Too soon to peak: what does Omloop Het Nieuwsblad really tell us about the upcoming Spring Classics?

Despite a perhaps less explosive start to the Classics season by their starman Wout van Aert, the formidable Visma-Lease a Bike still found a way to win on Opening Weekend

Two years ago at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Wout van Aert took victory with an attack so domineering that every other Classics contender must have wondered how they could possibly beat him over the rest of the spring. It wasn’t just that he managed to open up such a big gap on the Bosberg, even before reaching the cobbled part of the climb, it was the way he did so with such apparent ease, all despite having ridden so actively earlier in the race, and still retained enough energy to solo to victory by over 20 seconds.

Whereas that was a demonstration of vintage Van Aert at his very best, his performance at the same race on Saturday was relatively subdued. Though he was once again in the thick of things as Visma-Lease a Bike sprung the race into life early on pre-television coverage, when he was one of the team’s five riders who made it into the 23-man group that escaped from the rest of the peloton, the expected attack in pursuit of victory never came. On the Muur-Kapelmuur, rather than push on from the select five-man group that had formed from that original break, he appeared to be straining to keep the wheel of Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny). Then on the Bosberg, sight of his triumphant move two years ago, again he only followed wheels rather than taking the initiative, despite it seeming to be the prime moment for a counter-attack with his teammate Matteo Jorgenson about to be brought back.

Van Aert did ultimately finish on the winning team, as Jan Tratnik took victory, and registered a solid podium finish for himself in the bunch sprint for third. But it’s fair to say this wasn’t the Belgian at his best.

But before we talk down Van Aert’s hopes of this year getting the better of his nemesis Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in the major Classics to come later this spring, consider the thought that, paradoxically, this more underwhelming performance might actually be better for his prospects.

Looking back to 2022, Van Aert did not go on to dominate the rest of the spring Classics that campaign as his performance at Omloop suggested he would. Another victory followed at E3 Harelbeke, but that was his final win of the spring; he missed the winning selection at Gent-Wevelgem, and, though misfortune can be blamed for the Covid positive that forced him to miss the Tour of Flanders, but once back fit again he could still only manage second-place at Paris-Roubaix behind Dylan van Baarle.

What Van Aert did in 2022 is what so many pros fear — he peaked too soon. And this is the problem with drawing conclusions from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Along with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, it contributes to what is one of the more enjoyable weekends on the calendar, and whets the appetite for not just the Classics to come, but the whole season. But it stands in isolation from the rest of the cobbled classics, taking place a whole three-and-a-half weeks before Classic Brugge-De Panne signals the beginning of the so-called ‘Flemish Week’. In fact, more time passes between it than between Brugge-De Panne and the final northern Classic of the spring, Paris-Roubaix, in between which are the other four WorldTour cobbled Classics. If you plan to be at your best for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, then these are the cluster of races you want to come into top form during, not Het Nieuwsblad.

The oft-quoted statistic that no winner of Omloop has ever gone on to win the Tour of Flanders that same season isn’t just a coincidental quirk. Though it is pretty bizarre that no man has ever achieved this particular double in the 79 years since both races have been a part of the calendar, given the similarity of the two races, the distance between them is long enough not to be covered by the same peak in form. You could even say Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne aren’t really a part of the cobbled Classics season, but rather an anomaly, a weekend where we pay attention to Belgium before switching over to Italy for a fortnight featuring Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo.

That’s not to say that Tour of Flanders hopefuls want to have no form during Opening Weekend. Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal–Quick-Step), for one, will not have been heartened by his condition as he missed all the moves, and had a torrid time all-round with crashes and mechanicals. Neither will Biniam Girmay (Intermarché - Wanty) believe he is on his way back to his best with an anonymous display and lowly finish of 55th. Even the likes of Kasper Asgreen (Soudal–Quick-Step) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), who did manage to make the original selection, will be disheartened at having dropped away from it so early on.

By contrast, others will feel they struck an ideal balance between being strong with room still to improve. Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) expressed pleasure at his condition and eventual eighth-place finish, despite being dropped by Van Aert, De Lie, Christophe Laporte (Visma-Lease a Bike) and Toms Skujiņš (Lidl-Trek) on the Muur; which makes particular sense considering that his main target of the Ardennes Classics doesn't come until even later in April. And of course Wout van Aert himself, who still looked solid, tactically switched on, and in harmony with his team, only lacking an extra kick he will expect to gain later this spring.

While Van Aert did not himself repeat his victory from 2022, his Visma-Lease a Bike team did courtesy of Jan Tratnik, making it three successive victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad for the team. The Belgian will surely be delighted with how his team rode as a whole, first splitting the race into pieces, then, when it all surprisingly came back together towards the end, once again using their numerical advantage to help Tratnik get up the road and take the win from a two-up sprint against Nils Politt (UAE Team Emirates). With Tratnik and new signing Matteo Jorgenson (who for a while looked as though might win when he reached the top of the Muur still at the front of the race) to add to what was already a stellar Classics line-up featuring Laporte, Dylan van Baarle and Tiesj Benoot, Visma-Lease a Bike are once again a terrifying prospect for the opposition — especially if Van Aert is indeed still on his way to reaching peak form.

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