged across the cycling world that the results of opening weekend paled in comparison to the devastating consequences of the Russo-Ukrainian war currently taking place. While racing provided a welcome escape from the harrowing news, thoughts of the hardship faced by those elsewhere on the continent meant it was near impossible to watch with the usual gusto that accompanies the start of the Classics season.
“I want to say one more thing: bike racing is the most important side issue in the world, with the emphasis on ‘side issue,’” continued Van Aert after the race. “It's just madness that a war is still possible today, and so close. For what it’s worth, I would like to express my support for all those involved in Ukraine.”
Photo: Omloop het Nieuwsblad
The next day at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Fabio Jakobsen shared a similar sentiment. The Dutch rider, who won in an impressive bunch kick for the line, said in the post-race press conference. "My mind and my prayers are with the people in Ukraine and the east of Europe," he said. "Here, it's 25-year-old guys fighting on a bike for a win and there, it's the 25-year-old guys like me fighting for freedom and their life. It's not a nice time over there and here we enjoy this, but my mind is over there and that puts things in perspective."
In a sport where it has been unfortunately common for athletes to stay silent on cultural and political issues, it’s a welcome change to see riders of Van Aert and Jakobsen’s stature take a stance.
Quick Step’s slow start
For a team synonymous with the Classics, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s first race of opening weekend left a lot to be desired. The team's best finisher at Omloop het Nieuwsblad was Florian Sénéchal, who came in 9th place, after the team lagged behind throughout the race. This can, in part, be blamed on their slightly depleted roster: Tim Declerq, one of the team’s key domestiques, was unable to start due to an inflammation of the lining of the heart, while Covid-19 struck riders like Kasper Asgreen in the lead-up to the season, too.
As reported in Het Nieuwsblad, firm words were exchanged between team boss Patrick Lefevere and his riders in a team meeting after the race on Saturday evening, with Fabio Jakobsen telling the press: “I wasn't exactly comfortable in my seat, but that's part of top sport. A ninth place is not enough for Quick-Step. I'm not going to go into more detail, but it wasn't pleasant.”
Image: Getty/Bas Czerwinski
Luckily the team were able to avoid the wrath of Lefevere after Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day, by taking the win with Jakobsen himself. The team’s desire to right the previous day’s wrongs was clear in their die-hard attitude as they brought the breakaway back in the closing stages. Through gritted teeth, Yves Lampaert and Florian Sénéchal both pulled monster turns to bring the three riders out front back to the bunch, setting up motivated Jakobsen to take a sprint win ahead of Caleb Ewan in second place.
While the Wolfpack redeemed themselves on Sunday, narrowly avoiding Lefevere going into full ‘state of emergency’ mode, they were clearly not the Quick Step of old at opening weekend. In the past they have controlled the Classics like puppet masters, but the Belgian squad appeared to repeatedly be on the back foot, unable to compete with rival teams. At Omloop especially, it became clear that there was a new squad fighting for dominance on the cobbles, and they wore the colours of black and yellow.
What to do about Wout?
Jumbo-Visma’s strengthened Classics roster paid dividends this weekend. The team’s smart signings of the likes of Tiesj Benoot and Christope Laporte gave pre-race favourite for Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Wout van Aert, even more tools in his armoury – a stark improvement on last year where the Belgian champion was largely left to fight for himself in the one-day races. Benoot’s vicious attack on the Berendries climb at Omloop put many of Van Aert’s key rivals under pressure, successfully tiring the legs of those who might have posed a threat to the Belgian when he launched his winning move Bosberg.Image: Pool/Getty
Despite everyone knowing that Van Aert was the rider to watch in Omloop het Nieuwsblad, the 27-year-old still rode to the line solo. Each of his competitors would have been told to follow his wheel during the race, so Wout was left with one option: ride hard enough to make this impossible. Set up so well by his Jumbo-Visma teammates, who took the approach of attack rather than defence, the Dutch squad sent a clear message to Quick Step this weekend.
In every key move at both Omloop and Kuurne, the colours of Jumbo-Visma were present – an image which will likely plague the nightmares of Patrick Lefevere over the next few weeks. While they were unable to secure a second team win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the trio of Laporte, Benoot and Nathan Van Hooydonck still animated the race, proving that the Jumbo-Visma is still able to fight for the win at races without their de facto leader, Van Aert.
Van Vleuten's valiant versatility
It's fair to say that in a two-up sprint to the line between Demi Vollering and Annemiek van Vleuten, the majority would bet on the former to take victory. Add in the fact that Van Vleuten had been forced to ride the front for the last 12km into a block head-wind, and the odds swing even further in Vollering’s favour. The younger Dutch woman had refused to pull any turns and help the Movistar rider fight off the charging pack behind, with Vollering claiming that she didn’t need to contribute to the workload as she had her Team SD Worx teammate and strong sprinter, Lotte Kopecky, in the group behind. An indicator of Team SD Worx’s strength in depth this season, they ended up with four of their six riders in the 42-rider strong bunch behind Vollering and Van Vleuten, while Movistar only had one rider, Emma Norsgaard Bjerg, in this group.Annemiek van Vleuten (Photo: Omloop het Nieuwsblad)
But it appears that, no matter how many cards SD Worx have to play, Van Vleuten’s power prevails. The Olympic champion, who will turn 40 this year, is constantly proving that age is no barrier, sitting at the very top of the sport regardless of the terrain. It's worth remembering that just eight days earlier, Van Vleuten took victory in the Queen stage of Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, a race which finished atop the first-category climb Alto Collao. A rider so versatile she can dominate in the Classics and outshine her competitors in mountainous terrain, Van Vleuten can only be regarded as the best female cyclist in the world at the moment.
With Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders, the Ardennes Classics, Giro Donne and Tour de France Femmes all on her race calendar, Van Vleuten seems to believe she can win it all, and going off the last few weeks, we’re not going to be the ones to argue.
A vintage women’s Team DSM
Though not making headlines for being at the top of the podium in Omloop het Nieuwsblad, the performance of Team DSM’s women’s squad shouldn’t go unnoticed. After a lacklustre 2021 season, where the team were largely uncompetitive in the biggest races – aside from Lorena Wiebes’ wins in Ronde van Drenthe and The Women’s Tour at the end of the season – the Dutch squad look to be revived in 2022.
Their German talent, Liane Lippert, ensured that the team was represented in the most dangerous break of the day at Omloop, one that included riders from SD Worx, Jumbo-Visma and Trek-Segafredo. Lippert seemed to be back to the form that she has shown in years previous when she took a top-5 place in the World Championships, able to remain with her breakaway companions on the Muur van Geraardsbergen while Classics specialist, Anna Henderson, was distanced.Floortje Mackaij from Team DSM (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty)
Once Lippert’s breakaway had been engulfed by the peloton, and Van Vleuten and Vollering had disappeared up the road ahead, Wiebes proved she was the best of the sprinters in the group behind. The fast-legged Dutch rider unleashed a powerful kick to finish in 3rd place ahead of World Champion Elisa Balsamo – a fitting reward for the team’s efforts. In Omloop van het Hageland the following day, Team DSM were present once again in all the important moves. This time, it was Floortje Mackaij who finished on the podium in 3rd place from a 10-rider sprint for the line.
Though Team DSM don’t immediately come to mind when it comes to the super teams of the women’s peloton, they proved that they are more than capable to compete with the likes of Trek-Segafredo and SD Worx this season and should not be counted out.