As racing moves away from the sunny weather of Australia, the Middle East and southern Europe, it can only mean one thing - the Spring Classics have arrived.
This year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the 78th edition of the men’s race and is the first WorldTour race of the year in Europe. A number of riders are set to make their season debut at the Belgian Classic that forms part of cycling’s ‘Opening Weekend’ alongside Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, which takes place the day after.
Defending men’s champion, Wout van Aert, is not set to take the start and intends to open his 2023 road account at Strade Bianche instead, so we won’t see a back-to-back winner here. Last year’s runner-up Sonny Colbrelli has also been forced to retire since that race due to cardiac problems.
All eyes will be on the fearsome Muur Van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg duo that now defines this race on its 207km route from Gent to Ninove. It's a chance for riders to hit the ground running and show their form before the spring Monuments.
Here are the key contenders and our prediction for the winner of the 2023 men’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Arnaud De Lie
The 20-year-old Belgian finished a breakthrough 2022 neo-pro season with nine wins to his name and has already added three to that since January at the Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana and Etoile de Bessèges, where he won stages one and three.
Lotto Dstny late on added Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to his 2023 calendar because of the real prospect of him actually winning it, having proved himself already on short climbing efforts. Specifically, those that could emulate the power needed to crest the Muur and Bosberg in a favourable position from which he could certainly win the sprint.
De Lie was a revelation in 2022 and although the vast majority of his wins were at 1.1 level races, two below WorldTour, he's demonstrated he can beat the very best when on top form. He showed some of that form in the first stage of Bessèges this year, where he bested top-tier one-day racers Mads Pedersen and Benoît Cosnefroy. De Lie can, and may try, to push it on the latter climbs but if he hangs on until the flat 12km run to Ninove, no one will want to take him to the line.
A strong team which includes Victor Campenaerts and Jasper De Buyst could aid him in those vital final stages. The perfect situation for Lotto would be to launch Campenaerts solo on the Bosberg with De Lie behind in a group waiting to win the bunch sprint if it gets brought back together.
With no Van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel on the start list, it makes it harder to put a clear favourite forward for year’s Omloop. At present, it's the last member of cyclocross’ ‘Big Three’ that sits atop the list of favourites, Tom Pidcock. The young British rider suits the parcours well with neither the punchy climbs nor tough cobbled terrain at all alien to him. That being said, Pidcock had a relatively disappointing 2022 Classics season after performing so well in 2021 with a win at De Brabantse Pijl and a contentious second place at Amstel Gold Race.
Pidcock started his third professional season at the Ineos Grenadiers well by winning stage four of the Volta ao Algarve, but he wasn’t able to hold onto the yellow jersey in the final time trial and the race was eventually won by his team-mate Dani Martínez.
He'll be hoping that missing the Cyclocross World Championships this year allows him to open his 2023 Classics campaign with a bang. But he'll be a marked man over the hellingen, making it difficult to get away solo. The 23-year-old is no slouch in a sprint though, so should be in contention from a reduced-group if need be.
Pidcock will be joined on the start line by a stacked Ineos outfit that includes former world champion Michał Kwiatkowski, Ben Turner, and Magnus Sheffield.
Turner is also touted as a potential favourite by the bookies after an incredible first season at Ineos, the highlight of which has to be his Paris-Roubaix performance - 11th place despite a late crash and his then team-mate, Dylan Van Baarle, taking the win. He's begun 2023 well on the road, with victory at the Vuelta a Murcia, as well as a second place on the gravel of the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior. Turner will hope to continue his form onto the cobbles this week.
In 2022 Jumbo-Visma bolstered their Classics squad around their headline act Wout van Aert, with Christophe Laporte one of the most fruitful new additions. The Frenchman proved one of the top signings in the pro peloton last year, accumulating stage wins at Paris Nice and the Tour de France along second place finishes at E3 Saxo Bank, Gent - Wevelgem, and the World Championships road race. The work he did as a support rider wasn't too shabby either.
With no Van Aert on the start line of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year he could be granted more leadership amongst a strong team. Like many of the favourites, Laporte has the potential to win in different ways, be it a late solo attack or a reduced bunch sprint.
Omloop will be Laporte’s 2023 season debut so his early form is unknown, but Jumbo-Visma have a number of other contender at their disposal should the Laporte not enter his second season with the Dutch squad at his best. New signings Jan Tratnik and Dylan Van Baarle will make their debuts for Jumbo-Visma at Omloop and alongside Tiesj Benoot, will more than likely play an important role on the climbs.
Van Baarle won Paris-Roubaix in 2022 and finished second at the Tour of Flanders, so is more than capable of winning this race. If he does, it will come from his favourite form of attacking, a solo breakaway. With such a formidable team Jumbo could easily send Benoot, Tratnik or Van Baarle on the attack with Laporte sitting in the wheels, waiting to strike. Benoot attacked in last year’s race, relieving Van Aert of any duty to chase before he surged away to victory, so perhaps that may be the blueprint again.
Unlike many of the other top WorldTour sprinters, Jasper Philipsen hasn’t made his 2023 debut yet, with most of them choosing to either go to races in southern Spain or the Middle East to get their sprinting legs up and running again. The Belgian has chosen to stay closer to home to take on Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne as the start point of his 2023 calendar, instead of the UAE Tour which he has raced the past two years. He is coming off the back of his best career year in which he won four WorldTour races including two stages of the 2022 Tour de France.
Obviously being Belgian doesn't hand an innate advantage over the opposition but it will mean the 24-year-old is used to the typically adverse February weather conditions and cobbles. He will be hoping that the other teams with top sprinters present, Lotto-Dstny with De Lie, Uno-X with Alexander Kristoff or TotalEnergies with Peter Sagan, miss a key split and are forced to bring it back for a bunch sprint.
Omloop will also act as somewhat of a tuneup for the Belgian Classics more suited to the fast men: Brugge de Panne and Gent-Wevelgem. The outside possibility of a bunch sprint would be a chance for Philipsen to win Omloop in a similar way to Davide Ballerini in 2021.
Despite not having Van der Poel, Alpecin-Deceuninck will still line up with a very strong team with the option of long-range attacks coming from some of their other top Classics riders: Gianni Vermeersh and Søren Kragh Andersen. Kragh Andersen has been on the podium at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before in 2020 and will hope he can jump away in a late solo attack to win the race for his new team, after joining from Team DSM in the summer.
It's February which can only mean one thing, Tim Wellens is in great form. The Belgian has once again proved that the second month of the year is his favourite time to race, taking his first win for UAE Team Emirates at stage three of the Vuelta a Andalucía, three days after joining team-mate Tadej Pogačar on the podium for the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior. He was forced to pull out of last year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad very late due to health issues but is provisionally set to take the start line alongside Matteo Trentin who could also be important in the race. Wellens finished third at Omloop in 2019 and Trentin fourth in 2020. Trentin however, hasn’t won a WorldTour race in four years so will need the race situation to go exactly right if he is to claim the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2023.
Wellens looked impressively strong while winning stage three of Andalucia, taking a solo victory from the break with a perfectly timed attack on the final rise to the line. He also slotted into Pogačar’s mountain train with ease and showed again that his early season form is always on point. Wellens best bet could be to attack over the Bosberg, which although only around a kilometre in length, does top out at a gradient of 11% – enough to make the difference. Wellens will however, have to carry over that strong early season form and turn it into a big one-day win, with his most prestigious single-day wins coming far and few between at the GP Montréal in 2015 and Brabantse Pijl in 2018.
It’s no surprise to see a Soudal - Quick-Step rider on this list. The Belgian outfit has been the best classics team in countless occasions throughout their history, but 2022 was quite the opposite of a typical Quick-Step season. They failed to finish higher than ninth in any of the Belgian Classics and were uncharacteristically absent in many of the other one-day races. Their successes came through Remco Evenepoel with wins at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, San Sebastian, and the Vuelta a España.
Despite this, you can never count them out and they still come to the 2023 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with an experienced squad full of talented cobble riders. Davide Ballerini won the bunch sprint to take the 2021 edition of the race after a perfect lead-out by Kasper Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal. Asgreen then went on to win the Tour of Flanders that season while Sénéchal has finished runner-up at both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem in the past. Alongside them is Lampaert, who although not often a winner, is very consistent in the Classics. He has four top-10s at Paris-Roubaix (2015, 2019, 2021 and 2022) a fifth-place finish at the Tour of Flanders (2020), second at Omloop (2020), and two wins at Dwars door Vlaanderen (2017 and 2018).
Ballerini and Sénéchal are both decent in a sprint but would not be favoured against the likes of De Lie or Philipsen, so will want to drop them before the final run into Ninove.
Meanwhile, Lampaert will want to be solo over the Bosberg to avoid a repeat of his second place in 2020 where Jasper Stuyven beat him in a two-up sprint to the line.
Outside of those main contenders, the Bahrain Victorious duo of Matej Mohorič and Fred Wright could go with the strongest riders on the bergs. Mohorič is one of the most versatile riders in the peloton and Wright's seventh place finish at Flanders last year he showed how proficient he is on the cobbles.
Stefan Küng’s (Groupama-FDJ) speciality is of course the time trial, shown in his recent win on stage five of the Volta ao Algarve just last week, but he was one of the best one-day racers in the world last year despite not converting it into a substantial victory. Küng finished third at E3 Saxo Bank, sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen, fifth at the Tour of Flanders, eighth at Amstel Gold Race and third at Paris-Roubaix, all within a 25-day period.
Greg Van Avermaet may have moved out of the featured favourites for the Classics in recent years, but he did finish third in this exact race a year ago. An experienced winner of major Classics, the Belgian has won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on two occasions. Alongside him from the old guard could be a return to top cobbling form for Sep Vanmarcke or Alexander Kristoff who has started his time at new team Uno-X with a win in the Algarve.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2023 prediction
We’re backing Christophe Laporte to open his 2023 season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with a win. Even without Wout van Aert, Jumbo-Visma still have one of the strongest teams on the start list and the combination of Tratnik, Van Baarle, Benoot and Laporte gives them multiple options over the cobbled climbs. Laporte can get away on the hardest cobbled climbs as he did in tandem with Van Aert at last year’s E3 Saxo Bank, but could also win in a reduced group sprint.