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Sport 10 riders to watch at Opening Weekend

08:06  26 february  2021
08:06  26 february  2021 Source:   cyclingnews.com

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The weekend double of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne opens the Classics season and, while the wet and icy Belgian weather we so often see might be absent, there will still be a deluge of contenders turning up eager to get a result on the board, particularly given that early season race cancellations have limited the chances so far.

a group of people riding on the back of a bicycle: Classics © Provided by Cycling News Classics

On Saturday, Omloop heads south from Gent, taking in 13 hills and 14 cobbled sections, including the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen, while Kuurne on Sunday, with 50 kilometres of flat roads to the finish, offers more of an opening for the sprinters.

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We take a look at 10 of the riders to watch as the races unfold on Opening Weekend.

Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)

It seems like we've been speaking about Tom Pidcock's talent and potential for an age now, and even he said recently that his debut as a full road professional was "a long time coming". And yet he's still only 21, half a decade younger than Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert – the riders he's been giving a run for their money in cyclo-cross and the kind of riders he's been bracketed with for the future.

Van der Poel and Van Aert contested the Tour of Flanders together last year and look set to dominate the cobbled Classics for years to come. Where Pidcock fits into that is, at this point, unclear. He has spoken about being better suited to the Ardennes Classics, and his resounding overall victory at the U23 Giro d'Italia last year has strengthened the idea of him as a future Grand Tour winner. Yet, this is a rider who won Paris-Roubaix – the flattest, purest cobbled race – at both junior and U23 level.

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He's racing both Omloop and Kuurne in Ineos squads that lack any real hierarchy and present freedom of opportunity. Omloop in particular will be a big step up from what he's done before, and there'll be no pressure on his shoulders but it would hardly be a surprise to see him put on a show.

Similarly, don't forget Ethan Hayter, another young Brit who has perhaps been lost a little in Pidcock's shadow but who has been tipped for big things.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)

The world champion clearly got the cobbles bug when he made his Tour of Flanders debut last year. It was a scintillating introduction – Alaphilippe at his restless, impulsive best, prising the race open on the Steenbekdries with more than 40km to go – but there was a massive sense of unfinished business after that motorbike crash took him out of contention.

In the space of one race, which he didn't even finish, the Frenchman shot to the top of the tree at the strongest Classics team in the world, his presence only heightening Deceuninck-QuickStep's powers to open the races early and play with numbers. He's sure to be among the favourites for the Tour of Flanders later in the spring but that's not to say he won't be competitive on Saturday. He started his season with second overall at the Tour de la Provence, including third place on the Mont Ventoux stage, so is clearly in decent shape.

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As ever with Deceuninck-QuickStep, Alaphilippe is but one of a wealth of options. Zdenek Stybar won the Omloop in 2019, Kasper Asgreen won Kuurne last year, and Yves Lampaert is a two-time Dwars door Vlaanderen champion. However, others particularly worth keeping an eye on include two of the team's less established riders. Davide Ballerini steps up and brings blistering form after his exploits at the Tour de la Provence, while Florian Sénéchal has been knocking on the door and is on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal)

Another rider who's not a pure cobbled classics specialist, Wellens nevertheless has shown his aptitude for this terrain whenever he has taken to it. Moreover, he's bang in form. That's not much of a surprise given how he usually starts his seasons, but his victory at Étoile de Bessèges, built on a highly impressive solo attack on stage 3, was ominous. He pulled out of Tour de la Provence as a precaution but is said to be fit for this weekend.

"I know what he was able to do on that stage and he has only gone upwards", said his teammate Thomas De Gendt recently. "He is completely ready for the Omloop."

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Wellens, who thrives in miserable weather, used to prefer the Ardennes but turned heads with an excitable cobbled debut at the 2018 Omloop. He returned to finish 3rd in 2019 and has since racked up two appearances at Flanders. With Philippe Gilbert still some way off top form after his injury troubles last season, Lotto Soudal will be looking to Wellens, and so will many of his rivals.

Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)

When he was world champion, the Dane still didn't seem like the finished article in the Classics, but how that changed at Gent-Wevelgem last year. Pedersen combined his strength, tactical nous, and ever-improving finishing speed to take the second biggest victory of his career.

Whereas last year he was looking to deflect pressure, now he's assuming his status as one of the spring's leading characters. "I know I'm young but I don't want to play the card anymore that I have to improve to be in the game," he said this off-season. "Now's the time to show that I'm on the level every time we race."

Part of Pedersen's strength is his partnership with Jasper Stuyven, who himself would warrant a spot on this list – he's the reigning Omloop champion after all. The pair seem to have a genuine desire to see the other succeed. Much is made of strength in numbers in the Classics but that sort of bond is still relatively rare.

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For the purposes of this list, we're picking Pedersen, who seems close to becoming a complete Classics rider and who has no intention of easing his way into the spring.

"That's the mentality I'm bringing for this season and for the rest of my career – every race could be the last one," he said recently. "I'm going into every race trying to win it. It doesn't matter if it's a stage in Burgos or the Tour of Flanders, I'm here to win the race."

Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)

The Frenchman was absolutely flying once the 2020 season resumed last summer, picking up no fewer than 14 wins – six clear of anyone else. He's more than just a pure sprinter, though, and has won Milan-San Remo as well as placing top 10 at Paris-Roubaix and Omloop, and top 15 at the Tour of Flanders.

He's not racing on Saturday, saving himself for Kuurne, where he was runner-up in 2018 and where he'll start as the pre-race favourite, given the bookmakers tend to favour a bunch sprint. If that does materialise, there's no one faster than Démare in the field.

Where he and his team are up against it, however, is ensuring that bunch sprint comes to pass. More and more solo victories have crept in in recent editions, while there are few other sprinters here of the calibre of Démare, meaning plenty of other big teams may well do all they can to ensure a more selective race.

Démare's lead-out train were sensational in bringing about sprints last year and many of the key engines will be there on Sunday: Kevin Geniets, Tobias Ludvigsson, and Ramon Sinkeldam. That's not to mention Stefan Kung, who will take the reins at the Omloop.

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Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën)

The Olympic champion – yes, he is milking that for the extra year – turns 36 at the end of this spring, and so is heading into the final phase of his career. He does so at a revamped AG2R, and this weekend will give us a clue as to how much life is left in his career.

The nearly-man of Belgian Cycling for so long, Van Avermaet conquered all before him in 2017 but hasn't won a spring Classic since. Copious top 10s have been a testament to his quality, but is he still a Grade A winner? In the last two years at CCC Team, he has lacked support, but now at AG2R, he finds himself alongside his old chum Oliver Naesen in a squad that has seen heavy investment in the Classics.

This winter, Naesen referred to both himself and Van Avermaet as underdogs compared to the likes of Van Aert and Van der Poel, and that they both realised they needed the other one to be able to win these races. With Van Aert and Van der Poel out of the picture for now, the pair will be well aware of the need to make an impact this weekend. Given the scope of AG2R's investment in the Classics, there's no real hiding place for them.

Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Bora-Hansgrohe's new signing immediately finds himself with extra responsibility after the withdrawal of Peter Sagan, who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The 26-year-old German had a breakthrough season in 2019, finishing runner-up at Paris-Roubaix and fifth at the Tour of Flanders. His time on Israel Start-Up Nation last year, which he joined in the Katusha-Alpecin merger, didn't go so well but now he appears ready to kick on after becoming the latest German talent on Bora-Hansgrohe.

Despite his huge frame, Politt still packs a punch, and his form was clear from his performances on the rolling hills of the Étoile de Bessèges, where he finished third overall.

Romain Bardet (Team DSM)

Looking at Team DSM's line-ups, you could pick out several names. Even without Marc Hirschi, the likes of Soren Kragh Andersen, Tiesj Benoot, Casper Pedersen, and Nils Eekhoff will form an exciting unit this spring. However, the name that stands out this weekend is that of Romain Bardet.

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The Frenchman has twice finished on the podium of the Tour de France but makes his debut for Team DSM on the cobbles, having liked what he saw on his Tour of Flanders debut last year. Bardet felt his career had started to stagnate at AG2R and so this jaunt into the early-season Classics, while his Grand Tour plans remain undecided, represents an attempt to find that new lease of life.

Despite seeming out of place as a lightweight climber in the grittiest Belgian conditions, Bardet is far from a novelty act here. With podiums at Strade Bianche, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the World Championships, plus top 10s at Amstel, La Flèche Wallonne, and Paris-Tours, his best performances in recent years have arguably come in the one-day arena.

Bardet has a penchant for the instinctive racing style of the Classics, and is eager to form part of a collective rather than be the leading light. His move to DSM was one of the most intriguing of the recent off-season and we'll soon start to find out whether it's an odd fit or a match made in heaven.

Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie)

Terpstra's salary was a barely-concealed factor in his move from Deceuninck-QuickStep to second-division Total Direct Energie after winning E3 and Flanders in 2018, and it's tempting to knowingly roll your eyes at his relative anonymity since then. However, any accusation of quietly filling his bank account in the final years of his career ignores the string of brutal crashes he's suffered.

The team extended his contract for another year, suggesting he's worth more to them than the ranking points he previously brought with him. Turning 37 in May, it may well be the case that Terpstra's best years are behind him, but it's not that long ago that he was utterly dominant, and he deserves a clear run this spring.

Rather than a lone leader in an inexperienced squad, Terpstra may not even be the leading light for Total Direct Energie this weekend. Anthony Turgis, second at Dwars in 2019 and fourth at Flanders last year, is improving quickly, while they've also signed Edvald Boasson Hagen and Chris Lawless.

Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates)

The Italian left Deceuninck-QuickStep in 2018 in search of greater opportunities but finds himself with something to prove as a Classics rider. The potential has always been there but, despite a string of top 10s, he has yet to take out a big win – or even a podium – at a major spring event.

His partnership with Greg Van Avermaet at CCC Team was cut short due to the team's demise but never looked like bearing any fruit and now he finds himself in another leadership duo, this time with Alexander Kristoff. The Norwegian has a rich palmarès that includes Flanders and San Remo and, while he hasn't always been consistent, he has put to bed any talk of demise with his win at Gent-Wevelgem in 2019 and back-to-back podiums at Flanders.

Trentin may feel the need to establish himself in his new surroundings and he's shown before he doesn't need too long to get into the season, with three top 10s at both Omloop and Kuurne to his name.

Osterreiter: Hope for processions with a hygiene concept .
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