The first sportive of the year is in the books. Here’s what went down in Ghent for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

The Pro Race

The finish at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
A sunny but chilly Saturday in Ghent played host to the first big pro race of the season. For a full race report, check out the Cycling Weekly write up. The finish this year was by the Citadel park to the south of the city. The pubs close by were busy early, with the racing showing on TV and the beers flowing. Outside the racing was shown on two giant screens, one about 500m from the finish and one directly by the finish line. The race village had the usual cycling stands and an awesome European version of Rollapaluza where four people race on rollers powering scalextric style cycle figures on a velodrome. Great fun!

The crowds were light for the womens race and as the action was not on the giant screen it was hard for the crowd to get involved in the race. Lizzie came through for a great victory in the rainbow jersey which was a first for this race. After this the crowds grew bigger and bigger and the excitement grew as the mens race was getting closer. The lead group of 5 included some big names including some local favourites. Eventually, the 5 came into the uphill finish together and Greg Van Avermaet took probably his biggest ever victory.
This race / sportive weekend is rare that the race comes before the sportive. This makes it difficult to enjoy too many Belgian beers the night before a big ride which is tough in a city as great as Ghent.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – Sportive Stlye

Like many sportives in this part of the world there was a rolling start between 8am and 10am. This did nothing to dilute the large crowds all signing up due to the nice sunny weather. The registration process was a bit painful with single file queuing into the famous velodrome in Ghent with incredibly steep banks. Collecting entries took over 20 minutes, shockingly inefficient when compared to the much larger Tour of Flanders where entries are collected in seconds.
Straight from the Citadel park we were off without much of an official start line. The groups were large and we jumped between large pelotons to get into a group that matched our speed. Quickly out of Ghent where we passed all the team buses and onto the cycle path on the banks of the Schelde. This is a famed training road for cycling clubs and teams in the area so the pace was kept quick. The path is dead flat and the first 36km to the feed in Oudenaarde flew by. The route was well sign posted and although there were no marshalls, we did not have to stop once due partly to the friendly cooperation of local drivers and partly due to a great route that kept us on cycle paths and back streets.

The feed stations were well stocked. The mark of a good feed station is local produce and we were not disappointed with some very tasty sugary waffles. However, stopping even for a short time reminded the body of how cold it was. The middle part of the sportive is where all the action is. 8km from Oudenaarde was the first climb, the Taaienberg. It was here the day before where the decisive break was made and it was here today where the locals showed their dominance. For us Brits that have no access to cobbles and very little access to 16% gradients, this is a tough climb particularly so early in the year. The locals seek out any smooth sections in the pave, be that gutter, grassy banks or narrow pavement. We were here to soak up the unique riding terrain so went straight over the middle of the cobbles on our own. Over the top of this climb and we were soon up to the next, the 1.2km cobbled Eikenberg. After struggling up 16% the climb before, this was much less painful and it was possible to find a rhythm. Immediately after this was the first paved climb of the day which, though very steep, was straight forward in comparison. Just when things started to get more comfortable, along came some brutal cobbled sections including the Haaghoek with almost Roubaix style brutality and the Paddestraat which was longer but smoother. The middle section between feeds was 41km featuring 5 climbs and 3 cobbled sections, a pretty tough section for February.

With the legs now starting to feel the cumulative affect of the climbs and cobbles, we were left with 27km home with 2 cobbled sections. The last of these was beautifully smooth where we could average our normal speeds. We felt on this section how Belgians feel on normal cobbles. Left now was 18km back to Ghent on flat, paved roads. The wind all day was quite strong but very rarely was there a full on head wind and there were always other riders to draft behind. The whole way round there were groups to join and a nice quick pace. We jumped between groups for the last few kms and eventually found a group perfect for our pace and we sped back to Ghent in good time. The final part of the sportive, like the pro race the previous day, was a gently uphill and nobody seemed to have the legs to sprint for home. When we got back, there were beers available at the velodrome and a bike wash free to use. There is always a good atmosphere at the end of sportives and you could sense that most of us were very happy with the ride today and looking forward to adventures to come this season.

Top of Eikenberg

In Summary

The route was brilliant, a great mix of quick riding, cobbles & climbing. The start along the Schelde gave a real insight into riding around these parts and the middle section was plenty tough enough to know you have had a tough day in the saddle. Though there were no marshalls, the sheer volume of cyclists meant we always felt safe and we were mostly on very quiet back roads or cycle paths. Where we did need to use busier roads, the cars were so polite and gave us room and right of way when needed. The registration process felt a bit clumsy and took longer that needed and the finish was a bit of an anti climax as they had taken down the finishing line from the pro race. Overall it was a great sportive and whet the appetite for a season of cycling ahead.

Perfect for – Anyone that can’t wait for the season to start. Lovers of all things Flanders and the cycling culture here. Anyone that wants a taster of the cobbles and bergs that makes this area so famous.

Our Ratings:

Pre race & check in – 2/5
Organisation – 3/5
Route – 4.5/5
Feed Stations – 3.5/5
Iconic Climbs – 4/5
Sportive Size – 4/5
Unique touches – 4/5
Start & Finish – 2/5

Overall – 27/40

About the Author: Phil Sears is a cycling enthusiast who loves nothing more than tackling the toughest sportives in Europe. When he’s not riding,  he’s usually occupied running Sportive Breaks, “the cycle travel specialists”.

This blog was first featured on Sportive Breaks