What you need to know about Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the women’s season opener
It’s almost here. The moment you’ve all been waiting for. The start of the women’s 2021 season.
After the early news of race cancellations in Australia, the 2021 season should have kicked off with the Dubai Women’s Tour, held from February 5 to 8, but as we neared the first full month of racing, news of race cancellations came one after another. All three of the UCI early-season races in Spain were cancelled: the Vuelta CV Feminas on February 7, followed by the Setmana Cyclist Valenciana, a four-day stage race, and finally the Vuelta Castellon, a three-day 2.2.
Now, almost a month later, this Saturday February 27, the women will finally line up for the first time this season. Most of the teams have been able to hold training camps, great for not only testing each other’s fitness but also getting to know new faces.
Since there is still a global pandemic hanging over the race calendar the feeling of “is this the last race?” will likely continue, making the racing even more aggressive than usual. A tough feat, as women’s cycling is already exciting 98% of the time. Another added layer is that the one-day races pre-June play a role in Olympic selection for some in the peloton, including British and American riders. With so few opportunities to impress, each race leading to those selections will be crucial.
The first race of a new season is always exciting. No one knows how the favourites will perform. Sometimes the riders themselves aren’t entirely sure how their legs will turn over. It’s the first glimpse of the season to come.
The last two years of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad were won solo by Annemiek van Vleuten and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. The year before it was a bunch sprint won by Christina Siggaard. When Lucinda Brand won in 2017, she was in a small group. In 2016, Lizzie Deignan won with less than half a minute over a reduced peloton. In other words, the outcome of the race is anyone’s guess. Although the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is not a WorldTour race, it will be an exciting kick-off for the women in 2021.
As of Thursday, there’s still technically no confirmed route from the race organizers but Team Movistar did post a picture of this possible map of where the race will go. The race starts in Gent and finishes 126 km later in Ninove. Between the start and finish the riders will get to ride five sectors of cobbles and 10 not-insignificant climbs. For an extra bit of fun, three of the climbs are also cobbled. Yay.
All of the fun stuff happens after the riders have ridden roughly an hour of flat roads. At 42 km, the first cobbled sector awaits, 2 km long and immediately followed by the Leberg climb. From then on there’s no rest, with the first cobbled climb, the Wolvenberg, coming at 57 km into the race.
The longest section of cobbles comes at the end, 2.3 km long, and with 102 still to go. The most interesting section of the course is kilometres 83 to 94 where there are four climbs back to back: the Rekelberg, the Berendries, the Elverenberg-Vossenhol, and the Tenbosse.
In recent years, the Omloop has been wet and miserable, but this year the weather looks like it wants to start the women’s season off with some sun. The prediction is 12ºC.
Riders to watch
Without knowing anything about where the peloton stands at this moment in time, here are just a few riders who are likely to be up there at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar)
Winner of the 2020 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Annemiek van Vleuten will ride this year’s edition as her first race in Movistar kit.
A new team also means new motivations, and surely Van Vleuten will want to make her first race with new teammates a memorable one for sponsors, team management, and all those involved.
In years past, Movistar has not been among the top teams in these spring races, but their new line-up also includes Emma Norsgaard and Leah Thomas, both riders who could throw down in these early races.
Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (SD Worx)
Like Van Vleuten, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak will line up under a new team name this year, albeit not a new team. As the first race for the team’s new title sponsor, SD Worx (previously Boels-Dolmans) is going to be looking for a victory. Van den Broek-Blaak, having won the 2020 Tour of Flanders and the 2019 edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, is a solid pick for the team leader. She has also been second twice at the Omloop, in 2017 and 2016, and third in 2011. She is good at targeting the right breakaway and having legs at the finish.
That being said, the team will also be lining up with Jolien d’Hoore, winner of Gent-Wevelgem in 2020, and Omloop 2014 winner Amy Pieters. Also on the start line for SD Worx will be world champion Anna van der Breggen, a force to be reckoned with in 2020 and a rider who’s beginning her final season in the peloton. Plus, Van der Breggen won the Omloop in 2015.
Sarah Roy (BikeExchange)
The newly crowned Australian national champion will take to the start line as one of the few who has a race under her belt already in 2021. Sarah Roy was very impressive at the national championships, winning the title after more than 30 km off the front solo. The tactics at the Omloop will be entirely different than at Nationals, but the strength she showed is something that should be noted. Roy is also riding for a team that is going through a bit of a transition period.
Having lost Van Vleuten, the team now has the opportunity to be a bit more aggressive in races and hand out a little more leadership. Roy will not be the only rider to benefit from a potential new role within BikeExchange; Grace Brown is also one to watch for the Australian team.
Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo)
Lizzie Deignan was one of the most dominant riders of the 2020 season. The British rider is one of those in the peloton who focuses heavily on the Olympics, and with the Olympics supposedly taking place in 2021, after being postponed due to COVID-19, it would come as no surprise to see another stellar year from Deignan. She won the Omloop in 2016 and was third in both 2015 and 2014. Something to consider with Deignan, however, is that the Olympics are a long way off, as are her other primary targets of 2021. If the bigger races are her goals, she may not be at 100% for this first race.
If Deignan is not on top form, Trek-Segafredo has a few other riders that are capable of winning the Omloop, notably Ellen van Dijk, who was second in 2015 and 2012.
Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing)
Although Lotte Kopecky has been racing since 2012, the 2020 season saw a real breakthrough for the young Belgian. Kopecky was second at a handful of the late spring/fall (because of the calendar changes) races, placing second at Gent-Wevelgem and winning a stage of the Giro Rosa. Kopecky was also third in the Tour of Flanders and AG Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne.
With the 2021 season so close to the 2020 season, those impressive performances will be fresh in Kopecky’s mind, hopefully leading to a bump in confidence that could see her winning more races in 2021. This will also be the first race for Kopecky with her new team, Liv Racing, after transferring from the Lotto Soudal Ladies team at the end of last season. Kopecky showed last year she can get over most punchy climbs and then is a top sprinter at the finish.
Racing will be shown live on Flobikes in North America and Australia, GCN+ in most of Europe, and Sporza in Belgium.