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WEEKEND BRIEFING: INTO THE HEART OF THE SEASON

Classics riders in Belgian, grand tour climbers in Abu Dhabi and mostly domestic teams in the south of France all face their biggest early targets of the 2017 season this weekend.

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Classics riders in Belgian, grand tour climbers in Abu Dhabi and mostly domestic teams in the south of France all face their biggest early targets of the 2017 season this weekend. World champion Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe, who returns to racing a month after his Town Down Under warm-up, is looking to dethrone defending champ Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing at Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, while the year’s first winners of true mountaintop finishes, Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador (in the Ruta del Sol) and UAE-Abu Dhabi’s Rui Costa (at the Tour of San Juan in Argentina), are being challenged by an alphabet of other top climbers. Both Het Nieuwsblad and Abu Dhabi are first-year UCI WorldTour races, a fact that has probably taken teams and riders away from the Classic Sud Ardèche and the Drôme Classic in France.

Words: John Wilcockson | Images: James Startt

Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad covers 198 kilometers on a multi-loop course through Flanders, starting and finishing in the City of Ghent. Cloudy, but dry weather is predicted in Belgium with temperatures in the low-40s Fahrenheit and strong southwest winds. That wind direction means that after the 13th and final climb, the Molenberg, and the last three of 10 sections of “flat” cobblestone sections, the leaders will have a favorable wind carrying them to the finish 20 kilometers away. Last year, on the slightly uphill finish in Ghent, Van Avermaet convincingly out-sprinted Sagan and their breakaway companion Tiesj Benoot—the young Belgian on Lotto-Soudal who’s being tipped to the country’s next classics king.

“There’s nothing like racing on home soil,” said Van Avermaet, who’s the only Belgian on the BMC Racing squad this weekend, supported by seven riders from five different countries. Big rival Sagan, who’s just back from a high-altitude training camp in Spain’s Sierra Nevada, is supported at his new team, Bora-Hansgrohe, by fellow Slovak Michal Kolar, three Germans, an Austrian, a Latvian and a Pole. As for Benoot, his Lotto-Soudal teammates have a far more traditional classics look, with six Belgians and a Briton in support.

There was a time in Het Nieuwsblad’s 72-year history (it was previously called the Omloop Het Volk) when the field was made up of just Belgian teams and riders and the race was considered a domestic season opener. Today, it’s become a true international classic, especially since the start of the racing season moved from late February in Belgium to mid-January in Australia and Argentina.

Besides Van Avermaet, Sagan and Benoot, there’s a host of candidates for victory in Het Nieuwsblad’s and Sunday’s lesser cobbled classic, Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne. In his final campaign, national icon Tom Boonen gets a shot at winning Het Nieuwsblad for the first time, and he’ll have great support from Quick-Step Floors teammates Philippe Gilbert (a two-time winner of this race) and Niki Terpstra, along with three other Belgians. At Cannondale-Drapac, Sep Vanmarcke is supported by one Belgian and riders from five other countries—but not American Taylor Phinney who had to withdraw after he “tweaked his knee” Thursday and said he is “back on ice like the old days.”

There are no Belgians on the new Bahrain-Merida team, whose Italian sprinter Sonny Colbrelli is getting his first chance racing on a WorldTour squad. And none on FDJ, led by its classics leader Arnaud Démare. At Orica-Scott, Paris–Roubaix champion Matt Hayman is supported by Belgian Jen Keukeleire, Canadian Svein Tuft, three more Aussies and two Danes. Big hopes lie with Katusha-Alpecin’s Alexander Kristoff of Norway who’s supported by two Belgians and riders from four other countries, including Tony Martin of Germany.

Trek-Segafredo is led by Belgian Jasper Stuyven, who won last year’s Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne and is supported by fellow Belgian Edward Theuns and riders from five other countries. Team Sky’s Brits Ian Stannard (a two-time Het Nieuwsblad winner) and Luke Rowe (fourth place last year) can count on riders from five other countries. AG2R La Mondiale is led by Belgian Stijn Vandenbergh and supported by fellow Belgian Oliver Naesen and riders from four other countries, including Canadian Hugo Houle. Also on the long list of favorites are Frenchmen Yoann Offredo of Wanty-Groupe Gobert and Sylvain Chavanel of Direct Énergie.

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Abu Dhabi Tour

That A-to-Z list of potential stage winners on the penultimate stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour includes most of the world’s top climbers: Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet, Tom Dumoulin, Robert Gesink, Tanel Kangert, Steven Kruijswijk, Merhawi Kudus, Rafal Majka, Bauke Mollema, Louis Meintjes, Vincenzo Nibali, Domenico Pozzovivo, Nicolas Roche, Samuel Sanchez, Rafael Valls, Tejay van Garderen and Ilnur Zakarin. That’s quite a list! It doesn’t include the 2015 Abu Dhabi overall winner Esteban Chaves of Orica-Scott, but does see Team Astana’s Kangert defending the title he won last October (before the race moved to this new date to be on the UCI WorldTour). Both Chaves and Kangert won their titles by taking the Jebel Hafeet summit finish. This climb is almost 11 kilometers long, climbs through 713 meters (2,339 feet), averages an almost 7-percent grade, and has a maximum pitch of 11 percent 3 kilometers from the top. The race ends on Sunday with a floodlit race over 26 laps of the 5.5-kilometer Yas Marina F1 circuit, destined for one of the leading sprinters here: Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel or Caleb Ewan.

Watch the incredible finish to Stage 2 here.

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Ardèche and Drôme Classics

There are no big international teams at the two races in southern France this weekend. As media director Sylvain Renaud said: “With Abu Dhabi this year we were not able to get a couple of international teams, but we still have a very good field…. It’s a field for real cycling enthusiasts.” Among the pre-race favorites are Arthur Vichot of FDJ, who just raced strongly at the Tour de La Provence; Belgian Jan Bakelants of AG2R La Mondiale; and French riders Jonathan Hivert and Lillian Calmejane of Direct Énergie, who’ve both shown winning form this month.

“Although the two races are just separated by the Rhône River, they are very different,” Renaud added. “The Ardèche Classic has longer climbs while the Drôme Classic has shorter, steeper walls. That is why certain riders don’t do both. And that’s why we don’t make it a stage race. This way riders can pick and chose. The races have been very successful because they fit in with all of the other races down here in southern France in February. It’s practical for teams and riders.”