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The Belgium Classic season kicks off on Saturday with the traditional opener for the men, Omloop Het Niewsblad. This is the first port of call for the Classic specialists and one that always proves to be an exciting race that attracts great public attention and also an early season focus for the hard men of the cobbles.
This year’s event will prove to be no different from previous editions, with the course run on similar roads to last year. Early expectations will see riderswith any early season form showing their cards and testing legs on the steep ‘bergs’ that litter the route and power on the cobbled stretches that shakes every part of your body. The route will start off from the city of Gent and wind its way through the lanes and roads of Flanders until it hits the first climbs at the 69km mark.
The proceeding 95km is littered with steep, uneven, harsh, beautiful Flemish climbs that traditionally are the pivotal point in the race. Major selections are made and splinters of the peloton are formed with the stronger protectedriders to the fore of the race along with their trusted and fearful teammates, who are left to protect them in the final 60km of the race.
Unlike other Flemish Classics, the last climb is 36km from the finish line back in the city of Gent. This can be of benefit to those who find it difficult to make a selection on the bergs but on the other hand is a real disadvantage to those riders who rely on the steep slopes to make the final moves and play their trump card on these hills.
The final 36km has 3 very unforgiving cobbled stretches - Lippenhovestraat, Lange Munte, and Steenakker - and these sections will again test the leaders' resolve as they need to force moves for a final winning selection and also for groups fighting their way back to the leaders. These final cobbled sections can often prove to be a make or break time.
Looking at my previous data recorded from this race in years gone by I noticed a few similarities that kept coming up within the data wattage ranges. Like many other domestiques or riders looking for an opportune break, I spent the first 30-40min judging efforts and being aggressive, trying to gain entry into that extremely hard fought early race move. Unfortunately live TV does not cover this early race flurry of attacks and aggression, but please don’t misinterpret how difficult this early part of the race is for those trying to force the move. Potentially there could be 30-40 riders with the same tactics so to try and get the right ‘mix’ of a break with the riders from the teams that will be allowed - I use that term loosely- 'allowed' is a very difficult task.
My files from this stage showed many ‘peak’ powers in the first hour of racing. It was not unusual to see riders producing efforts of 10-20min at 5-6 watts per kilo plus, and throw in some maximal 30sec- 1min efforts to try and jump away from the bunch or bridge to a break, I am sure you can start to see how a domestiques early race job is not an enjoyable one. Of course the leaders and protected
riders will have an easier ride trying to do the opposite of their fellow teammates. They will be trying to hide and gain shelter in the bunch while avoiding crashes and punctures in this initial 50-60km of the race. The tables are turned on the entry into the Flemish hills as the leaders all vie for position on the narrow roads as their elite domestiques make huge powerful efforts just to keep their leaders in position before they hit the climb.
At these points the domestiques will be well into their Vo2 range before they hit the climbs. This is at times is the most stressful point of the race and it is at these points the ability to perform a prolonged Vo2 effort pre climb along with a maximal anaerobic 2min effort on the hill and again a solid threshold effort over the top of the hill are all essential qualities of both the team leaders and domestiques. Anyone who has ridden such a Classic-style race will be of the understanding that before and after the climbs can be moments of extreme pain.
Efforts of 1-3min on these steep climbs are an essential quality that any victor of the 2012 event will require, but not only is it simply a necessity to produce such a high end effort repeatedly on each and every climb, but it is essential to be able to have a technique on uneven roads and cobbles which requires a different pedalling motion comparing to your regular short steep hills.
The ability to not only have excellent recovery from prolonged Vo2 efforts, but also a technique and cadence that will enable you to stay with the leaders, keep out of trouble, take the right line through rough surfaces and have lady luck on your side, are all qualities that riders with ambition of a great result must acquire. I noticed many spikes of 600-750w (9-11watts per kilo) for periods of 20-40sec on my previous SRM data when hitting the steep bergs. This was normally just to hold my position in the bunch or an effort to close gaps or take risks to gain a few more places closer to the front of the peloton.
Looking at the start list of this year’s event, it will be very hard to pick a clear favourite and the qualities explained are possessed by each rider with any ambition to try and make the final selection. Some great early season form is already being shown by riders such as Boonen, who has shown legs of old this year so far. Ciolek, Flecha (always in the fight in this race), and Gilbert is always a favourite.
Haussler is starting to show the huge talent he has, the list goes on, but one thing for sure this will be a great race for the armchair fan and one we should all enjoy.
Welcome to the Classics.