Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a magical race. Featuring cobbles, crosswinds, and several famous “bergs,” it is a brilliant start to the European Classics season. “Omloop” literally translates to “circuit”; where riders make a loop that starts & finishes in Ghent. Throughout the loop, they ride through Oudenaarde, up the Molenberg, and over long cobbled sections, such as the 2.5km long Paddestraat.
The pros raced on Saturday, but on Sunday is when I got the exciting part. A friend of mine from Peloton de Paris (my favorite coffee shop/bike café), Vincent, had told me about the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad cyclosportive the day after the pro event. This shortened version of the pro course featured about 10km of cobbles (split over 5 sections) and 5 of the famous, steep, and usually cobbled bergs over 105km. Opened up to amateurs and enthusiasts alike, the event registration was only 10 euro, and seemed like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to ride the pro course, perfectly signed and marked, while fully supported by Shimano service, with over 4000 of your closest friends? And, let’s be honest, I could eat 10 euro worth of snacks at the rest stops.
So I hopped on the train at 6.45 that morning to head up to Peloton de Paris to meet Vincent who would continue the second half of the journey, onto Ghent via car. I had even convinced my teammate, Gert, to come along. At the coffee shop, Vincent whipped up espresso for the group, and we were off to Ghent.
Registration was in this giant building in the middle of Ghent. I had no clue what it was. But upon entrance, I had realized I’d seen it before, but only on poor quality livestreams in other languages. I was stunned as we had walked into the one and only Kuipke: the 166m wooden velodrome located in Ghent.
Picking up my number, I was stunned speechless. The track is so steep you’d think it was just a wall. Vincent, for the first time, looked over, smiling, and said “welcome to Belgium.”
We took off on our adventure, rolling through the first 35km to the first rest stop with very little in our way. Outside of a few crosswinds, the course had no significant features in the first leg. I was feeling really good, tucked in a group of about 40 guys. Multiple clubs had formed a kind of peloton, and I had rolled my way to the front. A chilling feeling looking back and seeing a peloton behind you. Again, Vincent came up next to me and said it again: “welcome to Belgium.”
At Oudenaarde, we all regrouped, I slammed a few ham sandwiches, and listened to the ringing of the town bell as riders continued to pour in and out.
Again, we were on our way, out to take on about 40km featuring all 5 “bergs” of the course and 3 cobblestone sections. Each section made me giggle, and I kept getting goosebumps. As twisted as it sounds, I was ENJOYING the cobbles.
With minimal air in my tires and the body relaxed, I felt a surge of energy over each course feature. I was having an absolute blast, ending with a 2km section leading to the final rest stop, where I munched on a few bananas and got ready for the final bit.
The last 30km was mostly tailwind, with 2 long sections of cobbles left. I was sure we could finish under an hour, but the guys weren’t so sure. Tuning in my inner Belgian, I got up front, got into a comfortable pace, and started counting down kilometers toward home. The last section of cobbles was the longest, at 2500m in length. Wide open, there was a killer crosswind. I kept my effort smooth, and looked back to see all my riding mates lined up in an echelon behind me. This time I didn’t need a reminder, I just knew. “Welcome to Belgium.”
I had the time of my life. It was so cool to be on such famous roads, with so many people, and enjoying every second (even the light misting coming down from the overcast sky). Now I’ve got a new whip built for Classics and a better grasp on the Europe riding scene. Stay tuned for my next adventure.
The Omloop provided a good warm-up for my first race of the Belgian season. Don’t miss my race report from the Heide Linter >>
Joe “Pepe” Sullivan is Higher Gear’s very own European correspondent based out of Leuven, Belgium where he attends university. Pepe is testing his mettle in the European racing circuit – in both road (riding his Specialized Venge named “El Diablo Dos”) and cyclocross (on his Specialized Crux) – as well as enjoying the famed cobbled streets that make European cycling so challenging.