Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team will open the 2017 season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday. World champion Amalie Dideriksen will debut her rainbow jersey alongside UCI Women’s WorldTour winner Megan Guarnier, 2014 winner Amy Pieters and last year’s second-place finisher Chantal Blaak. Luxembourg champion Christine Majerus and Karol-Ann Canuel round out the six-strong squad.
“We are going for the victory again this year, but with this team we’ll do that at every race,” said sport director Bram Sevens. “We need at least one person on the podium in Het Nieuwsblad.”
The opening weekend of racing – with Omloop van het Hageland following Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – will serve as the first true indicator of form for the all-important spring classics. Boels-Dolmans had an incredible run last spring with a win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Le Samyn followed by five consecutive wins in the inaugural Women’s WorldTour.
“We know it’s almost impossible to win, win, win,” said Danny Stam, sport director and team manager. “We must realise it’s a new season, and everything starts at zero again with the need for the same hunger and the same focus we had to win last year.
“It’s extremely important to have a good start,” Stam added. “It will follow our whole season. It’s not that we must win necessarily, but there must be good sensations and good cooperation to build the confidence that we will have another strong season.”
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is typically a race of two halves. A nervous but inactive start gives way to non-stop action over the cobbles and climbs in the second half of the 122-kilometre race.
Most of the more experienced riders in the bunch will say that the race begins in earnest when the peloton hits the Côte de Trieu at 58.7 kilometres. The infamous Paterberg follows less than five kilometres later. With little time to recover between the sectors in the second half of the race, selection is typically made by the time the peloton hits the run-in to the finish through Ghent.
There is a distinct advantage to those that know the roads and know how to approach each sector. Being smart about when and how to use energy is critical on the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad course.
“The spring races are always hard,” said Blaak. “I like the cobbles, the climbs, and the fun of knowing anything can happen. OHN is special because it has all the ingredients of a classic, and it’s also the first. All classic racing is nervous racing, but the first classic is extra nervous.”
A LOOK BACK
Lizzie Deignan started her season at the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwblad where she became the first world champion to win the European season opener. The Briton found herself in what she deemed an “accidental breakaway” with Gracie Elvin (ORICA-SCOTT) with 20 kilometres remaining. Deignan lifted the pace. Elvin matched the acceleration. The duo unexpectedly slipped up the road ahead of a disorganised chase.
Elvin was unable to trade turns with Deignan, so Deignan attacked the Australian on the run-in the finish. Resplendent in rainbows, Deignan soloed across the finish line 29” seconds ahead of a 22-rider chase. Chantal Blaak bested Tiffany Cromwell (CANYON//SRAM) in the bunch sprint for second place.
“I didn’t expect to win,” said Deignan. “I had just returned from a training camp, and I saw it as a training race. I realise now I must have been flying to be able to ride away solo like I did.”
“We hadn’t won the race before and Lizzie winning in the stripes was amazing,” said Sevens. “When Chantal added a second place finish to that, it made the day – both for the team and the sponsors that were present.”
A LOOK AHEAD
While Deignan sits out of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year, Boels-Dolmans brings options a-plenty to the start line, and it is those options that provide the squad’s ultimate advantage.
“It’s hard to predict what will happen,” said Blaak. “I know that my teammates and I have worked very hard. We work well together, and we are motivated to make a good race. Because we have a lot of options, we can see what the race brings.”
As of this writing, the weather forecast for Saturday is looking particularly ominous. Belgium in the spring is notorious for producing foul weather conditions that are embraced by some and merely tolerated by those less acclimated to the cold, wet and wind.
“The weather can make it even harder,” said Blaak. “In combination with the course, it’s my style of racing.”
THE RAINBOW JERSEY
Dideriksen’s start at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is part of an increasing focus on the classics. The Dane is not racing any of the Track World Cups she raced last year as part of her Olympic campaign, which gives her the freedom to race on the road in the spring. She’s only once raced Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, in 2015 as a first-year senior, and has eagerly embraced her return.
“Racing Het Nieuwsblad two years ago feels like a very long time ago,” said Dideriksen. “I don’t even remember so much from the race other than it was my first European road race as an elite and the first European race for the team.
“I fought to hang onto the front. I didn’t succeed in being there all the way but ended in 55th place, which I think I was pretty satisfied with when I saw the long list of DNFs and the people finishing behind me.
“This time I hope to be stronger and have an influence on the race, not just try to hang on. I’m excited to get the season started, but at the same time, I’m nervous. I hope my debut in the jersey goes well.”
Although the men’s race at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is broadcast live, we’re not expecting the same for the women. If we’re lucky, they may cut to the women’s finish if there’s a lull in action at that point during the men’s race. Don’t expect this (as it’s not something that was done last year) but tune in around 14:30-14:45 CET with fingers crossed.
Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: