Van Avermaet Wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2016!
Race Report: The first semi-classic of the year had everything you would want from racing in Belgium. An early break of 12 went and no one would’ve thought that could’ve played a serious part in changing the race, but 200km later Alexis Gougeard was left to finish an epic 6th place. The race was decided by a Luke Rowe attack on the Taaienberg, he was joined by Tiesj Benoot, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet. Tom Boonen and Etixx had missed out and set off on a pursuit, they gained no time until the final 5km but once they hit that mark the time started to melt away and set up a brilliant finish. Van Avermaet was the victor and Sagan started the 2016 season like he finished so many races last year – in second.
The first Belgian weekend of the season opens with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, formerly Omloop Het Volk. The race starts and finishes in Ghent but in-between it heads south to the short cobbled bergs of the Flemish Ardennes. The riders will face 13 climbs and 10 flat cobbled sections, with the Lange Munte section of cobbles coming just under 20km before the finish. Like many of the races in this area the climbs act as a sieve, filtering out the also rans until only the best remain.
Ian Stannard won the last two editions, including a brilliant 2015 edition where he out-foxed a trio of Etixx-Quick Step men in one of the best races of the season. Stannard won’t be racing this year, choosing instead to aim for the Classics later in the spring.
One Giant Step
The sad news before the race was that Giant-Alpecin had to pull out of the race after their team were decimated by a training camp crash. The sad news for the rest of the pack was that they start with the temperature in the single figures celsius and it wouldn’t rise above that for the whole race, the good news – there wasn’t any rain in the air.
A 12 man group went away immediately after the flag dropped and established a 4.30 minute gap. The complete make-up of the group was; Kristian House (ONE Pro Cycling), Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale), Julien Morice (Direct Energie), Kevin van Melsen (Wanty-Groupe Goubert), Maxime Farazjin (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Kai Reus, Brecht Dhaene and Stef Van Zummeren (Veranda’s Willems), Brian van Goethem (Roompot-Oranje), Zakkari Dempster (Bora-Argon 18), Hugo Hofstetter (Cofidis) and Benoit Jarrier (Fortuneo-Vital). The ONE Pro Cycling team were making their Het Nieuwsblad debut this year after making the step-up to Pro Continental level over the off season, the first British team at this level.
So It Begins
The peloton were led by the Etixx-Quick Step team, clearly intent on undoing all the damage they’d done to their Classic’s reputation after last year’s embarrassing collapse at this race. They’d kept the gap down to 5 minutes when they hit the first climb, the Leberg. With the 100km to go barrier edging closer Katusha, with Alexander Kristoff, and Tinkoff-Saxo, with World Champion Peter Sagan, threw resources into the chase.
The next climb was the Muur Kapelmuur and the natural amphitheater of a climb proved the perfect time for Katusha to engage in a full blooded chase. The red clad team closed the gap to 3.25 as they hit the top of the climb. Just 10km later and the front of the peloton was a who’s who of Classics teams with Etixx, Katusha, Trek-Segafredo and Lotto-Soudal all featuring. The number of teams at the front might have increased but the pace wasn’t showing any signs of following this trend and the 12 leaders were able to ease out their advantage again.
With 77km to go and with Katusha back in charge the gap dropped below the 3 minute mark for the first time. The race might not have hit boiling point yet but thanks to the injection of pace it was finally reaching a low simmer.
On the Kruisberg Kristian House showed that even at 36 he’s one of the strongest men on a bike by forging clear. His break was short lived but he had landed some body blows on his breakaway companions. Back in the peloton and a minor crash on the approach to the climb plus a host of mechanical issues on the rough cobbles had created some splits and only around 80 riders remained at the top. There had been no major casualties yet but Hoffstetter, who had been in the original break, was swallowed up.
Kai Reus, a former Junior prodigy, was the next rider to go clear from the break but at this point it looked to be a futile attempt to prolong the inevitable catch, the lead was under 1 minute.
The action in the breakaway paled in insignificance when Luke Rowe attacked on the Taaienberg climb and was countered by Daniel Oss (BMC), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo). Sagan was one of the last of that list to respond to the Rowe attack but he was able to ride Oss off his wheel and then easily close to the Rowe group.
The Eikenberg was the next opportunity to split the pack and although Sagan looked the strongest it was Benoot who led the chasing group up the climb with only Van Avermaet able to follow. Sagan measured his effort and pulled Rowe over to recreate a chasing group of 4. Oss was long gone at this point.
50km to go
With all the excitement behind it was easy to forget that Reus, Morice, Gougeard and Dhaene were still holding a 16 second lead on the high-profile chasers. The big losers were Etixx and all their available men were dispatched to bring the race back to Boonen.
The catch was made and we now had a 6 man leading group, Reus and Gougeard remained ahead, but it wasn’t going to be a race just between them as the massed Etixx ranks were beginning to eat into the advantage. An ill-timed crash brought down Tony Martin with the gap stretching out beyond a minute effectively ending his day.
The lead group had now finally become 8 but the peloton behind were suffering even more setbacks as a crash wiped out the rear 20 riders. There was a counter attack from behind by Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) and Scott Thwaites (Bora-Argon 18) but they remained more than 30 seconds behind the Rowe group.
Tom Boonen was arguably the biggest name to miss out on the 8 man break and his Etixx remained chained to the front of the peloton. Alexander Kristoff had also missed out but neither he nor his team were chasing.
Etixx had lost firepower with the crash of Tony Martin and Nikki Terpstra but the leaders had also lost Kai Reus who had blown after spending so much time in the break of the day. He was caught and passed by Jasper Stuyven who was chasing the leading group alone and had 15 seconds on the Boonen chase group. His promising move was curtailed when he came down after totally misjudging a corner and slid out once he hit the mud.
The final cobbles of the day, Lange Munte, came with 20km to go and Morice and Dhaene, who had been in the break all day, were immediately detached. Gougeard was also shown the backdoor but he bravely fought to get back up to the leaders. He’d secured the award for ride of the day but he’d also earned the right to sit on an let the big names wear themselves out.
The End Game
Despite Etixx’s best efforts they hadn’t actually reduced the lead at all and the 5 leaders went into the final 10km with a healthy advantage of 49 seconds. No one was looking at attacking as they entered the final 5km, both Sagan and Van Avermaet would’ve fancied their chances in a sprint and Gougeard couldn’t contribute anything anymore. The gap was closing though and a race that had already had so much drama was edging towards a finish line catch. The leaders were fully committed but they had just 21 seconds to play with and 2km to ride.
The peloton were flying but Gougeard was feeling charitable and drove the break on as they entered the final 1km. The peloton were now visible and Van Avermaet was forced to open up the sprint from further out than he would’ve liked.
It turned out to be perfect though and like at the Tour the Belgian was able to hold off the fast finishing Slovakian and take a fantastic win. Sagan came home in second trailed by Benoot and Rowe. Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) led the peloton home for 7th place. Both Rowe and Benoot will be left wondering whether they should’ve done more early on to increase their chances but Van Avermaet played it perfectly and started his Classics season off in the best possible way.
Results Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2016
1. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team 4:54:12
2. Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff Team
3. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto Soudal
4. Luke Rowe (GBr) Team Sky
5. Alexis Gougeard (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:00:06
6. Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Soudal 0:00:09
7. Adrien Petit (Fra) Direct Energie
8. Edward Theuns (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
9. Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
10. Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra) FDJ