Gateway to Hell
Rain lashes down on the bleak Flemish landscape. Wind tugs at the trees and the roads glisten. The young men waking up in hotel rooms around Ghent will look out of the window and wince. They will, perhaps, begin thinking about clothing choices. They will, certainly, wonder whether their preparation has been good enough for what they are about to face.
It’s a scene that has played out many times since 1945. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, formerly called Het Volk, is the traditional opener of the European road season, the first race of the year that really means something to win. That’s not to denigrate any of the events earlier in the calendar, but they are training races, designed to test riders’ form in pleasantly sunny conditions. Pipe-openers, as the British call them. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is different. It is the gateway to hell, a rite of passage into the inferno of the Spring Classics. Be prepared to do battle or end up in a frozen ditch.
Het Volk was a left-wing newspaper, published in Dutch and a rival to Het Nieuwsblad, the promoters of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. The rivalry was both commercial and political, and when the Ronde was run during the Second World War, on Nazi-controlled territory, with the cooperation of the Germans, the owners of Het Volk were angry, feeling that the Ronde’s organisers had been too close to the Nazis. A rival race was established and in its first incarnation was called Omloop Van Vlaanderen. The Ronde’s organisers protested that this was too similar to their race’s name, and the Belgian Federation forced the Omloop to change to Het Volk.
In the end, the noble political rivalries of the mid-twentieth century gave way to twenty-first century economic realities. Het Nieuwsblad merged with Het Volk and the event switched to its contemporary title. There are probably a few elderly veterans of the Belgian resistance who understand the irony of the race being called after the newspaper it set out to confound.
A further irony is that the Omloop has always been a mini Ronde Van Vlaanderen; coming in 90km shorter but including the same selection of short cobbled climbs, twisting lanes and exposed main roads. It is often more unpredictable than its older sister, partly because of the weather, partly because the distance allows more riders to hang in there into the finale, and partly because the riders aiming for glory around Easter won’t yet be on top form.
The list of winners is, naturally, dominated by the hardest of Belgian hardmen, but the last decade has seen a loosening of the home riders’ grip. There have been victories for Italy (Filippo Pozzato and Luca Paolini), the Netherlands (Sebastian Langeveld), Norway (Thor Hushovd), Spain (Juan Antonio Flecha) and Great Britain (two for Ian Stannard). Stannard’s 2015 win, when he memorably outmuscled three riders from Etixx-Quickstep, including Tom Boonen, was a humiliation for the host nation. This year, with the race promoted to the UCI WorldTour for the first time, Belgium will look to its heroes to continue the redemptive process started in 2016 by Greg Van Avermaet’s victory.
If the weather is fine on Saturday, our television screens will be filled with the luscious green of Spring, the peloton’s new jerseys will ping out cheerfully and we will feel that winter is behind us. On the other hand, if the weather is bad, those new jerseys will be hidden under black rain jackets then soaked and covered in grime. The headlights of the motorbikes will wash yellow across our screens, the riders’ eyes and teeth will glint, and the scene will look like deepest December.
For all the new technology and new forms of communication, some things in professional road racing don’t change. On the last Saturday in February, the peloton gathers in the Sint-Pietersplein in Ghent, ready to embark upon another year of beauty, drama and intense racing endeavor. Now, let’s find that extreme weather clothing, and bring it on!