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62nd Omloop Het Volk - 1.HC

Belgium, March 3, 2007

Semi-Classic opens spring campaigns

By Gregor Brown in Gent

2006 Winner Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux)
Photo ©: Ulrik Møberg
(Click for larger image)

For many cycling enthusiasts, the season starts in Belgium with the running of the Omloop Het Volk. Though there have been races already held in Australia, USA, Italy, and France, it is the semi-classic, this year celebrating its 62nd edition, that really gets the season rolling. Following the Belgian hard-man's race there is Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, and then the big spring Classics, like the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

The parcours are straight forward and favor a strong sprinter, one who can stand up to the elements that Omloop Het Volk often throw into the mix. The race starts in Gent and ends 200 kilometres later in Lokeren, which is only about 30 kilometres to the east of the start. The parcours, however, offers enough in the form of bergs and cobbled sections to shake loose the weak riders and test the legs of the strong as it winds its way south and back north.

Departing from Gent, the race follows the river Schelde until it hits its first of ten bergs for the day, the Kluisberg. The dangerous sections come after Brakel, with climbs number 7 and 10, the Eikenberg and Molenberg. These sharp affairs are both cobbled and are succeeded by other cobbled sections; so any weak riders that barely make it over the climbs will be faced with a rattling experience trying to keep a hold on the leaders.

The Molenberg, at kilometre 137, maybe too far away to decide the race but it will for sure help form the wining move. Last year, it was Philippe Gilbert who made his manoeuvres in the closing flat sections; he chased down the lead group solo and then he punched again in the final seven kilometres to ride away the winner.

"At the Het Volk, it'll be mostly up to the wind to decide if I maybe can do it again or not," the returning champion reckoned to Cyclingnews. "If it's a head wind like last year, it'll be extremely tactical, and I might be able to play my cards, but if it's a side, there'll be a need for super good legs..."

Omloop Het Volk is considered by many to be a small version of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, which has a list of past winners that includes Johan Museeuw, Peter Van Petegem, and Franco Ballerini, all of who have gone on to win the Ronde.

Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) in the 2006 Het Volk
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
(Click for larger image)

Quick-Step will have a lot of cards to play and could possibly give Boonen his first win in Omloop Het Volk. It is hard to believe that the 26 year-old has yet to add the race to his palmarès, and maybe it is because he prefers to give his teammates a chance. It could be that Van Petegem will ride free for a record fourth win or that Gert Steegmans highlights the form that gave him a win recently in Volta ao Algarve.

The Quick-Step stronghold will have to keep an eye on defector Nick Nuyens. The Belgian moved over to Cofidis this last winter and showed a spark a couple of weeks ago in the Etoile de Bessèges, by taking the stage and overall win. A past winner, he will be able to keep his cards close to his chest, waiting for the right moment to squeeze the juice out of Omloop Het Volk.

The Belgians will dominate the race, but they could have some pressure from Italians Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital), Luca Paolini, and Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas). Ballan is gearing up for a Belgium campaign, with Ronde and Paris-Roubaix as his big targets. A win or good showing on Saturday could mean that this will be the spring for the rider from Veneto. Pippo Pozzato, also from Veneto, has already shown to be razor sharp by slicing to victory in the Haut Var last Sunday. He is building for the Milano-Sanremo but should be able to handle the cobbles and bergs of the north. He will have the backing from Liquigas mate Luca Paolini, who recently finished second in stage two of the Tour of California. (Ballan, and Lampre-Fondital, have been confirmed to be racing in Switzerland. - ed.)

Also arriving from Italy, but Belgian, is Frank Vandenbroucke (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo). The 32 year-old, winner in 1999, would shock many if he won due to recent knee problems, but Frank is Frank and the Belgians will always consider him a hot favourite. (Friday, the day before the race, the team revealed that the Belgian would not take part. - ed.)

Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto) always shows up strong in the spring and will have the backing of an under the weather Robbie McEwen. Austrian Bernhard Eisel (T-Mobile), recent winner of the Volta ao Algarve stage two, could get over the Bergs and challenge for a sprint. Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) should have full team backing given the recent setback for George Hincapie who broke his wrist. Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt), winner of 2004 Ronde, knows how to handle himself on the cobbles and his Pro-Continental team will be exited for the challenge. Also on Professional Continental teams, Niko Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen) and Nico Mattan (DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed) should be marked, as they have the calibre to win this spring semi-classic.

Live coverage

Cyclingnews will be covering the 62nd Omloop Het Volk live, starting 14:00 local time (CET)/08:00 (USA East)/05:00 (USA West)/00:00 (Australia East).