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Season opening preview: the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this Weekend

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So, after the pleasant foreplay of the Tour Down Under, Qatar, Oman and the Volta ao Algarve, we’re hitting the cobbles hard in cold, wet and windy Flanders for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the Belgian season opener, tomorrow.

The Omloop starts and finishes in Gent, but takes the riders on a 203km-loop around the narrow lanes, sharp hills and pavé of eastern Flanders. Many teams use the Omloop as preparation for the Spring Classic Ronde van Vlaanderen, and this year the Omloop takes on added interest as the famously steep cobbled Molenberg climb, the last hill before the finish, is now much more significant in an altered Ronde route.

What team news, then?

Gert Steegmans will, it seems, be riding for Radioshack, despite concussion sustained in Portugal. ‘No more beer,’ promised the Belgian this winter, and, if his head’s not too sore, he could showcase his improved one-day form here. Fumiyuki Beppu, in his first race for the American team, will be supporting him, as will Sebastien Rosseler, whose stage win in the Volta ao Algarve proved he could also be a contender.

Thor Hushovd has been ill and Heinrich Haussler sustained a knee injury in Portugal, so Cervélo are likely to be quiet. However, with a strong team racing including Roger Hammond and Jeremy Hunt, they can’t be discounted.

Sky, meanwhile, will be riding for Edvard Boasson Hagen, and have in Juan Antonio Flecha the distinguished lieutenant who may well give the young Norwegian a shot at winning. Tyler Farrar is heading Garmin’s line-up, and with Katusha, Rabobank and of course HTC Columbia all putting out strong teams, a tough, exciting race seems assured.

Who’d bet against local boys, Quickstep, though? With Tom Boonen on fine form and with Sylvain Chavanel, Stijn Devolder and a brace of Belgians backing him up, they’re looking formidable.

And, just to prove that they’re at least twice as nails as the rest of us, many of the same pros will be lining up on Sunday for the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

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