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63rd Omloop Het Volk - 1.HC
Belgium, March 1, 2008
By Gregor Brown in Gent
The Classics season is back upon us with the running of the 63rd Omloop Het Volk, this Saturday in Belgium. Those who love the one-day races of the spring will rejoice when the riders take off from Gent's Citadelpark as it signals not only the start of the 199-kilometre race but the days of pavé-littered slugfests in treacherous conditions.
The Omloop Het Volk, run by newspaper Sportwereld, packs enough pavé and hellingen ('climbs' in Flemish) to warrant its early season status as a semi-classic, and sends out indicators as to whom will be the warriors to watch for the events later in spring, like Three Days of De Panne, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.
As announced last May by the organisers, the 63rd edition returns to its roots with a parcours that starts and finishes in the Flemish city of Gent, north of Brussels. The race began in Gent last year but the city of Gentse Feesten has not seen an aankomst ('arrival' in Flemish) since 1995 when Franco Ballerini won.
The race finished in Gent for the first 49 editions, but afterward the aankomst was moved to the northeast, in Lokeren.
The new finish means that the parcours has been modified; the first helling comes later, as does the final one. This year, the riders will face 73 kilometres before the Grotenberge, it will be followed by Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Tenbosse, Pottelberg, Kruisberg, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Wolvenberg and Molenberg. All-in-all there are 11 hellingen in the 2008 parcours, down from one from 2007.
The Berendries, which last year was the penultimate climb and saw a group of eight fighting a losing battle, will now come early on. However, it is the vicinity of the final climb, the Molenberg, that will see the race even more dispersed when it arrives in Gent. The 463-metre-kilometre climb starts 23 kilometres later than last year, at 39 kilometres to go. Any small group that is formed in the closing kilometres will be sorted out in the finale, the uphill drag of Charles de Kerchovelaan. Gert Steegmans will know the finale well, he won stage two of the 2007 Tour de France on the same 1000-metre run-in.
The favourites for this year's event come mainly from Belgian super-team, Quick Step. In its line up it has Tom Boonen, World Champion Paolo Bettini, Steegmans and Belgian Champion Stijn Devolder. Coming back from the Tour of California, it will be interesting to see if Boonen can recover from jet lag to confirm his early form shown in Qatar and then in the USA. The team can play its hand wisely with Italian Bettini and work with recent Volta ao Algarve winner Devolder; however, his wrist is giving him pain. Steegmans might just be the Quick Step wild card and have the chance to win on the same street he ruled eight months prior.
"Having the strongest team is still only theory on paper," noted Steegmans' of his team to Cyclingnews' Bjorn Haake. "You still have to race... Of course I have good memories on Gent [from the Tour win]. It was a bit of a surprise back then. But this time the race is totally different. In the Tour the whole stage was flat. Het Volk will be different and I don't expect a big group to arrive at the finish."
Defending champion Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) is on good form, perhaps not as good as last year when he won the Tour du Haut Var the week prior, but winning the opening stage and the finally overall in Grosseto were good indicators. 'Pippo' will be ready to defend his title and establish early supremacy in the squadra that now boasts Daniele Bennati.
Rockin' Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) confirmed he will be back. He finished ninth last year and it will be hard for him to enter to top three given the desire of the big Classics guns to arrive in a small group. Look for the Australian to confirm his early season form.
"I am not at my best yet," confirmed McEwen. "My goal is later in the season. I am looking towards Milano-Sanremo and of course stage wins in the Grand Tours."
French teams Cofidis and Française des Jeux will be able to play their cards. Cofidis will work with Sylvain Chavanel and 2005 winner Nick Nuyens, while the latter team will bring 2006 winner Philippe Gilbert and Sylvain's brother, Sébastien. Out of the group, Gilbert has the strongest possibility for success thanks to the Belgian's showing in the Volta a Mallorca, with two wins, and fifth in the recent Tour du Haut Var.
From High Road look for young upcomer Marcus Burghardt to show, while Rabobank will rely on Juan Antonio Flecha. The Spaniard nearly missed out in last year's edition while he was in a last-minute move with Aussie Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC). O'Grady's team-mate, Fabian Cancellara, will likely be the biggest threat for the Denmark-based team; the Swiss rider won recently in the Tour of California prologue.
Sprinter Tomas Vaitkus of Team Astana will be one to watch, and his team need the time in the spotlight to remind the Grand Tour organisers of its stature. Other men-of-speed that could make the grade are Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Aurélien Clerc (Bouygues Telecom).
Expect some early race action from Belgians Nico Eeckhout (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Frank Vandenbroucke (Mitsubishi-Jartazi).