Het Nieuwsblad kicks off Classics season on Saturday
2009 podium (l-r): Juan Antonio Flecha (third), Thor Hushovd (winner), Kevyn Ista (second)
The Classics season kicks off this weekend with the traditional Belgian season-opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday.
15 cobbled sections and 12 climbs separate the mere mortals from Classics glory this weekend, whilst the heavy rain and strong wind predicted for Ghent on Saturday will certainly take some adjusting to after the sweltering heat of Qatar and Oman.
The Muur, Eikenberg and Molenberg come within the last 100 kilometres will all be key climbs in the race; add in a bevy of pavé, including a 700-metre stretch in the final throws of the race, and all the ingredients are there for a true Northern Classic.
The onus will once again be on Sky this weekend, with team leader Edvald Boasson Hagen already in fighting form. The 22-year-old Norwegian already has a proven Classics pedigree to his palmarès, claiming Ghent-Wevelgem last year.
Boasson Hagen will be supported by the likes of Juan Antonio Flecha and Michael Barry as well as Russell Downing, who makes his debut in the cobbled Classics.
"I was first reserve for the cobbled Classics, Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, so when Arvesen broke his collar bone I was put in the team," Downing explained.
"I can't wait for the cobbles. They are all about racing, and racing is what I do," he added.
Ian Stannard, Mat Hayman, Chris Sutton and Davide Vigano complete the Team Sky line-up.
Sky directeur sportif Scott Sunderland had a look at the parcours on Tuesday and has already noted that the roads have been affected by the bad weather. "The really heavy winter has really taken its toll on the roads," Sunderland told Cycling Weekly.
"It's the same for everybody, but if we have a bit of an extra background knowledge then that could be an advantage. There's been a few changes to the route from last year, for example the cobbles 3km from the finish but there's a lot of dynamics to this race. The aim is to be up there at the end of the race and if there is an opportunity there we'll take it," he added.
Sky will not go unchallenged, however, with all of the big teams fielding at least one rider with a realistic chance of winning. Tom Boonen, Tyler Farrar, Heinrich Haussler and Filippo Pozzato are all in good shape.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
***** Has won three times already this year and was second overall in Oman: the man to beat
Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
***** Also has three wins to his name and has the power to beat Boasson Hagen if it ends in a sprint
Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo)
**** Haussler did everything right in the Classics last year, except for winning one: is this his year?
Tyler Farrar (Garmin)
*** Looks in good shape and can sprint faster than Boonen
Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)
*** Already in good form after riding Qatar and Oman
Phillippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma Lotto)
*** Quiet start to the year, but look what happened when we said that of the Belgian last year
Thor Hushovd (Cervélo)
** Last year's winner is struggling with his form but don't write him off yet
Borut Bozic (Vaconsoleil)
* Stage-winner at Bessèges, the Slovenian strongman could pull a surprise
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Saturday February 27
Climbs (in order of ascension)
Leberg at 77km
Berendries at 81km
Valkenberg at 87km
Tenbosse at 93km
Eikenmolen at 98km
Muur at 109km
Pottelberg at 132km
Kruisberg at 142km
Taaienberg at 152km
Eikenberg at 157km
Wolvenberg at 160km
Molenberg at 169km
2009 Thor Hushovd
2008 Philippe Gilbert
2007 Filippo Pozzato
2006 Philippe Gilbert
2005 Nick Nuyens
2004 Cancelled because of snow
2003 Johan Museeuw
2002 Peter Van Petegem
2001 Michele Bartoli
2000 Johan Museeuw
The race starts and finishes in Ghent making it easy to get to for British fans; just a short hop across the Channel from Calais.