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60th Omloop Het Volk - 1.HC

Belgium, February 26, 2005

An icy start in Belgium

By Jeff Jones

The scene in 2004
Photo ©: CN

The Belgian season begins later than in most other European cycling countries, one reason being that the weather is not the greatest in this part of the world in late February. Snow is definitely not unheard of at this time of year, and last year it was bad enough to cause the cancellation of the Omloop Het Volk, the first race on the Belgian calendar. Amazingly, it has only been cancelled twice previously - in 1960 and 1986 - because of bad weather. The threat of snow hasn't been ruled out for this year's edition either, although it's unlikely to be very heavy. Still, the temperatures have been barely above zero this week and the cold alone will make it a very tough race.

The 201 km parcours is a typical one for this race, with a healthy mixture of Flemish climbs and cobbles that is sure to cause a selection. Starting in Gent's Citadelpark, the riders head due south towards the famous "hill zone" that is used for so many of the Flemish classics. The first climb is the Kattenberg (km 24), just before Oudenaarde. It's a 750m wide, cobbled climb at a fairly gentle 6%, and comes early enough in the race not to be of significance. The first important climb is the Oude Kwaremont after 44 km, but this 2.2 km cobbled monster is still probably too far from the end to really damage the peloton. On the other hand, an enterprising team could cause some irreparable damage if the time is deemed right.

After 83 km, the riders will encounter the famed Muur van Geraardsbergen, which often marks the deciding moment in the Tour of Flanders. But there is still a lot of riding to come in Het Volk after the Muur, and the peloton often goes over it in one bunch. The race then heads back towards Brakel and back into the hills. The Kleiberg, Eikenberg, Leberg, Berendries and Molenberg all follow in quick succession, with the summit of the final climb at 66 km to go. The Molenberg is often a break point, with its narrow, savagely cobbled 9.8% average gradient. After that, the parcours twists and turns on its way back north to Lokeren and the finish, featuring another eight flat cobbled sections. If the hills haven't split things up, then the these cobbles generally do.

That's not to say a bunch sprint is unheard of in Het Volk, but more often than not a small group will get away in the finale to contest the finish.

The favourites

Tom Boonen (Quick.Step)
Photo ©: AFP
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22 teams will take the start of Omloop Het Volk, half of which are ProTour teams. We can expect a fierce battle between the top Belgian teams Quick.Step and Davitamon-Lotto, with stars such as Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini, Peter Van Petegem, Tom Steels and Robbie McEwen going up against each other. Two other strong Belgian teams, MrBookmaker.com-Sportstech, Chocolade Jacques and Landbouwkrediet-Colnago could also make an impact, playing off the rivalry of the big guns.

Of the current starters, Peter Van Petegem (Davitamon-Lotto) is in the unique position of having won Het Volk three times. De Peet would love to win it a fourth time, but there is a question mark over his condition as he is recovering from sickness. His teammate Robbie McEwen should be able to act as an alternative, as Tom Steels is sick.

The Quick.Step team is led by Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini, the latter who has also been under the weather several times this year. Boonen rates himself as fit for this time of year, without being at 100 percent. However, Quick.Step can also count on Servais Knaven, Kevin Hulsmans and the talented Nick Nuyens as potential winners.

Another strong squad is the new Discovery Channel team, with the likes of Stijn Devolder, who is considered by Boonen to be one of the big favourites, Roger Hammond, George Hincapie, Leif Hoste and Max van Heeswijk, who was the only rider who managed to get in the way of Quick.Step in Het Volk two years ago. T-Mobile should also be strong as a unit, led by 2004 Ronde Van Vlaanderen winner Steffen Wesemann and including Serguei Ivanov and Andreas Klier.

The Rabobank boys have been suffering from sickness too, with Michael Boogerd and Erik Dekker both 'flu victims. But last year's Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Steven de Jongh performs well in the cold, and Saturday's conditions should suit him. Belgian teams MrBookmaker.com-Sportstech, Chocolade Jacques and Landbouwkrediet-Colnago all boast strong riders: Geert Omloop, Nico Eeckhout and Ludo Dierckxsens could all play their roles.

CSC has been dominating the French races, but rarely do they do as well in Belgium. But it's a strong team with Jakob Piil, Lars Michaelsen, Tristan Hoffman, Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Allan Johansen among the starters. Cofidis (O'Grady), Credit Agricole (Kirsipuu) and Francaise des Jeux (Philippe Gilbert) are the French team hopes, but the battle should be played out between the Belgians once more.

Live coverage

Cyclingnews will be covering the 60th Omloop Het Volk live, starting 14:30 local time (CET)/08:30 (USA East)/05:30 (USA West)/00:30 (Australia East).