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64th Omloop Het Nieuwsblad - 1.HC
Belgium, February 28, 2009
By Bjorn Haake
It will take a while to get used to Het Volk's new name but after a change in sponsorship the race will be known as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Both former and current sponsors are newspapers and ironically Het Volk once created the race as a rival to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which was sponsored by Het Nieuwsblad.
To everyone's relief the name change won't affect the race with the distance (203 kilometres), the number of short, steep, cobblestone-clad climbs called hellingen (11) all remaining. Once again the race will start in Gent with the riders heading off from Sint Pietersplein for their neutral roll-out.
The route then makes a short loop east of Gent before heading into deep Vlaanderen terrain, with its narrow and poorly surfaced roads. But it isn't until kilometre 74 that the riders encounter the first test of the day – 2000m of cobble stones over the Haaghoek which will provide a first test for both man and machine.
The favourites will need to start showing their cards half-way through the race, when they reach the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen. The cobbled climb has a maximum of 20 percent and if the stones are wet expect panic in the front part of the peloton and pedestrians in the back with riders forced to dismount and walk to the top of the climb.
A decisive point in the race will be the Taaienberg, with its 500m climb over the kasseien (cobble stones) and a maximum gradient of 15.8 percent. Not only is the climb hard, but it is followed in rapid succession by the Eikenberg, the Wolvenberg and culminates in the Molenberg.
The Molenberg is the last helling of the day and any break ahead will hope to have a good enough gap to survive the final 40 kilometres on a flat route back to Gent.
The finish is the same as last year and also identical to the second stage of the 2007 Tour de France . The riders will head down the Charles de Kerchovelaan Boulevard, before making a U-turn and tackling the uphill finish near Citadelpark.
Can Gilbert strike again?
Philippe Gilbert took off 50 kilometres from the finish for an impressive solo victory last year and the Belgian will be one of the hot favourites. With two wins already under his belt (2006 and 2008), he'll be aiming to equal fellow Belgians Peter Van Petegem, Joseph Bruyere and Ernest Sterckx who have three wins apiece. On paper his chances look stronger than ever after a move to Silence-Lotto. He'll now have support from Leif Hoste, Staf Scheirlinckx, Greg Van Avermaet and Johan Van Summeren.
Rivals Quick Step go into the event with a point to prove after a disastrous race last year, in which Wouter Weylandt was the team's highest placed rider in 16th. Besides Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder, they've added strength in depth, signing Sylvain Chavanel to the line-up. The Frenchman had his best year to date in 2008 and will have gained confidence from wins in in the Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Brabantse Pijl and stage of the Tour de France.
The two Belgian top teams will be joined by Dutch outfit Rabobank to contest the victory. Nick Nuyens will lead the charge and will find support from veteran Juan-Antonio Flecha, Sebastian Langeveld and Joost Posthuma.
The newly formed Katusha team also has a strong classics faction, with Robbie McEwen, Gert Steegmans and Filippo Pozzato, with the Italian winning the race in 2007.
Columbia-Highroad include Edvald Boasson Hagen, who has had a great first ProTour, with six wins. Marcus Burghardt and Bernhard Eisel are two more Classics specialists who could take a surprise win.
Another new team is the Cervélo TestTeam, but the riders are not new to the Classics. Roger Hammond, Andreas Klier, Heinrich Haussler – a good list of riders to have at a start of a cobble stone race.
The smaller Belgian teams are more likely to just look for an opportunistic break and some valuable hours on of TV air time, but you never know whether an underdog could pull a surprise win out of the hat.
The weather, the fans, the dangerous roads and the furious racing lead to just one conclusion: we're in for a cracking Classics campaign!