Deceuninck-Quick Step and Boels-Dolmans got their spring classics campaign off to the perfect start with wins for Zdenek Stybar and Chantal Blaak in the opening Belgian one-day race of the season.
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With no less than six former champions in attendance including defending champion Michael Valgren of Dimension Data, Greg van Avermaet of CCC Team, Philippe Gilbert of Deceuninck-Quick Step, Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld of EF Education First and Ian Stannard of Team Sky; Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was stacked with potential victors there alone. In the men’s race New Zealand had three riders lining up for the spring classics opener in the form of Alex Frame of Trek-Segafredo, Dion Smith of Mitchelton-SCOTT and Tom Scully of EF Education First.
The women’s race featured Kiwis Georgia Williams of Mitchelton-SCOTT and Mikayla Harvey of Bigla Pro Cycling in a field featuring everyone from Ellen van Dijk of Trek-Segafredo, to 2017 world champion Chantal Blaak of Boels-Dolmans, Team Virtu’s defending champion Christina Siggaard, to Mitchelton-SCOTT’s Annemiek van Vleuten. Up ahead of the women was a 122.9km course with 8 bergs and six cobbled sectors to tackle, while for the men a 200km race was in store with 13 bergs and 9 cobbled sectors.
Stybar seizes late opportunity to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The day belonged to the aggressors in both races, with solo wins in store for Chantal Blaak and Zdenek Stybar. Despite the early breakaway gaining a lead of over 10 minutes at one point in the men’s race, the peloton had no trouble in bringing them back to heel, with the favourites biting at the bit to get their classics season off to the ideal start. CCC Team and Deceuninck-Quick Step were quite animated on the front, and so too Lotto Soudal.
A crash would prove quite decisive for the men’s race, with a large group of riders being fractured after a crash for Tiesj Benoot of Lotto Soudal with 30km remaining. Although he was the only one to go down those behind him could not bridge across to the six ahead containing Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet, Lotto Soudal’s Tim Wellens, Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko and Bahrain Merida’s Dylan Teuns and BORA-Hansgrohe’s Daniel Oss.
In the chase group behind them the likes of Michael Matthews of Team Sunweb, Jempy Drucker of BORA-Hansgrohe, Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma and Matteo Trentin of Mitchelton-SCOTT waited in the wings to strike; with a time gap that was just 18 seconds with 20km to the leaders. But the pressure was being put too heavily on the shoulders of Team Sky who had Owain Doull on the front leading Deceuninck-Quick Step who were just there to marshal the group rather than support the chase.
The climb of the Kapelmuur saw Stybar lead the way with Van Avermaet; but it was the end of Oss in the group. The five leaders would stay together, withholding the chasers although Van Avermaet was looking visibly strongest, attacking on the next climb and putting Tim Wellens on the ropes. But the five remained together with the last of the climbs done and it looked like it might come down to a small group sprint.
Attacks continued from the leaders though, with Tim Wellens making a last ditch bid for victory with 2.8km to go. Van Avermaet pegged him back but then Zdenek Stybar counter-attacked and this time the Olympic champion had no answer. A hesitation from the rest was just what Stybar needed as he time trialled away to the win by 9 seconds from Van Avermaet, with Tim Wellens third from Lutsenko and Teuns.
For Dion Smith and Tom Scully the day had been a solid one on the bike with both crossing the line in chase groups later on. Smith’s support for the team saw Matteo Trentin take 9th place across the line, while Scully’s work for the team saw Sebastian Langeveld take 15th place as part of the chase group behind. Smith crossed the line 78t at 6.23mins while Scully finished 91st at 6.27mins.
Early drama for Bigla breakaway, as Chantal Blaak dominates to win
The women’s race found itself needing to be neutralised in bizarre circumstances, particularly for solo breakaway rider Nicole Hanselmann, with the Bigla rider – teammate of Mikayla Harvey – racing almost to the back of the men’s race after 35km of racing. With 90.5km still to go the race was brought to a stop, with Hanselmann allowed to continue with a lead before she was finally brought back into the peloton.
Canyon-SRAM and Mitchelton-SCOTT were among the leaders early on with Trek-Segafredo also playing a leading role at the front, in a race that remained quite compact despite a number of attacks. Canyon-SRAM in particular were very aggressive and at one point had three riders, Alexis Ryan, Hannah Barnes and Kasia Niewiadoma in a leading group of five.
Blaak’s win crafted on the climb of the Kapelmuur with the Dutch national champion stretching the field but then attacking on the descent with 16km remaining. As in the men’s race there was simply nothing the chasers could do as she continued over the Bosberg alone and time trialled to the win 1.09mins ahead of Marta Bastianelli of Team Virtu Cycling and Jip van den Bos of Boels Dolmans; with Annemiek van Vleuten of Mitchelton-SCOTT leading the sprint out for second place from a long way off and eventually finishing fifth.
A top 20 performance for Bigla Pro Cycling’s Leah Thomas, plus the animation of the day’s early breakaway from Hanselmann featured for the team, with Mikayla Harvey getting her first taste of Belgian classic racing for the team. The 20 year old finished 64th in a chase group behind the leaders, while Georgia Williams of Mitchelton-SCOTT was similarly committed early for her teammates who just missed out on the podium. The reigning New Zealand time trial champion finished 79th in a large group behind Harvey.