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Weekend preview: Omloop, Kuurne, and the hour

The season’s slow growth across Australia, Argentina, and the Middle East will produce its first fruit this weekend as pro cycling takes on the true start of 2016, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, an appetizer of wind, cobbles, and the Belgian mayhem that springtime dreams of made of.

Last year, Omloop produced one of the finest tactical rides (or greatest tactical blunders, depending on your point of view) of the entire season, as Ian Stannard (Sky) made fools of three Etixx – Quick-Step teammates on his way to a second consecutive Omloop victory. Stannard is gone this year, but the great racing will go on.

Both races offer a glimpse into the form of motivated favorites, but they attract different winners. Omloop, formerly Het Volk and still in its traditional Saturday slot, is the more difficult of the two, a mini Ronde van Vlaanderen that starts and finishes in the city of Ghent and tackles the fabled Muur van Geraardsbergen. A total of 13 cobbled climbs, hellingen, and 11 cobbled sectors across 200km tend to blow the race apart. Most years, fewer than 10 men cross the line together.

Kuurne, in contrast, is a sprinter’s classic, won last year by Mark Cavendish from a group of nearly 75. It’s final helling, Nokereberg, falls 50km from the finish, leaving plenty of time for the peloton to regroup and teams to pull any dropped sprinters back to the front.

For a look at the Kuurne favorites, see our Classics Sprinters Power Rankings.

A few hours after Omloop finishes, VeloNews will be on site at Evelyn Stevens’s hour record attempt in Colorado Springs and will stream the effort live, starting at 11:30 a.m. MST. We’ll have insight from former hour record holder Molly Shaffer Van Houweling as well as VeloNews columnist Daimo Shanks, who built Stevens’s hour bike. VeloNews editor in chief John Bradley, senior editor Caley Fretz, and managing editor Chris Case (who rode the hour last year) will provide comprehensive coverage, liveblogging throughout the event.

Omloop: predictor and curse

No rider has ever won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (formerly Het Volk) and the more prestigious Tour of Flanders in the same year, despite their obvious similarities. There is talk of a curse, though it seems more likely that any rider on flying form in February has simply mis-timed his training — perhaps purposefully, so as to add Omloop to the palmares, or perhaps accidentally.

Riders are picking up on this. Stannard, winner of the last two editions, is skipping the race this year in order to focus on the later monuments, as is previous champion Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL – Jumbo) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo). All three hope to factor in Flanders in six weeks’ time.

Nonetheless, Omloop will put on a show. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) is making his European debut. Both Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet are coming off good rides in the Middle East. Van Avermaet looks particularly strong, even though his finish kick continues to relegate him to the gloomier steps of the podium. Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick-Step) started his season slowly at Vuelta a Andalucia, but made the final move in Omloop last year. His teammate Tom Boonen has never won Omloop (maybe that’s why he’s won so many editions of Flanders!) and would still like to add it to his palmares. BMC also brings back Philippe Gilbert, winner in 2006 and 2008.

Interestingly, neither Gilbert nor Van Avermaet have been given a number ending in 1, denoting the team leader. The number 41 went to Jean-Pierre Drucker, who is most certainly not the leader of BMC at Omloop. There was some tension between the two last season, as Gilbert announced his return to the cobbles. Van Avermaet felt those races were his domaine. Perhaps team management decided it was better to just give the “leader” number to someone else, rather than pick between the two.

Due to its second-tier rating, beneath the Ronde, Omloop is often useful as a crystal ball, allowing classics stars of the future to strut their stuff before the big names rev up in April. Vanmarcke is a perfect example, winning Omloop in 2012 before coming ever-so-close at Flanders in 2014.

This year, keep an eye out for Tiesj Benoot (Lotto – Soudal), who wants to prove that last year’s fifth at the Ronde was no fluke. Terpstra’s Etixx teammates Stijn Vandebergh and Iljo Keisse aren’t new names, but they could be given a freedom to roam at Omloop that they won’t be afforded later in the season.

Omloop will be thrilling, as it always is, the perfect way to thaw out after a long off-season and early season races that just don’t spark the same passion. Make a batch of Belgian waffles and catch the action from 115km to go at about 7:40 a.m. EST, just before the front group hits the Muur.

Not excited yet? Watch the last few kilometers of the 2015 edition and just try to stay in your chair.