Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On to the 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ...

We are mere days from de Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (OHN), formerly de Omloop Het Volk, formerly Gent-Gent. In Classics Races Part II we went through how the classics races came about. This article is about our expectations for the 2012 edition of OHN.

Today OHN is an important race for several reasons. It is the first of the series of cobbled races in the low countries, and it contains many of the key climbs and sectors that headline other races including de Ronde van Vlaanderen (RVV) and Paris-Roubaix. Thus, OHN provides an important test of form for aspirants after a winter's worth of training. Tours of Qatar and Oman may have served as excellent training races and a means for testing one's form. But OHN is the real thing, run on real cobbles, and in real Belgian weather to boot.

To whom are we paying extra attention as OHN comes near? Read on ...

Photo from Denis Defreyne under CC BY 2.0.
Much have been said of the OHN being a test of form for contenders of RVV. Yet even if it goes through the same climbs and sectors, the course is typically set up quite differently than races like de Ronde and the timing is more than a few weeks apart. In fact, no winner of OHN has ever won RVV in the same season. This divergence fits the history of Het Volk as it was started in 1945 by Belgian partisans to protest the coziness of the organizers of RVV to German occupiers.

This year's route brings a bit of a change: the finale is "simplified" compared to last year's, and it should look more like the 2010 edition. That said, we expect the finale to be fairly controlled, with a finish that includes up to a dozen contenders.

The BMC Hydra: Phil Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet, George Hincapie

Team BMC is a monster with many heads-of-state. The endless pre-season back-and-forth between the pretenders of BMC have been discussed in many other blogs ever since Gilbert's move to BMC was announced. Ten Speed Hero's post on this subject captures it best.

One big problem is that many of their riders are used to riding and winning all year long. Let's put it this way: Any sign of discord in team unity, especially if it ends with poor squad performance at the start of the season, is bound to cause much soul-searching that can have negative impact throughout the entire season.

As a 2-time winner, Phil Gilbert is probably on the hottest seat as the race approaches. We think that the best way to frame Gilbert's approach to OHN is in view of the route change to the RVV: Gilbert never was one to like the Muur de Grammont's place in the race.

To put it simply, we think that his chance of winning de Ronde this year is his best yet.

We discussed in a previous article the kans of Gilbert winning all the top monuments. Even if that article was written before the route chance was announced, we think the points raised are still valid: he was often isolated in the cobbled races, and he needs a lieutenant. The move to BMC brought Gilbert, Van Avermaet, Thor Hushovd, and George Hincapie in the same squad. But who will work with whom? We think that Gilbert would be more than happy to let Hushovd be the leader for OHN in exchange for Hushovd's fealty in de Ronde.

Not-so-Obvious Contenders, and Our Favorites

The discourse on how Team BMC should perform has been so loud that we hear almost nothing of the defending team the Raboboys. It's as if everybody had forgotten that Rabobank was a dominant force last year, with cyclocross convert Lars Boom at the front for a large part of the race. In the past, the main challenge to Boom was his lack of endurance for longer (classics) races. We think that he has started to overcome this challenge, what with decent placing in many races in 2011 and a few grand tour rides under his belt. We have high expectation from Boom for this year, especially with Langeveld's departure to GreenEdge. Add to this the return of Matti Breschel - injured most of last year - and Rabo has a strong squad that we expect will paint the cobbles orange. We will even go as far as to say Breschel should be team leader given his strong recent showings.

Another rider that we think has a good chance this year is Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Barracuda. Although he is known to most fans as a pure sprinter, he's a nearly-native resident of Gent that seems to have more endurance than he did only last season, a key ingredient to success in classics races. He's come close before:  he was 3rd in 2010 on a course more similar to this year's than it was to last year's. If he does win, it will be a fitting tribute to recently deceased best friend Wouter Weylandt, a Gent native, in this race that used to be called Gent-Gent. Teammate Heinrich Haussler has also shown very good early season form, and with his proven endurance in long classics races he'll offer more than a secondary threat in case Farrar falters. That said, if the race does come together in the finale, Garmin-Barracuda may well do a 1-2 punch with Haussler covering desperate attacks (or mounting one himself) and Farrar contesting at the finish line.

Foreigners Attending de Omloop

The OHN is such a strongly Belgian race that 2010 was the first time no Belgians ended up on the podium. This anomaly repeated itself in 2011. Who might be the spoilers for 2012?

Team Sky has had excellent showings in this race since the team's founding, with Juan Antonio Flecha leading the charge. Surely his win in 2010 and honorable defense in 2011 has earned him leadership. After two years' worth of blistering attacks, we think that the peloton has surely had enough and will do everything they can to stop him. Will Edvald Boasson Hagen stand up to the challenge in this case?

One youngster that has continued to improve is FdJ-BigMat's French one-day phenom Yoann Offredo. This squad is dedicated to the cobbles, even if they lost veteran Frédéric Guesdon.  Frenchmen William Bonnet and Steve Chainel, plus Canadian Dominique Rollin, are consistent performers even if they rarely break top five.  We think that FdJ-BigMat will show big, and with little luck will gain a podium place with Offredo. (Update: Offredo received one-year sanction for ADAMS violation).

Like Ducks in the Rain

A new team needing a big showing is GreenEdge, counting in their ranks defending champ Sebastian Langeveld. Given his poor rest-of-2011, and the roster of Team GreedEdge, we hold little expectation from them. The team's roster has the classical problem of bi-modal distribution in terms of age and experience. The team does have seasoned vets Stuart O'Grady, Robbie McEwen, Baden Cooke, Matty Wilson, and Julian Dean. They also have promising younger riders Simon Clarke, Jack Bobridge, Cam and Travis Meyer, and of course Matty Goss. But we think that in terms of focus on the cobbled classics, they do not have a stand-out rider other than Langeveld, and even then, Langeveld's form is questionable.

Super team OmegaPharma-QuickStep is approaching their most important season ever, what with relatively poor performance last year and recent expansion through acquisition. This team has tended to perform poorly in this race: their last win was with Nick Nuyens in 2005. It could be that they were after bigger prizes, such as de Ronde and Paris-Roubaix. While Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel may be in that "too big to fail, too big to let go" catch-22, we think highly of lieutenant Niki Terpstra, a native of the coast of North Holland. Catch is, his name is not on the start list. Regardless, the team's top riders may truly have bigger fish to fry: Boonen for de Ronde and Roubaix, Chavanel for Paris-Nice and maybe even de Ronde.

Another super team Lotto-Belisol recently lost their leader Jurgen Roelandts to accident on his first racing day of the season. Lars Bak is perhaps the substitute leader. With Andre Greipel notably absent from their startlist, it seems the team is betting on later races.

Finally, one notable aspect of this year's OHN is the entry of several new kids on the block. Australia's GreenEdge, USA's Team Type 1 - Sanofi, Canada's Spidertech, Germany's NetApp, Russia's Rusvelo, and notably PRC's Champion System are all teams new to this level of competition. Many of them have rosters of mostly new riders. It will be interesting to watch them contend in a tough race.

What are your expectations for de Omloop? Who do you think will shine on the cobbles?

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