The classics begin at Omloop het Nieuwsblad

EF Education-EasyPost and EF Education-Cannondale are excited to start their spring campaigns

February 20, 2024

This Saturday, bike racing returns to the windswept concrete roads and cobbled hills of Flanders for Omloop het Nieuwsblad.

Megan Armitage, Letizia Borghesi, Kristen Faulkner, Alison Jackson, Nina Kessler, and Noemi Rüegg will race for EF Education-Cannondale.

Alberto Bettiol, Stefan Bissegger, Owain Doull, Mikkel Honoré, Jonas Rutsch, Harry Sweeny, and Michael Valgren will race the first classic of the season for EF Education-EasyPost.

In Flanders, the Omloop is a rite of spring. Huge crowds gather round ’t Kuipke velodrome in Gent to watch the peloton parade onto the stage and then race out of the city and into the surrounding fields. Thousands of fans race off behind them on bikes, in cars, and on scooters, cutting from spot to spot across the course to see the action. It’s almost a national sport to see who can see the racers pass the most times. Grandparents pass on secret routes to their grandchildren.

“Flanders really is the homeland of cycling in Europe,” says Harry Sweeny. “I didn’t grow up racing in a place like Belgium. I grew up in Australia, where cycling almost means nothing to everyone so when you get to go to a place like Belgium and go to one of the first big races of the year, then the atmosphere there is super special. You get to see how much cycling really means to their culture.”

The Omloop and the ensuing series of Flemish classics that are held each spring in the run-up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen have mapped the local countryside into the public’s collective consciousness. Every tractor track up a steep knoll in sheep pasture evokes memories from over a century of racing. Every fan wants to witness the decisive attack. The beauty of Belgian racing is that it is very difficult to predict where that is going to happen.

“It is just a really different kind of racing,” says Noemi Rüegg. “The roads are really narrow and twisty and there are a lot of cobbles. Positioning is key, which makes the race nervous but also really exciting. Belgium is the country of cycling and there are always so many fans. You get super motivated from that vibe and with all of these people around. You have to be physically very strong but also your skills need to be very good. It all comes together in the classics and I think that is what makes them so special.”

The peloton charges to the foot of every hill on the race course, taking huge risks to hit the base in front of their rivals, so they don’t miss a move, when the roads narrow, cobbles pitch up, and riders behind get stuck in traffic. If it’s wet, racers in the back often come to a standstill and have to walk up the steepest cobblestones. When the wind is blowing, and it is almost always blowing in Belgium, the peloton can explode into smaller groups at any moment, as riders get pushed to the side of the road and have to push against the full force of the wind alone, beyond the shelter of the draft. That means that racers have to stay sharp from the moment the commissaire’s flag drops. Go the slow way around a roundabout once and the winning breakaway might be gone by the time you can get back to the front.

“I think in the peloton there is no other way to describe it than absolute chaos,” Harry says. “It takes a lot of mental strain. The guys who grew up in Belgium learnt to be dynamic riders from a young age. The rest of us have to gamble a little bit, knowing you are not going to be there at certain times so you can put all of your energy into being there when you think it can happen. Sometimes it pays off and you are fresh when it matters, and sometimes you completely miss the move. That is the beauty of racing in Belgium.”

There are a few places on the course where everyone knows that the race will always go down. That’s where the best parties are. While their countryfolk are racing around Flanders, catching a glimpse of the peloton here and a glimpse of the peloton there before rushing off to their vehicles, many, many more pick their field and stick around all day to listen to carnival songs and techno, eat frites, and drink strong local beers.

The most famous of all is the Kapelmuur, which translates into English as the 'chapel wall'. Just over a kilometer long and 15 kilometers from the finish, it rises above the small red-brick town of Geraardsbergen in the heart of Flemish hills, climbing to a maximum height of just 110 meters. On Saturday, what’s left of the peloton will charge down the main street in town to its base, rattling up the first cobbles at high speed. By the time they pass the big beer café on their left, the first riders will start to falter, as the road gets worse and ever steeper. Then, it narrows and pitches steeper still, exploding into a tunnel of noise, as fans scream down over the side of the rock wall. The chapel marks the summit, a small brick structure with a cross set against the heavens on its domed roof. Riders who can accelerate there are in with a shot of winning, as they will just have the Bosberg left to climb.

“It can be an elating experience, but it can also be a terrible one when you get to the top and you see a big gap in front of you,” Harry says, “but in the same vein you can get to the top and see a big gap behind you and know that the race is on. It really depends on how your race is going and how your legs are. It’s really simple at the end of the day. There is not much to be thought about besides being there when you need to be and going as hard as you can.”

That’s what we’re going to do on Saturday.

“You never know what is going to happen,” Noemi says. “You can do your best, but maybe the rider in front of you crashes and there is nothing really that you can do about it. But I am excited. We have a really good team and together we will try to go there in a good position and then we will have it under control.”

After the peloton has passed the chapel, the crowd will rush to a nearby screen to watch the final kilometers.

Cheer for pink EF Education-EasyPost and EF Education-Canondale jerseys to race over the top in the lead!

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