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Weekend wildcard: Tony Martin heads to Omloop

There will be a lot of buzz surrounding Tom Boonen, who starts his northern classics campaign at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Saturday. It’s Belgium. It’s Boonen — it’s only natural. But the rider we might want to watch more closely is German Tony Martin, also racing for Etixx — Quick-Step this weekend.

Boonen has raced Omloop a staggering 13 times, but Martin, with no experience in either race, has potential to deliver a surprise.

A three-time world time trial champion, Martin has precious few one-day results to his name, but that’s simply because he hasn’t raced many classics. In fact, Dwars door Vlaanderen 2008 is is only experience on the cobblestones. He finished 42nd that day.

The best barometer of his potential is his stage 4 win last year in the Tour de France. That day, from Seraing to Cambrai was akin to the challenges he’ll face this weekend and beyond in the springtime — it was long (223.5 kilometers), and it was sprinkled with six cobblestone sectors. Plus, he didn’t just motor away from the field as time trial specialists are wont to do. He waited until the final five kilometers to make a decisive move, and it worked.

Regardless, tactics and positioning are the lynchpins of a good day in a big spring classic, and experience is king. Martin may be pretty green on the cobbles, but he’s got the best instructors one could ask for. “It was a nice experience, a mix of cobbles on the climbs and on the flat. I really liked it,” the 30-year-old said after previewing the Omloop route Wednesday. “Of course, it will be different during the race, when 200 guys will fight to get to the front. I’m feeling good, I’m happy, and I can’t wait for Saturday to come. My teammates and Tom Steels explained to me today how important is to be at the front when the real race starts. I will also watch some videos of the past editions again, to get the feeling of the race, and I’m sure I will be ready for Saturday.”

Martin will be a true wildcard this weekend, and he really couldn’t ask for a better scenario. On an Etixx team loaded with classics talent, he won’t be pressured to perform. But if he is in the front group, expect to see him lighting up the race with an attack. Amid all the unpredictability of classics and uncertainty about Martin’s experience, that much is a given.

Etixx – Quick-Step for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Tom Boonen (B)
Iljo Keisse (B)
Nikolas Maes (B)
Tony Martin (G)
Niki Terpstra (Nl)
Stijn Vandenbergh (B)
Julien Vermote (B)
Lukasz Wisniowski (Pol)