I visited the Omloop for the first time last year (see my 2010 blog) and enjoyed it so much I had to make the return journey. So, it was up at 4, on the ferry at 5 and following a leisurely drive to Ghent I parked a short walk from the official start and made my way to the Square to await the arrival of the teams. It was at this point it began raining, and raining, and pretty much kept raining for the remainder of the day!Last year I was accompanied by my brother-in-law who was gutted that work commitments prevented him from attending the race again – there were many times today when I wished that I was at work.
After about an hour the team busses and support cars started to arrive and I was pleased to see that Sky, one of the last to arrive, were not parked in the Square which was absolutely heaving with spectators, most of whom were on a Boonen hunt. This meant the Sky bus was a little bit more accessible. However, due to the weather the riders remained on the bus until the last possible moment – and who could blame them? When they did eventually emerge I managed to get a few photographs and I noted that the staff seemed far more relaxed about spectator interaction, which is good. The ability to meet and converse with the best cyclists in the world is what makes cycling such a special sport and long may that continue. Michael Barry signed my copy of ‘All Aboard the Postal Bus’, a book he wrote in 2005 when he was a member of the US Postal Team, and at this point I realised that I had left my copy of ‘Le Metier’, his most recent publication at home. Doh!
After the Sky riders had posed for photographs (for other fans, not me…) and signed autographs they trouped off to sign-in and I made my way back to the Square. I managed to wish David Millar all the best, get a couple of good photographs of the new World Champion, Thor Hushovd – unfortunately the weather necessitated a rain-cape that covered the rainbow jersey, and I suggested to Roger Hammond that he would be OK today as the rain and biting wind was more akin to cyclo-cross than road racing.
I made no attempt to see the start. The crowds were 4 or 5 deep either side of the road and at the end of the day it is a procession. I had my photo’s and (unfortunately only one) book signed so I made my way back to the car and programmed the sat-nav to take me to Wetteren, the next intended stop of the day. Unfortunately driving out of Ghent traffic came to a standstill as a result of an accident and Plan B had to be initiated. The race route has changed this year and a highlight of the race will be the two kilometer long cobblestone section at Horebeke that will be tackled not once, not twice, but three times. In the mud and the rain it was bound to play a big part in the outcome of the race, so off to the Haaghoek I went.
I parked at Horebeke as it was still my intention to shoot back to Ghent for the finish. Cyclingnews.com, in their race preview, stated that the Haaghoek section of cobbles was ‘two kilometers long and flat’, it might be two kilometers long but I assure you it is not flat. I decided that as I had some time to spare I would walk to the far end, watch the first pass there, move to the middle for the second lap and watch the third pass as near to the car as possible to get a quick away. Shortly after I made off the heavens opened again and in the exposed countryside the wind was bitterly cold. Although it couldn’t be described as a hill, the Haaghoek was ‘lumpy’ with some quite steep inclines that will get the heart rates up. Towards the far end I saw a number of campervans one of which was flying the British flag and a number of Sky banners. It could only belong to a previous Skyfans blogger Rusty. By now I was soaking wet, cold and miserable. Remembering a previous invite at Ghent-Wevelgem that never happened, I knocked on the door and suggested he put the kettle on… Kaye’s hot coffee was lovely and it was nice to get out of the elements and start to get warm. Rusty told me about his recent travels and how he has managed to interact with the Team Sky staff and riders along the way.
It was soon time to leave the warmth of the motorhome and line the roadside. Somebody said that a breakaway had formed and had a 9 minute lead over the peloton. Soon a group of 6 riders approached. As they flashed by I have to say I didn’t recognise anyone and doubted that they would stay away with 135 kilometers to go. Six minutes later, not 9, the main bunch came into view. The bunch was being led by David Millar, with Sky well represented at the front. There didn’t appear to be any urgency at this time and the peloton passed by quite serenely, affording the spectators the opportunity to spot their favorites and shout encouragement. After they had passed I bade my farewell to Rusty and Kaye and made my way back down the Haaghoek towards the middle section that culminated in quite a steep climb.
It would be just over an hour before the riders returned. There was no natural shelter and guess what? It started raining again! When the riders returned for the second pass the same 6 were away but clearly struggling. Three minutes later the peloton arrived and they had clearly upped the tempo, Mathew Hayman and Ian Stannard were right in the mix, as was Juan Antonio, although not in single file the bunch was properly strung out, an indication that the pace was high. Towards the rear some riders were clearly struggling to keep in touch and although the weather made things physically uncomfortable it was a fascinating race to watch.
After the last team car had passed I made my way back to the start of the Haaghoek. There wasn’t quite so long to wait this time, about 50 minutes, before the riders returned for the last time. I had no doubt that there would be new break-away or lone leader this time around and wasn’t disappointed when the escorting motor-bikes came into view and Rabobanks Sebastian Langeveld was clearly going for a solo victory, a tough ask but with just over 40 kilometers to go a distinct possibility. He was obviously giving it his all as he made the 90 degree turn onto the cobbles and sped off into the distance. Not too far behind him came the chasers, a group of 5 including Matthew Hayman, going hell for leather in an attempt to reel-in the Dutchman. Next through was a bigger bunch containing Stannard and Flecha, after that came groups of riders, their day pretty much done. At this point I decided to change position – rapidly! Such was the pace at the front the team cars were really having to go for it to keep up. As they turned onto the narrow cobbled section a number of rear-ends stepped out and if anyone really did loose control there was only one place they were going to end up – pretty much where I was standing!
It took the best part of 20 minutes for the whole peloton to pass through, the last group on the road looked thoroughly miserable but received no less applause from the bedraggled spectators. A short time later I made my way back to the car, wet and cold, but happy that I had managed to watch the race 3 times, 4 if you count the start, and although there was no way I would make it back to Ghent in time for the finish I had still, on the whole, enjoyed myself and watched some excellent racing. Photo’s of the day can be found here
For anyone thinking about joining me next year, the Omloop het Nieuiwsblad is a race that I thoroughly recommend. I’m sure the Tour Down Under and the Tour’s of Oman and Qatar are very nice, but it is the Omloop where the new season really starts. You can sense at the start line the anticipation and seriousness as the mechanics and riders prepare, this is the race that kicks-off the 2011 season in earnest.
Next up for me is the Dwars Door Vlaaneren which will be a similar race in respect of both the race profile and weather. Note to self – waterproof boots, a decent umbrella and of course ‘Le Metier’.