Preview: Het Nieuwsblad And Kuurne ’17
Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne Preview: It must be spring at last as the first weekend of Classics crash onto the cobbles of the 2017 season. Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, followed by Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday. Ed Hood will be there and so it’s only right that he clues us in with the course and running for the opening Flemish Classics.
This Saturday will be the 72nd edition (or 69th depending upon whether you count the three cancelled editions) of what most would agree is the start of the ‘real’ season, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race steeped in tradition and one which most Belgian riders would sacrifice body parts in order to win.
The race was still ‘Het Volk’ when Philippe Gilbert won in 2008
Let’s deal with the name first, the race was named after the sponsoring Flemish newspaper Het Volk, literally, ‘The People’. But Het Volk ceased publication a few years back and the race now carries the name of another Flemish paper, ‘Het Nieuwsblad.’
In Flemish newspapers and some of the other media, the race was never referred to as ‘Het Volk’ – free publicity for rivals isn’t a concept that finds much favor within the news industry – and the race was known locally as Gent-Gent. My buddy and fluent Flemish speaker, Ivan, never refers to it as Het Volk, always Gent-Gent; but to old sad guys like me, it will always be Het Volk.
André Greipel hits the Kapelmuur – Geraardsbergen
Previously known as a ‘Semi-Classic’ or a ‘Mini Tour of Flanders’, this year’s race is on the World Tour roster – parcours will be 198.3 kilometers, as opposed to the mind boggling 289 kilometers of the ‘Ronde’. Both races share many of the same climbs, or ‘hellingen’ in Flemish – Tenbosse, Berendries and Valkenburg are names you’ll find in both sets of parcours; albeit Het Volk has a mere 13 savage ascents, the Ronde has 17. The legendary and savage Kapelmuur at Geraardsbergen is included too – mixed memories for me on that one, the last time I was there my laptop was stolen. Anyway. . .
The climb of Berendries can be chaos
The climbs occupy a relatively small geographic area; most rear up the ridge above the town of Oudenaarde – home to the Tour of Flanders museum – with the parcours twisting and turning to bring the riders in to the ramps from different directions.
The Belgian kasseien of Het Nieuwsblad
In Flemish, cobbles are ‘kasseien’, another feature which it shares with the bigger race in April and which helps give these races their particular character. Hills and cobbled stretches are tangibles; where they come is easy to write on a piece of tape and stick to the extension – what’s not so easy to plan for is the weather. Twice in my life time, Het Volk has succumbed to snow, and if it’s wet, cold and windy then much of the field are beaten before they start; days where riders like Merckx and Museeuw would be rubbing their hands in anticipation. Both men won this race twice during their careers (’71 & ’73 and ’00 & ’03 respectively).
Three time winner Joseph Bruyere with Didi Thurau, Gerry Knetemann and World champ Eddy Merckx
The joint ‘record men’ on three each are Ernest Sterckx ’52, ’53, ’56; Eddy Merckx’s man mountain right hand man, Jos Bruyere ’74, ’75, ’80; and most recently, Peter Van Petegem ’97, ’98, ’02 – no surprise that all three are Belgian and renowned as hard as nails.
The other ‘Record-Man’ Peter Van Petergem (right) with Museeuw and VDB on the Molenberg
If you take a look at one of those websites which has the national flag of the winner displayed beside his name, there’s a heck of a lot of red, yellow and black on display. Of the 72 editions (including three cancelled), Belgians have won 55; in joint second are the Netherlands and Italy – on four each.
Irish winner, Seamus Elliot
Five other nations have won; Ireland, with the late, great Seamus Elliot in ’59; Germany with Andreas Kappes in ’90, exploiting his stellar early season form from the six day circuit; hard as nails Viking Thor Hushovd for Norway in 2009; that very rare bird, a Spanish ‘man of the cobbles’ Juan Antonio Flecha in 2010 and Great Britain’s beast of a man, Ian Stannard – twice, in 2014 and 2015.
Pozzato wins in 2007
Generally the winner will be a hard, physical rider who has no problems in the positioning melee which precedes every climb. Occasionally if the wind isn’t too strong and there’s not too much rain or snow, then class can win out – take Filippo Pozzato’s (Liquigas) 2007 win as an example. Incidentally, my friend, mentor and commentator on all things Belgian cycling, Viktor, has never fully recovered from Pozzato’s win, insisting that for a man as interested in his coiffure as the Italian to win is an affront to all the race stands for – he has a point but Pippo at his best was a class act. Viktor is always moaning at me because I spend too much time on ‘retro’ – so let’s move on.
The course and profile for ‘Gent-Gent’
Who’s gonna win in 2017? – we pick the ‘PEZ Gent-Gent top 10 tips’.
Let’s go by dossards:
1: Greg Van Avermaet (BMC): Last year’s winner has won an Olympic title in the mean time, no wins this year but third behind Kristoff on a ‘sprinters stage’ in Oman tells us he’s where he wants to be.
Van Avermaet again?
11:Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe): Second last year before winning Wevelgem, Flanders, the green jersey and the Worlds – there’s little more to say save that three second places ‘Down Under’ mean he’s ready.
Sagan had nothing to be disappointed about in 2017
21: Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors): This is one of the few cobbled races Tommeke hasn’t already added to his palmarès – albeit he’s been third twice and second twice. It’s perhaps not long enough for him these days but a win in San Juan shows us that he wants to bow out of his final season in some style.
Tom Boonen is keen for a win to finish his career, here with Lars Boom
31: Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal): Third last year, this precocious man of the Classics from the heart of the Heartland, Ghent follows the same build up as last year, winning ‘Best Young Rider’ in the Algarve. And he’s starving for that first big win.
Tiesj Benoot, not a bad outside bet
41: Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac): I still remember the stunned silence in our bar when he out-sprinted ‘Tornado Tom’ Boonen to win in 2012. No results to give us any clues in 2016 thus far but it’s been too warm for him – and all that smooth tarmac is no use to a man of the cobbles.
Sep Vanmarcke won in 2012 and could do with a big win for his new team
71: Arnaud Démare (FDJ): We know, he’s a ‘pure’ sprinter but he’s class and has the form with two wins in the Étoile de Bessèges. Even if the stats are against him – NO French winner in this race, ever and you have to go all the way back to 1994 and Fred Moncassin in second spot to find a good French result.
Démare could add to his 2016 Sanremo… but a Frenchman win Het Nieuwsblad, a first!
94: Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin): As a previous winner of the Ronde there’s no doubting his toughness – and with a win in Besseges and three in Oman, there’s no doubting his form. And the stats are better for him – remember we’ve already had a Norge winner with Thor.
Kristoff was in good form in Oman
122: Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo): Ninth last year then a brilliant winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne next day. As with Big Sep, we have no big results to go on except fourth spot in a stage of the Algarve behind Kristoff – but somehow we reckon he’ll be in shape come Saturday.
Jasper Stuyven; Kuurne in 2016, maybe Het Nieuwsblad in 2017?
136: Ian Stannard (Sky): Two years ago we could not believe our eyes as he beat the cream of Quick-Step in Niki Terpstra, Tommeke AND Stijn Vandenbergh to win – it was smelling salts all round in the bar that day. He’d won it the year previous, too. There’s been a stage win in the Herald Sun Tour this year – and lots of hours spend training in the Flatlands. . .
Two time winner Ian Stannard
141: Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale): Is in at the insistence of Vik after a strong end to 2016 – like all Belgians this race comes second only to the Ronde in terms of desirability so the motivation will be strong. And he has Alexis Gougeard – fifth last year – and that mountain of a man, Stijn Vandenbergh on the payroll.
Oliver Naesen, Vik’s choice
Those are our 10 picks – and a joker?
If it comes to a sprint, put your money on Magnus Cort Nielsen
87: Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-Scott): Two Vuelta stages last autumn; the Clasica Almeria and a stage in Valencia this year. And bad weather is no problem if you grew up in Denmark.
2016 Het Nieuwsblad
But let’s not forget Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne [UCI 1.HC], the ‘consolation’ race the day after Het Nieuwsblad. It’s the same distance at 200K but with one less hill and fewer cobbles – and crucially 50K from the last climb to the finish on pan flat roads, it’s one for the hard man/sprinter. Albeit Stuyven won in great style after a 17K solo ride.
Mark Cavendish won in Kuurne with the rainbow jersey on his back
Cav has won twice, Boonen three times – but whilst there are few surprise winners in Het Nieuwsblad a good sprinter on a good day can spring a surprise, especially if the weather is good, witness Australia’s Chris Sutton in 2011. But if the weather is really bad that can spring surprises too; Dutch hard man Bobby Traksel made light of the worst weather I’ve ever seen a bike race conducted in to win in 2010 – 26 finished that day from a full field.
Bobby Traksel pulled off a surprise in 2010
All of the names we mention above apply – but there’s bound to be a surprise on that Sunday evening Kuurne podium.
See you there ?
# Ed will be roadside in Belgium and PEZ will have full race reports on Saturday and Sunday. EUROTRASH Monday will have the video action and rider quotes. Live coverage of Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Steephill.TV. #
• See the race action live on an internet channel near you – see Steephill.tv for listings.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,400 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.