The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a 198km loop (omloop, geddit?) sponsored by ‘the Newspaper’ (Nieuwsblad, yes?) starting and finishing in Ghent has traditionally marked the opening of the northern European racing season.

While stage races in Oman and Qatar – or even in southern France or Spain – have been blessed with decent weather, a race in Belgium at the end of February can offer no such guarantee. In fact the weather forecast for the weekend is decidedly chilly.

None of which would put off the hard men of the north like… Russell Downing. The NetApp Endura line-up for the race includes Downing, Jonny McEvoy and Erick Rowsell, as well as ex-Endura team mates Zak Dempster and Paul Voss. Markus Eichler, Blaz Jarc and Andreas Schillinger complete the line up for Saturday’s leg stretcher.

“It’s basically the team who rode in Qatar and Oman,” explained Downing, “and I’d say that Vossy (Paul Voss) is in good shape and Zak was going well out there, but so was Shilly (Schillinger) who got in a few breakaways, I reckon he could surprise a few people in the Classics this year, he could be a bit of a dark horse. He’s got the gas, he’s got plenty of power and he rides well, he’s always well placed in the bunch.”

No matter how hard you study the pictures of the training ride, you’ll struggle to spot Downing, who was actually still at home in Yorkshire as the rest of the team tackled the Taaienberg, Molenberg, Berendries and the rest. “I had had a bit of a nightmare in Qatar and Oman with crashes – three big crashes and a mechanical that put my rear mech into my wheel. So I was a bit battered when I got back. I would loved to have been out there with the boys – they wanted us out there on Tuesday but I felt I needed to spend some time with my osteopath, rest and train up.”

In fact Downing had two sessions with his osteopath before flying out early on Friday to join the team. None of which stopped him putting in “a really hard” training session on Wednesday as final preparation for the weekend. “It’s not the first time I’ve done the race – I’ve raced it twice and I lived in Ghent. It would have been good to do it with the team but I didn’t get back from Oman till Sunday and it was better to get a bit of treatment on my back. Three crashes – really – and having to walk to a finish in Oman, that has to be all my bad luck for the season out the way now,” chuckled Downing, “I’m really looking forward to the Classics.” Which now presumably includes Paris-Roubaix, which the team was just offered an invitation to ride.

The 2013 race route is similar to last year’s, although the Berendries climb has been added to a total of 12 ‘bergs’, many of which will also feature on the route of the Tour of Flanders on March 31.

In last year’s race – won by Garmin rider Sep Vanmarcke in a three-up sprint with Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) – the best NetApp finisher was Markus Eichler in 83rd place, 7-45 back. You rather suspect that this new 2013 incarnation of NetApp Endura will be expecting a little more than that. “I think we’ve been doing OK,” said Downing, “and the wildcard invitations are coming in, which is a good sign and good for morale. Who knows where it’ll lead?”

NetApp Endura team for Het Nieuwsblad: Russell Downing, Zak Dempster, Markus Eichler, Blaz Jarc, Jonny McEvoy, Erick Rowsell, Andreas Schillinger, Paul Voss

The official website is at www.omloophetnieuwsblad.be

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Fuji team bikes







Getting ready to roll out







Winter sunshine







Riding through the distinctive countryside







Hitting the cobbles







Picking a good line







Even though the sun’s out, the team has to wrap up against the elements







Checking out a climb