The first weekend of the classic season is fast approaching, with the ‘semi-classics’, the 71st Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Elite 1.HC) on Saturday 27th Feb and 68th Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne (1.HC) the next day; the heat and sun of the Middle East and Australasia being replaced with the cold and biting wind of the Flemish Heartland.
Ian Stannard doesn’t appear on the start sheet so he won’t be back to defend his Omloop title despite his master class last year against the combined might of Etixx Quick Step who will doubtless be out to right that wrong and appease team boss Patrick Levere.
Mark Cavendish likewise has decided not to return to defend his Kuurne crown, concentrating on preparation for the world track championships which start the following week.
However with world champion Peter Sagan, (Tinkoff) riding both events he’ll be looking for a big result to dispel as early in the season as possible, ‘the curse of the rainbow jersey.’
Philippe Gilbert (BMC), twice a winner of the Omloop in 2006, 2008 will be keen to make it a third win to equal the records of Jos Bruyere (’74, ’75, ’80), Ernest Sterckx (’52 ’53 56) and Peter Van Petegem (97, ’98 ’02).
I’ve tagged along with Ed and Dave Chapman to these races for several years now, my duties extending to setting up the satnav and keeping the car radio tuned to ‘Nostalgie’ with the volume adjusted depending on the quality of the tune being played.
For those who have not experienced first-hand the opening classic weekend of the season let me share my memories of my first Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2010.
The riders appeared round the cobbled corner on the fabled Oude Kwaremont climb, we had taken up position near the summit and first round the corner was a Sky dude going full gas, no holding back here, riders hanging on to the wheel in front for dear life.
This was ten tenths racing, no looking pretty or posing here, it looked to me like the finish must just be round the corner not still over 100km’s to go!
And the Sky dude ripping it up was… Jeremy Hunt – wait a minute, I thought he was a sprinter, time to re-assess!
Jeremy was seriously putting the hurt on and the bunch was exploding behind.
These guys go faaasssttt… and I mean proper fast!
Fast forward to 2014 – Het Nieuwsblad and my top tip if you are thinking of making the trip to watch from the roadside; don’t get too close to Andre Greipel on a charge. I did and he didn’t deviate from his line so my hasty retreat up the banking to get out his way pronto seemed like a sensible move. Even going uphill it would hurt if he made contact.
Aside from the elite races our interest will extend to the Junior Kuurne where the participation of the Spokes-Limits team will see us chasing the junior race around the Flemish countryside.
We last caught up with the guys from Spokes RT at their team launch in early January.
But recently I met up with team boss Craig Grieve and some of the team as they prepared for their first European adventure of the year, at the junior Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
David Bowie’s ‘All the Young Dudes’ was playing as I pulled up and indeed there they were, checking bikes and organising kit.
The mood was more serious than at the team launch with the suits replaced with the more appropriate business attire of a race team, the nicely cut GSG clothing.
Kuurne will be a test of the new kit but the Limits power meters may be missing, still undergoing final testing so the guys will just have to rely on their legs to know when they’ve hit their limit.
With the funds raised at the team launch now starting to flow back out of the team bank account as ferries and accommodation are booked the young dudes will face their most serious test of the season so far at Kuurne.
The hard winter miles are over and the real racing is about to begin.
Ed, Dave and I have watched the junior Kuurne for the last few years and my advice to the guys is to get well warmed up as the first time we saw the race it ‘rolled out’ from the strip at full gas with riders struggling to get on the wheel as they blasted out of the large car park full on – a poor grid position or start could mean the race is over before it begins.
I don’t think we’ve seen the race when it wasn’t lined out or in bits with riders chasing wheels.
The love of the sport in the heartland is evident in the support the junior Kuurne receives, aside from the de rigueur marshals at every road-end and junction there is vehicular support from Shimano, police, motorcycle marshals and commissaires; the event organisation surpasses anything seen on Scottish and probably British roads, with the exception of the Tour of Britain.
There is no doubting the enthusiasm mixed with a healthy dose of trepidation from the Spokes riders; for most if not all it’s their biggest race to date but they are ‘up for it’ and once they have started at Kuurne it’s on their palmares and can’t ever be taken away.
Just ask Dave, who back in the day rode the amateur Paris-Roubaix; coolness forever!
We’ll catch up with the guys in the heartland to hear about their final preparations and to swatch the race unfold but first we had a word with Craig;
“The team is Mathias Barnet (British Youth RR Champion 2014), Tim Jones, Grant Martin (Scottish Junior RR Champion), Stephen Dent (Youth Tour of Ireland winner) and John McLeod (Scottish Junior Cyclo-cross Champion).
“The guys are all going well and fit other than Matthias having a bit off a cold this week. We have prepared the guys by keeping a close eye on them and their training diaries all winter and having training camps every month since October.
“Some of them are coached by ourselves and some by external coaches so we keep in touch with the coaches as well. I think the praying will start when the race rolls off as that’s when I start to get nervous.
“The race plan will be to stay as far forward as possible in order to be on the right side of any splits caused by crosswinds, climbs and cobbles.
“A successful result will be to have a few finishers and it would be a dream to have a rider up there challenging. Expectations aren’t too high as it’s very early and it’s a step into the unknown.
“We’ve done a couple of UCI races last season which gave the guys a great insight so this race shouldn’t be a huge shock but in February when there’s not been much racing it’s really difficult to anticipate what’s going to happen.
“An update on the Limits power meters is that one of our guys has been doing final tests on the road and all glitches have been ironed out and we are still hopefully to have them fitted for KBK.
“The guys are all racing in Croft in NE England on Saturday so that will be their first team race of the season although a couple of them, namely Joe Reilly and Grant Martin have had top ten finishes in the last few weeks down there in the spring criterium series.”
That’s the talking done – next Saturday it’ll be down to the ‘head and legs’, as the French say.
Wish us all luck!