The Cobbled Curtain Raiser

For the eager cycling fan, the start of the season is marked these days by the Tour Down Under in January. Others consider the true season opener to be the Paris-Nice stage race in mid-March. For everyone else, the 2011 racing season truly gets under way this Saturday in Belgium, with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (formerly ‘Het Volk’).

Just as the Tour de France contenders require stage races to hone their racing acumen early in the year, as do the classics specialists require one day races to get into the mood. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad provides just this. It is about 200km long, there are short sharp cobbled climbs and if the weather forecast is to be believed, there’ll be rain.

Since the race’s inception in 1945, there have only been 10 non-Belgian winners of the race, the first to break the domestic stranglehold on the winner’s podium was Seamus Elliott in 1959. Elliott was the first Irish rider to make an impression on the continent. He had won races in previous years (most notably a couple of stages of the Four Days of Dunkirk), but winning Het Volk as it was called then, punctuated the arrival of Elliott on the international racing scene.

Seamus Elliott - Ireland's first cycling star was the first non-Belgian winner of Het Volk in 1959 (

In second place that day was a rider called Fred de Bruyne. At that point, De Bruyne had already won Milan San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and Liége-Bastogne-Liége, as well as six stages of the Tour de France, but Elliott beat him. It was the first major win of his career and it would be followed by stage wins in all three Grand Tours as well as a stint in the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France and a silver medal at the World Championships.

Some riders will be using the race on Saturday as training, while others will be aiming for the win. Classics ace Tom Boonen has already stated that Het Nieuwsblad is not a priority, whereas his former team-mate Stijn Devolder is treating the race as a genuine season goal. Indeed, many big names are choosing to sit out from racing this weekend in favour of training miles. Regardless of riders’ attitudes toward victory, the race usually gives a good indication of which riders are going well in their preparations for the bigger races to come, namely the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Although the route of Het Nieuwsblad covers some of the same ground as the Tour of Flanders, surprisingly, no rider has ever won both in the same year. However, there have been three occassions where a rider has won both Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Roubaix. The most recent of which was in 2000 when Johan Museeuw won both cobbled races. At that stage in his career, Museeuw had already won Paris-Roubaix and was a triple winner of the Tour of Flanders. But having been a professional cyclist for 12 years, Museeuw decided that Het Nieuwsblad was a race that shouldn’t be missing from his palmarés. So instead of treating it as mere preparation, he constantly attacked his rivals and ended up winning by almost a minute. The late Franco Ballerini also managed this cobbled double in 1995, as did (unsurprisingly), Eddy Merckx in 1973.

Unfortunately, the An Post-Sean Kelly team are not due to race Het Nieuwsblad, nor are any of the other Irish riders in the current peloton (although Brammeier has just confused me). But Het Nieuwsblad is not the only semi-classic to take place this weekend, as Sunday sees the 63rd edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Unlike Het Niuewsblad, this is a race never before won by an Irishman, although Sean Kelly did finish on the podium in 1980,1982 and 1983. But this is a fact which at least has a chance of being put right this weekend. Mark Cassidy and Sam Bennett are due to race Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and will be joined by Matt Brammeier of HTC-High Road.

This will be the third straight year that the An Post-Sean Kelly team will take part in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Their best finisher last year was the Belgian Pieter Gyhllebert in 21st place, indeed he was the team’s only finisher. Due to horrid weather conditions, only 26 of the 198 starters managed to complete the race. Gyhllebert will again be taking part for the An Post-Sean Kelly team this Sunday and will be accompanied on the startline by team captain Niko Eeckhout. The former Belgian champion has come close in this race in the past, previously finishing fourth in both 2005 and 2006 while riding for what is now the Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator team.

Ian Stannard - A shadow of a man after finishing third in last year's Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne raced in foul conditions (

Riders may put in big attacks to test the legs this weekend, but those with genuine aims of conquering in Flanders or Roubaix would be forgiven for being reticent when it comes to pushing for podium places. In the past ten years, only one rider has finished on the podium of either Het Nieuwsblad or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and gone on to win one of the cobbled monument classics. That was Tom Boonen in his amazing year of 2005 when he finished second behind Nick Nuyens in Het Niewusblad and followed that up with victories in both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. He also went on to win the World Championships road race that year.

Whatever the outcome, both races comprise the curtain raiser to the classics racing season, and if the bad weather that is forecast materialises, there should be some truly exciting racing this weekend. Rather than racing Het Nieuwsblad, the An Post-Sean Kelly team will take part in the Beverbeek Classic this Saturday. It is a relatively minor Belgian one day race, but one which they have done well in before, as both Matt Brammeier and Mark Cassidy finished in the top 20 for the team last year.

Competing in his first ever professional one-day race this weekend for the An Post-Sean Kelly team will be British rider Andrew Fenn. He is a former winner of the Junior Paris-Roubaix and is definitely one for the future.

Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator

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