Jasper Stuyven, Soren Kragh Andersen, and Yves Lampaert off the front at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2021.

What you need to know about the men’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

A closer look at what to expect from this year's edition of the cobbled semi-Classic.

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It’s that time of year again; time for top-tier bike racing on the pavé. It’s Opening Weekend in Belgium, which means the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad awaits on Saturday (followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, of course) and what a way to kick off the year’s stretch of races on the cobblestones.

With its numerous climbs and cobbled sectors (and some climbs that are also cobbled!) and coming so early into the year before most riders have had a chance to put their form on display, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has a great way of delivering aggressive racing and unpredictability. We don’t expect that to change this year.

We figured we might give you an idea of what you should expect for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, considering it heralds the return of high-level racing in Flanders after the offseason. Here’s what you need to know ahead of this year’s Omloop.

The route

Organizers haven’t actually officially published the route of this year’s race, which is less than ideal for preview-writing, but Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad reports that the course hasn’t changed much since last year. That would make for 13 climbs (three of them on cobblestones) and nine other cobbled sectors.

According to Het Nieuwsblad, the race will run 200.5 km from Ghent to Ninove, with a route that weaves through the Flemish countryside, sometimes looping back onto itself. The early goings feature a few ups and downs and some cobbled stretches but the racing will really heat up as the pack nears the halfway point. After the riders hit the Katteberg near the midpoint of the Omloop, they won’t go more than 13 km without a climb or a stretch of pavé (or both) for the rest of the way.

The final 60 km should be particularly decisive as the Wolvenberg, a cobbled ascent nearly half a kilometer at 7%, heralds the start of a rapid succession of climbs and cobbles. After tackling challenges like the cobbled Molenberg climb and the Haaghoek pavé, the pack will get a short respite with around 25 km to go before taking on the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen. Riders will go up and over the cobbled ascent, 475 meters long at a 9.3% grade, and then take on the cobbled Bosberg. From the top, there will be only 13 km left to race on mostly flat roads to the finish.

Jasper Stuyven and Yves Lampaert make their way up the Muur at the 2020 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

That challenging finale proved decisive last year, as it so often has recently, with Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-QuickStep), and Soren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb, now DSM) powering clear on the Muur to battle for the win. Stuyven and Lampaert would go on to drop Kragh Andersen and then Stuyven sprinted to the victory in Ninove.

The riders to watch

Quite a few stars will be making the start, although some big names won’t be in attendance. Topping the list of Classics contenders who won’t be at the Omloop are Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).

With that out of the way, onto the marquee riders that will be in Ghent on Saturday morning. Deceuninck-QuickStep counts several on its roster.

As he continues to delve further into racing on the pavé, Julian Alaphilippe will make his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad debut on Saturday, and as the world champion showed at the Tour of Flanders last year before he crashed out of the race, he has what it takes to stick with the best on this sort of terrain. So too do capable, versatile teammates like Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar, who won the race back in 2019. Then there’s Florian Sénéchal and Kasper Asgreen. If Deceuninck-QuickStep stays aggressive, it will be hard for the team’s rivals to mark all the moves that they can make.

Alaphilippe was looking great at Flanders last year, until this happened.

Trek-Segafredo will start with defending champion Stuyven leading the way, and some firepower in the rest of the lineup too. Stuyven and former world champ Mads Pedersen are both capable on the cobbles while also bringing strong sprints to the table, and that’s key in a race that combines such tough terrain with a flatter finale. This will be Stuyven’s season debut, but Pedersen rode to a third-place finish in a stage at the Étoile de Bessèges, so he seems to be in form.

A new-look AG2R Citroën squad boasts the one-two punch of Greg Van Avermaet (winner in 2016 and 2017) and Oliver Naesen. We’re looking forward to seeing what the Belgian duo can do. Both riders have sometimes found themselves isolated late in the finales of big races in recent years. Now, they can play off of each other’s strength and aggression.

Van Avermaet (right) and Naesen (centre) will both be on the same team in 2021.

DSM will have Tiesj Benoot and the aforementioned Kragh Andersen in attendance, with Romain Bardet getting his first taste of cobbled racing this year in what is his Omloop debut too. Tim Wellens and Philippe Gilbert will lead the way for Lotto-Soudal. Sep Vanmarcke, making his first start on the cobbles with Israel Start-Up Nation, got his first pro win at this race all the way back in 2012.

Bora-Hansgrohe will be without Sagan, but Nils Politt and Daniel Oss could be in the mix. Alexander Kristoff –  who my colleague Iain Treloar insists I refer to as “the Stavanger Stallion”, which I’m still on the fence about – will lead the way for UAE-Team Emirates, hoping for a chance to put his speed to the test in a bunch gallop. Niki Terpstra, runner-up in 2015, will headline the Total-Direct Energie squad. Stefan Küng, ninth last year, will hope to pull off a result for Groupama-FDJ with his strong engine.

So they are some of the potential contenders, but given Omloop Het Nieuwsblad’s attacker-friendly parcours, we wouldn’t be shocked to see an outsider nab the win. We don’t have long to find out.

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