It’s here! The European season officially kicks off in Belgium this weekend at Omloop het Nieuwsblad. While not part of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour it remains to be seen as the European season’s opener. This eleventh edition did get upgraded from UCI 1.2 to UCI 1.1 status though and is attracting 22 UCI teams to the start line. That combined with the cobbles and often traditional ‘Classic weather’ will make for one tough race.
What happened in previous editions
With its short, steep climbs and several cobble sections, Omloop het Nieuwsblad is a quintessential Belgian race, yet never before has a female Belgian rider been the first to cross the finish line.
The Dutchwomen have been most successful with six wins in the 10 editions that have been held so far.
Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) is the one who tasted victory here last year and Amy Pieters (Wiggle High5) won the race in 2014.
It’s commonly been a race in which two or three women arrive at the finish line together, with smaller groups crossing the line behind them. This shows just how hard of a race this is, with lots of difficult sections in the final kilometers. The long, slightly uphill finishing straight is usually decisive in who wins the race and has seen some great sprint battles in recent years with Van der Breggen versus Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) in 2015, Pieters against Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) and Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) in 2014 and Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) leaving behind Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) in 2013.
In last year’s edition, Van der Breggen and Van Dijk escaped the breakaway group of 32 riders with around 30 kilometers (and the final three cobble sections) to go. Although they worked together to build their lead at first, Van der Breggen started trying to distance Van Dijk on the cobbles – without much success. But with cooperation in the chase group hard to find, and teammates of both leaders among them, it was apparent the race would culminate in a two-up sprint for victory.
Van der Breggen was the first to accelerate in the final meters and was able to hold off Van Dijk, starting off her season by winning the very first race where she lined up at the start, after her massive crash at the World TTT Championships a couple of months before.
The 2016 edition
Every so often, Easter comes so early in the year that mid-lent coincides with the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, which is the case this year. It means the Sint-Pietersplein is not available as the start and finish location. Only the men use it as a start location though, the women will line up where they’ve always started their race; at the Flemish Cycling Centre Eddy Merckx. A record number of 33 teams will ride this European opening race. Among them are 18 out of the top 20 UCI teams, the national teams of England, Ukraine and Lithuania, plus eight amateur teams from the Netherlands and Belgium. Each team brings six riders to the start line, so it will be a huge peloton with 198 riders.
The Sint-Pietersplein being unavailable, the finish line is now drawn on the Emile Clauslaan, just next to the beloved football stadium ‘het Kuipke’. There’s still a little incline before the finish line, so we hope to see a similarly nail biting finale like we did in the last years.
Who to watch out for
Lizzie Armitstead and Ellen van Dijk
Armitstead makes her debut in the rainbow stripes in Het Nieuwsblad, eager to show there is no such thing as the curse of the rainbow jersey. She focuses on the spring classics before turning her attention to Rio later in the year, so Het Nieuwsblad will be the first opportunity to test out her legs. She made the podium twice in the last two years, so it’s obviously a race that suits her very well. Last year she ended up third behind teammate Van Dijk. Since Van Dijk has been ‘best of the rest’ in this race twice now, losing to Loes Gunnewijk in 2012, she is also hopeful of a victory here. Both Boels-Dolmans riders would very much like to get on the top step of that podium, especially with the upgrade to UCI 1.1 status.
Anna van der Breggen
Van der Breggen had a magnificent season in 2015, which started with her win at the Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Whether she can repeat her successful season this year remains to be seen, but will probably not depend on her winning the Omloop het Nieuwsblad or not. Her main goals for 2016 are the Giro Rosa, Rio and the World Championships, so there’s no need to peak this early in the season. However, if Van der Breggen is on the start line of a race, she’s in it to win it, so definitely keep an eye out for her anyway.
Emma Johansson and Amy Pieters
Having two wins to her name, in 2010 and 2011, and making it onto the podium another three times, Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) is always one to watch in this race, and basically in all the Belgian spring classics. Her new team Wiggle High5 brings a strong line up to the Omloop, with Amy Pieters and Elisa Longo Borghini being serious contenders for the win as well. The course of the race will determine who’s in with the biggest chance of winning and who the team will work for. But as former winners of Het Nieuwsblad, Johansson and Pieters will have somewhat of a protected status within the team.
The only non-European ever having won this race is Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM). That was back in 2013 wearing the Orica-AIS colours and as Cromwell has shown to have progressed since then, she has a serious chance of adding a second win in Het Nieuwsblad to her results. She is in top shape, having won bronze at the Australian TT championships and having done brutal work at the Ladies Tour of Qatar, when the team tried to take over the golden leader’s jersey and later had to defend it. With Canyon-SRAM behind her, she might just be able to be the first to arrive in Gent once again.
Floortje Mackaij (Team Liv-Plantur) was only 19 when she won Gent-Wevelgem in 2015, one of the important spring classics. The weather was horrible and that’s when Mackaij steps up to shine. She always does exceedingly well when the weather turns bad, also putting the weather to her advantage when she won a stage in the Festival Elsy Jacobs last year in the pouring rain. If the weather conditions are anything like that this Saturday, write Mackaij down with the favourites!
How to follow the race
Unfortunately, the women’s Omloop het Nieuwsblad won’t have any live images available.
Thus, the best way to keep track of what happens during the race is to follow updates on social media. The official hashtag of the race is #OHN2016. Additionally, the organisation of Omloop het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders, Flanders Classics, promises behind the scenes footage at #flandersclassics. These hashtags are for both races though, so information on the women’s race will be mixed up with updates of the men’s race.
Of course, be sure to visit Ella CyclingTips after the race for a race report, and a photo gallery by Sean Robinson and Balint Hamvas of Vélofocus.
Official race accounts
More information on the race and pre-race interviews can be found on the official Flanders Classics website of Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Also check out their social media accounts, where we can expect live updates from the race: