The classics season has started with an impressive solo win by Wout van Aert who, along with his revamped Jumbo-Visma squad, raced Omloop Het Nieuwsblad more aggressively than we saw last year. Attacking just after the Muur from a reduced group paid-off big time for the Belgian champion, winning the first race he started in 2022.
The parcours of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is always hilly with cobbled climbs in it but this year the Molenberg was removed, making the course slightly easier. The last two hills were Kapelmuur and Bosberg, where the race would be decided. With Wout van Aert the best sprinter in the race and Trek-Segafredo and Quickstep-Alphavinyl not bringing Ballerini or Pedersen, it was expected that teams would try and put Jumbo-Visma under pressure in the collection of cobbled climbs starting with 65km to go.
There were a lot of crashes early on. The biggest was with 56 km to go on a cobbled section and included Victor Campenaerts, Markus Hoelgaard, Alexey Lutsenko and Alessandro Covi, all of whom would be riders expected to attack as at least co-leaders for their teams later. The first big move in the peloton was with 54 km to go as Florian Vermeersch and Loïc Vliegen accelerated after the Wolvenberg.
Later, Stefan Küng attacked too, and three riders from the peloton joined the breakaway, forming a nine men group with a 30-40 second lead over the peloton. Jumbo-Visma had ridden fairly passively at this point, not chasing moves that aggressively and letting the race develop. Meanwhile Quickstep-Alphavinyl, who normally would be throwing up attacks at this point of the race, were nowhere to be seen.
The race exploded when Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) went full-gas on Berendries (0,94 km, 7%). Only four riders could follow him, his team-mate Wout van Aert, Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious), Thomas Pidcock and Jhonatan Narvaez (INEOS Grenadiers). Before this attempt, another Jumbo-Visma rider, Nathan van Hoydonck, was pacing hard on the previous hill with Oliver Naesen. It looked like they were planning to split the peloton early and they had protected Wout van Aert from the wind well up to that point.
Behind in the peloton Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl where in panic along with Trek-Segafredo and AG2R, who could not react to Benoot’s move. Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert worked on the front for their fast-man Florian Senechal. The peloton size at this point still was massive, with nearly 100 riders. Meanwhile, the van Aert group caught the first group before the Muur, forming an 11 man group. If they all worked together at that point, the peloton probably would certainly not catch them before the Muur, however the INEOS riders were not fully committed. Despite Wout van Aert pacing well with Küng and Vermeersch, Narvaez sitting in the group seemed to disturb the cooperation, with Tiesj Benoot going solo and Wout van Aert able to sit in the wheels. This stalled the chase group completely, who were caught by the peloton before the Kapelmuur.
Van Aert looked confident today as he paced hard on Kapelmuur and caught his team-mate Benoot just afterwards on the descent. Before Bosberg (0.98 km, 5.8%), the last climb of the race, a group of the main contenders formed, including Colbrelli, Pidcock and van Avermaet with multiple teammates. Already some attacks began to fly from riders not trusting their sprint, such as Campenaerts, so instead of waiting to be attacked, van Aert went solo before the foot of the Bosberg. His legs were so good that no one could follow him on the cobbled climb, despite Campenaerts and Küng’s best efforts.
Van Aert is one of the greatest time-trialists in the world and it was a big ask from the ~20 rider group to catch him with a false flat downhill of 11km all the way to the finish. The most interested where Bahrain-Victorious with three riders, including sprinter Sonny Colbrelli. Eventually the cooperation in the group behind began to fade, and the gap to van Aert grew to 30 seconds with 5km remaining.
With a move we rarely saw in 2021, where van Aert would be closing attacks all race and riding for a sprint, van Aert won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with a 13 kilometre solo. Important differences today to last year, even if van Aert was on a better level, were the absence of a strong Quick-Step team, no Mathieu van der Poel on the startlist, who would never have let van Aert drift off the front of the group and of course a much stronger Jumbo-Visma classics squad with the addition of Tiesj Benoot.
Usually the rider who wins this opening race does not win Ronde van Vlaanderen, but van Aert might be the first who wins both Omloop and Ronde in the same season. It is hard to keep the peak physical shape for over a month especially as van Aert is leader in every race he starts.
Paris-Roubaix champion Colbrelli won the bunch sprint from the second group. Teammates van Avermaet and Naesen took 3rd and 4th place. An impressive performance by Victor Campenaerts, who crashed and had multiple mechanical problems as he finished 5th, taking important UCI points that Lotto-Soudal badly needs. The best rider from Quick-Step was Florian Senechal who finished 9th.