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Photo: @bettiniphoto

#1 The Impossible Double


Author: Simon Nessler @tastasol

The 2020 season is well under way, but for many the cycling season hasn’t really started before we come to Belgium and the Flemish opening weekend with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (OHN) and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (KBK). There’s just something special about coming back to Belgium, with the cobbles waiting for the riders, the fans enjoying their beers and frits and a new possibility for the riders to become the first rider to win both races in the same year.

History of the Opening Weekend

The two have been a pair for many years, and it is fitting that they both started up in 1945 after the liberation of Belgium towards the end of the Second World War. But they haven’t always been a pair, with KBK held in June for the first four editions. From 1949 the race was moved to March, and often with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – as the route actually was back then – being the first of the two and thus the opening Belgian race of the season.

OHN: Former winners
2020 Jasper Stuyven
2019 Zdenek Stybar
2018 Michael Valgren
2017 Greg Van Avermaet
2016 Greg Van Avermaet

Photo: @bettiniphoto

However, from 1961 and onwards, KBK has always been the last one of the two, with the exception of 1971 when snowfall postponed OHN for three weeks. From 1966 we have also had the two races in the form that we know today, with OHN on Saturday and KBK on Sunday, normally on the 9th Sunday of the year.

KBK then went on to change its name in 1968, as it was no longer possible to take the race to Brussels and back. “Omloop der beide Vlaanderen” was born, but the organisation went to back to using the name Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 1979, despite the turning point – both then and now – being far away from the Belgian capital.

Being the «Opening Weekend», the winter has left it marks on the race several times. Both races got cancelled in 1986 due to the winter weather, with the same happening with KBK in 1993 and 2013, while OHN got cancelled in 2004. It is indeed a race for the classics specialist with weather that is often a clear contrast to what the riders may have experienced during races in Australia, Argentina, Colombia or Spain earlier on in the season.

Traditionally the two races have also been dominated by the Belgians. The first non-Belgian win came in OHN in 1959 with the Irishman Seamus Elliott, and it wasn’t before 1995 that both races were won by non-Belgians in the same year. 1996 saw the first podium without any Belgian rider in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, while we had to wait to 2010 (and 2011) to have podiums in both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne without any Belgian riders.

KBK: Former winners
2020 Kasper Asgreen
2019 Bob Jungels
2018 Dylan Groenewegen
2017 Peter Sagan
2016 Jasper Stuyven

Photo: @bettiniphoto

It is therefore no surprise that the most successful riders in both races are Belgian: Ernest Sterckx, Joseph Bruyère and Peter Van Petegem have all won OHN three times, while Tom Boonen is the only one with three victories in KBK.

Looking at the ladies edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, started in 2006, the story is drastically different. The fourteen editions have so far yielded no victories and only three podium spots for the home riders. And even for the men we have to go back to 2017 to find the latest Belgian victory, when Greg Van Avermaet took the victory in OHN.

The impossible double

Despite the fact many riders start their classics season with both OHN and KBK, no one has ever won the two races in the same year. Many have been close and nine riders have won both races during their career:André Declerck, André Pieters, Arthur Decabooter, Jan Raas, Johan Museeuw, Jozef Planckaert, Nick Nuyens, Peter Van Petegem and Roger De Vlaeminck.

Declerck, Raas and Van Petegem have managed to hold both titles at the same time, but the double in the same year is still something no one have managed to do.

On ten occasions, riders have been able to be on the podium in both races with the latest being Peter Sagan in 2017, when he won KBK and finished second behind Greg Van Avermaet in OHN.

Normally the big differences between the races are the fact that OHN is the most prestigious one of them and in general on a more challenging course, while we often get a group sprint for the win in KBK. A slightly different skill set is often required to win each of the two races but, in the case of a rider like Tom Boonen, it is not for the want of trying. Four times has he been on the podium in OHN, but the win has escaped him. Surprisingly he was outsprinted by a 23 year old Sep Vanmarcke in 2012, and of course the 2015 edition, when Ian Stannard managed to get the best out of three Etixx – Quick-Step riders, including Boonen, in the final kilometres.

OHN: Most wins
3: Peter Van Petegem | Ernest Sterckx | Joseph Bruyère
2: Andre Declerck | Freddy Maertens | Eddy Planckaert | Johan Capiot | Eddy Merckx | Johan Museeuw | Ian Stannard | Roger De Vlaeminck | Jean Bogaerts | Philippe Gilbert | Frans Verbeeck | Alfons De Wolf | Wilfried Nelissen | Greg Van Avermaet
KBK: Most wins
3: Tom Boonen
2: Steven De Jongh | Jan Raas | Johan Museeuw | Mark Cavendish | Leon van Daele | Roger De Vlaeminck | Hendrik Redant | Jozef Planckaert | Andrei Tchmil | Frans Verhaegen | Walter Planckaert | Valère Ollivier

Another one was close many times, but without success, is Sean Kelly. The Irishman ended his career with six podiums from the two races, but no victories. Both in 1980 and 1982 he finished third in both races, but even for him the double remained elusive.

The Omloop-Ronde curse

While we are at the point of discussing the double in the Opening Weekend, something remarkable about Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the fact that no one – man or woman – have managed to win De Ronde, the Tour of Flanders, and the classics opener in the same season.

In total 14 riders have managed to win both races during their career: Anna van der Breggen, Arthur Decabooter, Eddy Merckx, Eddy Planckaert, Jan Raas, Jo de Roo, Johan Museeuw, Lizzie Deignan, Michele Bartoli, Nick Nuyens, Peter Van Petegem, Philippe Gilbert, Roger De Vlaeminck and Sylvain Grysolle.

In many ways it is fitting that the double has never been done in the same year, as what we today know as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad more or less started up as a reaction to the Tour of Flanders, as the race was still held during the war years, with help from the German forces.

Photo: @bettiniphoto

The Tour of Flanders was initially started by the magazine Sportwereld. The magazine merged with the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad in 1939. After the liberation from the German forces, the newspaper Het Volk wanted to start their own cycling race, a race that was first given the name “Omloop van Vlaanderen”. Due to the similarity with “Ronde van Vlaanderen”, the official name became “Omloop Het Volk”. The newspapers Het Volk and Het Nieuwsblad merged in 2008, and since 2009 the race has been known as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

The two races have many similarities when it comes to the course, but it is of course a challenge to stay in top shape from OHN to Tour of Flanders, normally a period of five weeks. For some it also takes time to come into the rhythm of the cobbled classics. Alexander Kristoff is certainly a rider that so far in his career have been rather poor in OHN, but nevertheless a rider you can never count out when it comes to Tour of Flanders some weeks later.

That means OHN often becomes a race where the biggest favourites often comes in trying to build form and rhythm, whilst some see it as an opportunity to get a big win. But as we saw from a rider like Greg Van Avermaet in 2017, it is possible to be on top during the whole period. He won OHN and then went on to win E3 BinckBank Classic, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. And who knows what could have happened if Peter Sagan hadn’t hooked his arm into a jacket the last time up Oude Kwaremont in the Tour of Flanders.

Also, while the double has proven impossible for the professionals, we have had the same winner in the amateur/U23/U26 editions of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tour of Flanders three times: Gustaaf De Smet (1956), Mario Liboton (1993) and Kevin Hulsmans (1999).

And for those being afraid that the chance of winning the biggest Flemish race is gone after winning in the Opening Weekend, you can take comfort in that Noël Fore (1963), Jan Raas (1983), Edwig Van Hooydonck (1989) and Andrei Tchmil (2000) all have won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Tour of Flanders the same year.

The course

Speaking of Van Hooydonck, the tall Belgian surely would have loved the finish in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. While Tom Boonen loved a big acceleration on Taaienberg, Van Hooydonck was a specialist in managing his effort up Bosberg.

The hill became especially well known as the last hill before the finish in Tour of Flanders, a position it had from 1988 to 2011, before the finished moved from Ninove to Oudenaarde in 2012. It was then shortly after Muur van Geraardsbergen, a combination that became one of the most iconic in cycling.

After it got removed from the Tour of Flanders, the BinckBank Tour was for a couple of years the only big race really using the two hills. That changed again in 2017, when it was re-introduced at an early stage in Tour of Flanders and as the finale in OHN.

Photo: @bettiniphoto

It was certainly a return liked by many, and in many ways also something that gave the race even more prestige amongst the classics specialists. The big difference between OHN and races like Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders is the distance, with “only” 200 kilometers from the start in Gent to the finish in Ninove. It is also the only one of the big Flemish classics with the majority of the race in East Flanders that doesn’t tackle either the Oude or the Niuewe Kwaremont.

The race really gets into gear on the Wolvenberg, the seventh hill of the race, with 55 kilometres to go. From there on, the race will truly be open, with the hills coming fast until we get to the top of Bosberg, the 13th and last hill of the day, with 12,8 kilometres remaining.

That gives a larger group the opportunity to come back again, but it hasn’t been the case the in first three editions with the new finale. The Muur van Geraardsbergen is one of those hills in Flanders that always splits up the field, and the chance of a group of more than ten riders coming into Ninove together seems pretty slim.

KBK is, in terms of the hills and cobbles, one of the easiest Flemish classics. It often ends in a group sprint, but in comparison to the other races in East Flanders, this is the race where the wind often plays an important role, much more like what we sometimes see in a race like Gent-Wevelgem.

The finishing town of Kuurne is also nearby Wevelgem, as well as just a few kilometres away from Harelbeke and Waregem, where the E3 BinckBank Classic and Dwars door Vlaanderen finish respectively. That means we are quite far from the toughest hills in the area and a big part of why we so often have sprint finishes in Kuurne.

The route this year has been changed quite a lot in an attempt to make the race more selective. The turning point is even further to the west, and we have a good bit of the race down in Wallonie. There we face a tough cobbled climb up the Mont Saint-Laurent (1300 meters à 7,8 % average, last half cobbled), a climb that sporadically features in races in Wallonie and now an exciting addition to a Flemish classic. The climb comes with 104,6 kilometers to go, and the organiser will hope that it will start an aggressive race, with the climb to La Houppe taking us into Flanders again, before the riders tackle Kanarieberg, Kruisberg/Hotond, Knokteberg, Oude Kwaremont and Kluisberg. From the top of Kluisberg it will be 51,1 kilometers to the line.

The last hill is actually one kilometre further to the line than last year, with Nokereberg as the last climb, but this year we will have the climbs of Kanarieberg, Kruisberg/Hotond, Knokteberg, Oude Kwaremont and Kluisberg all 25 kilometres closer to the finish line. .

That’s mainly because the entrance to Kuurne is new, with some smaller and more wind exposed roads, and because they have gone from two local laps to one.

This should lead to a more selective race, and perhaps the chances of a Omloop-Kuurne double is bigger this time.

The favourites

That of course depends on the rider who first wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, as plenty of riders only ride one of the two races. More and more riders have also started to prepare themselves for the classics with altitude training. Peter Sagan is amongst the riders who won’t be present at Opening Weekend. Also the UAE Tour drags a few potential winners away, mainly sprinters such asDylan Groenewegen, Sam Bennett, Arnaud Démare and Fernando Gaviria.

Make no mistake, there will be plenty of riders eagerly waiting for these races. Mathieu van der Poel will likely be doing Omloop Het Nieuwsblad for the first time in his career and we can expect a strong Deceunicnk – Quick-Step lining up, trying to defend the win from Zdenek Stybar last year.

The Belgian team is near unstoppable at their best, and even with Philippe Gilbert having moved over to Lotto Soudal, they will be the team to beat in both races.

OHN: Former winner's participating
Philippe Gilbert
Ian Stannard
Greg Van Avermaet
Zdenek Stybar
Michael Valgren
Sep Vanmarcke

There are plenty of interesting point going into these two races. How will the duo Greg Van Avermaet and Matteo Trentin work together? Will we see world champion Mads Pedersen at his best in the classics again, after a poor spring in 2019?

The list of favourites will be long, and many will be looking to measure up against the competitors they will be facing further on into the classics season. For some it’s a chance to see how they will work with a new team, and for riders like Michael Valgren and Niki Terpstra it’s a chance to strike back after disappointing first season in their respective teams.

Nils Politt will try to live up to his great classics season last year, but he will be a much more marked man this time around. Who can then try to take advantage of going a bit under the radar, like Politt last year? Iván García Cortina seems like a rider that’s waiting for a breakthrough result, and it could surely come here. The same goes for the Jumbo-Visma duo Mike Teunissen and Amund Grøndahl Jansen. Together with their classics leader Wout Van Aert, they have been preparing at altitude. The Dutch team have had great success with altitude training the last few years, and even though they all make their season debut on the road in the Opening Weekend, you surely wouldn’t count them out.

KBK: Former winner's participating
Bob Jungels
Jasper Stuyven

Another man who could be a breakthrough rider this classics season is Jasper Philipsen. UAE will have Alexander Kristoff to lead the team in OHN, with Philipsen saving himself for KBK. Not many have a quicker sprint than the young Belgian, who might even count on help from Kristoff should they both be present in the finale. Still only 21 years old, but 21 year olds from Mol have impressed in the classics before (even though they never conquered Omloop Het Nieuwsblad).

Fabio Jakobsen is another rider who’s only riding KBK. The 23 year old got sick the night before KBK last year, but he has previously shown good qualities in the classics below WorldTour level. If Deceunick – Quick-Step decides to go all in for him, a bunch sprint in Kuurne will immediately be more likely. They did win the race solo with Bob Jungels last year, but again only after Jakobsen had dropped out with sickness in the hours before the race.

John Degenkolb will also stick to KBK only, with Philippe Gilbert and Tim Wellens being the leaders in OHN. For Degenkolb it’s actually his first time back at the Opening Weekend since 2013. The German rode OHN for three years straight between 2011 and 2013, while he had his only participation in KBK back in 2012. He’s another one who will be looking to get a good start in a new team, and thus another team who would want to have the race end in a bunch sprint.

Another rider to watch in a sprint will be Tim Merlier, a rider who could also face a breakthrough season on the road. He’s not used to riding races on the road so early in the year, but in races KBK and Gent-Wevelgem he should be the team leader for Alpecin-Fenix. We know he can tackle the short climbs and that he has a great sprint, so if he can have a good transition from the cyclocross season, this is a man who can do big things this spring.

Favourites for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
*** Mathieu van der Poel
** Zdenek Stybar
* Greg Van Avermaet
Favourites for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
*** Fabio Jakobsen
** Jasper Philipsen
* Tim Merlier