The classics are coming
The Belgian bike racing season opens Saturday at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The season so far has been a prelude.
In Belgium, at least, bike racing begins on Opening Weekend at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. We’re bringing Stefan Bissegger, Owain Doull, Jens Keukeleire, Jonas Rutsch, Tom Scully, James Shaw, and Julius van den Berg to the first great Flemish race of 2023.
Sunny stage races in Australia or the French riviera are good prep, but, for the cycling-mad people of Flanders, the real tests of a bike racer will always be their one-day classics, which start this Saturday in Gent. For over a century, the Flemish countryside has been mapped in their collective consciousness by the feats of cyclists, racing across the small, steep bergs and cobblestoned roads of their farmland. The Omloop is the first of these spring races, which are run over much of the same terrain, leading up to the grand finale at the Tour of Flanders on the second of April.
Our sports director Sebastian Langeveld won the Omloop in 2011. Having grown up watching the classics from across the border in the Netherlands, it was the greatest sporting honor of his career.
“The way I always saw it, and the way people from northern Europe always see it, is that it is the first real classic,” Sebastian says. “Everybody then goes to Tirreno, Paris-Nice, and then you have to wait a couple more weeks for E3, Dwaars door Vlaanderen, and the big one, Flanders, but for classics riders the Omloop is the first big race. For guys from northern Europe, it is super important, because there are not so many chances to win a classic. Even now, I am a little bit nervous for the race, in a good way.”
Sebastian knows just how much work it takes to be competitive at the Omloop. “ I would be busy with the Omloop from basically my first ride on the bike in November,” he says.
When the commissaire’s flag drops to get the Omloop under way on Saturday, the riders will be raring to put an entire winter’s worth of effort into action on the cobbled hills of Flanders.
Stand on one of those hills on a clear spring day and look out over the woods and drab fields mottled with smoke stacks, church towers, and red-brick towns, and you can see most of the decisive points of the region’s great bike races. In the Omloop, the finale begins with the Wolvenberg, followed by the Molenberg, Leberg, Berendries, Kapelmuur, and Bosberg. There’s then just 12.5 kilometers to race to the finish in Ninove.
Thousands of cycling fans from all around the world will line the slopes of those hills on race day. They will bring their barbecues and beer and Lion of Flanders flags, and blast folk tunes and techno from loudspeakers as they wait for the racers to arrive. They will watch the peloton approach across the surrounding hills, jostling for position on roads hardly wider than a rider’s shoulders, under the chop-chop-chop of the TV helicopters, and then explode, time after time, as the riders in front attack up the steepest stony pitches, until only the strongest among them are left. When the race finally arrives, it will be bedlam, as the crowd surges forward and yells encouragement to the racers, from the first, driving up over the stones at awesome speeds, to the hollow-eyed stragglers, who must use all of their willpower to drag themselves to the finish, spent.
For the racers, the classics are the most stressful races on their calendar. For hours, they need to hold their concentration, as they twist and turn down narrow tractor tracks, racing around roundabouts, and onto the cobblestones in a constant fight for position. Every rider wants to be at the front to stay ahead of the crashes and constant sprinting to catch up after the bottlenecks that form in every corner. One risky move to gain spots can save a rider the energy he might need to play a role later in the race or send him tumbling into a ditch. That means that everyone takes risks, hopping curbs and daring each other not to brake into corners from kilometer zero to the end. This tension reaches a peak before the key climbs and cobblestone sectors in the finale, where riders have to be in the first 15 or 20 riders to have any chance of going with the race-winning moves.
Riders like Jonas Rutsch thrive on this. Nothing else in cycling compares to racing up a climb like the Muur van Geraardsbergen, rounding the final corner out of the woods and seeing that chapel just a couple of hundred cobbled meters ahead, as thousands of fans scream his name over the stone wall from the hill above.
“It is quite steep and it’s on cobbles as well, so it is crazy hard,” Jonas says,” but the atmosphere on the Muur van Geraardsbergen is really special, so there is always a lot of motivation when you go up there. For me, these are the real races, the races that suit me the most. The cobbles, the adrenaline, the atmosphere is just one big package that means racing.”
On Saturday, Jonas will be looking for a breakthrough result. He has finished 11th at Paris-Roubaix before. That race is his main goal this spring, but he is determined to prove that he can race with the best right through this year’s classics campaign.
“My winter was really, really good so far, with no sickness. Everything was like we planned,” Jonas says. “The Omloop is now the race where it gets really serious for the first time. Everything so far was more like a smooth drive in. With the Omloop, the classics season finally starts, so I am looking forward to it.”
At the Omloop, our team will take the race to their rivals and set out to create chances right to the end.
“For Jonas, it is a great opportunity to do a very good race, but not only for him,” Sebastian says. “We have a roster of guys who are really good bike riders and can create opportunities and create situations. Obviously the race is going to be hard. It will depend a little bit on the wind and stuff, but there are whole sections where the race is open and you can create a situation by being out front in the race, and then there is the Muur in the finale like the old final of Flanders. It is going to be a great race.”
You are going to want to watch on Saturday. The classics are about to arrive. From now, until the end of April, every minute of racing could be decisive. For the full experience—or the best you can get without making the trek to Flanders—stock up on Trappist beers and fries or make whipped-cream topped coffees and waffles.