The first races in Belgium through the eyes of a Belgian: our own guide to Opening Weekend

The debut on the Flemish cobbles is no longer a solely Belgian affair, but home riders still have a unique feeling for it. Get an exclusive taste of the race with the voices of Stuyven, Theuns, Vergaerde, Declercq, Nys and the dean of Belgian journalists Hugo Coorevits.

If a cycling fan was asked to link the words Flanders, muur and cobbles, we are quite certain that their imagination would immediately wander to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the unique moment in which the Flemish lion takes pride at the head of the cycling world. De Ronde, Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Classic form the main meal of bergs and cobbles, but before tucking into them we must break our fasts on the oh-so-tasty Opening Weekend.

It’s the first weekend of racing in the Flanders region, which sneaks out at the end of February and that the Belgians have always, proudly called the real start of the season. Two days and three races under the spotlight: on the men’s side, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne; for the women, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Omloop van het Hageland. This year, OHN and KBK celebrate their 79th and 76th editions: a story that goes way back.

The Flemish lion (©SeanHardy)

Since the very first race of the year in Australia, every Belgian who loves cycling keeps a close eye on all the results, waiting for the Opening Weekend. The closer we get to Omloop het Nieuwsblad, the more the conversation at the bakers, hairdressers and in the bars, become crowded. The day of the race, people want to see the story told and to see new faces in new jerseys. They want to smell and feel the riders. The audience is as excited as the riders

This quote comes from Hugo Coorevits, one of the most prestigious names in the cycling journalism, now editor at Het Nieuwsblad newspaper. With over 40 years of journalism and hundreds of cycling tales to his name, he has offered up his cycling memories to us to understand a bit more about the Opening Weekend.

“Until the 1990s, it was an affair between Belgian and Dutch riders. But in that decade, Omloop het Nieuwsblad made an upgrade of importance in the calendar. Then, with the new century, a new step happened when foreign riders started to win the race more than the Belgians. All the World Tour Teams have started to realize the prestige of such races.

“On Saturday and Sunday, you can breathe the atmosphere of the Classics, but since the weekend is isolated from the other Flemish races, the worldwide visibility is greater compared to any other race that sits in the middle of a series of events. Opening Weekend lives by its own light,” explains Coorevits.

If for international riders and global teams (all the continents will be represented in the next two days) Opening Weekend is now an event to highlight in the agenda, for home riders, the feeling is unique, incomparable.

For our Belgian block – Jasper Stuyven, Edward Theuns, Tim Declercq, Otto Vergaerde and Thibau Nys – many of the roads of the Opening Weekend are those of the daily trainings, those of their rides when they were juniors. The places where, as children, they stood watching their champions racing, picking up bottles and dreaming to be part of that colorful peloton.

I was born and I always raced in Gent area when I was kid. Omloop het Nieuwsblad used to start and finish in the city and it was a tradition for me, my father and brother to go there, to see our favorite riders, getting autographs and breathing that unique atmosphere. It was a very nice moment.

These are the words of Edward Theuns, who on Saturday will attend the OHN for the 11th time in his career.

“Now that I’m a pro rider, I can still breathe that vibe from the moment we get close to the bus parking and I look out of the window. You see lots of people excited for the race, long time friends that come to just say hello and family members there to support you. That’s a unique moment in the season for me,” added Eddie.

Theuns and Stuyven at the head of the peloton (©GettyImages)

“OHN starts with the presentation at ‘t Kuipke [the indoor velodrome of Gent] and that’s already a big memory for me. I had so many experiences at the Six Days of Gent, both as fan and rider,” says Otto Vergaerde. “The atmosphere is of course different: not the party of the event, but a more healthy tension.”

“The official start is more or less 3km from where I live. Yes, it’s special. My parents are not always there, because they know it’s a tense moment for me and there’s not much time to spend chatting. But it was definitely nice to spot family members cheering for me on the course. In De Ronde, they also carry a big banner dedicated to me. That’s what makes the classics so special for us,” Otto adds.

Vergaerde recently in action at Tour de la Provence (©GettyImages)

“As soon as I close the cyclocross season, following Opening Weekend is a must. Like many Belgians, I enjoy the race after a good ride, laying on the couch, with family and friends,” Thibau Nys explains. “I have a memory I will never ever forget. Years ago, when I was still a kid, I visited the Team the day before the race, together with my father, for a coffee ride. My idols were all there: Cancellara, Eddie, Jasper. Several years later, to me it’s still almost unreal to be part of this group. My goal now is to debut, sooner or later, in these race.”

Styuven’s memory is the one that only few can have, that of the winner. Jasper first won Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in 2016 and then Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2020.

“I won OHN after a very tough day. As a team, we raced very aggressively. It was a real, big, team effort, one of the best memories of my career. KBK was my first big achievement in a Classics context, as well as one of my very few solo wins. My mum was born and lived in the area of Kuurne, so my family was all there. It was a very emotional moment. Both are still vivid memories in my head.”

Ninove, 2020: Stuyven wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (©GettyImages)

As the tension bubbles in the approach to the race, it spills over as the starter’s pistol is fired and shoes click into pedals in chorus. The accumulated tension makes way for concentration, competitive spirit, and adrenaline.

OHN is the most stressful race of the year, but not necessarily in a bad way. That’s the race that everyone is looking for at this stage of the season. For Belgian riders it’s a mix of excitement and stress. It’s the first test on the cobbles and you hopel to feel good, to get the right feedback on the condition.

That’s how El Tractor Tim Declercq, our new and prestigious addition to the Belgian block, introduces his thoughts.

“In 2020 I finished 5th and it was one of the best memories of my career. But mostly, for me OHN and KBK were days of heavy workloads, pulling the peloton alone even before the live tv started. Anyway, everyone has to do his part in the teamwork. My thought has always been to do the best job for the good of the team.”

“In today’s cycling, riders can get ready for spring with long training blocks or racing in warm weather. But in OHN we’re all at the same starting line, with the same desire to do well and also the same questions marks on the form. In the peloton, you can really feel the nerves of the first test,” adds Vergaerde.

“A Belgian rider will always have an extra level of expectations here, but you need to deal with it,” says Stuyven. “After my wins here, the bar of expectations has risen. After KBK the goal was a Classic; after OHN, a Monument, which came at Milan-Sanremo. It brings pressure, but that’s also the path I had in mind since I became a rider. I’m happy I’ve reached those goals, but of course there’s some more to chase.”

Tim Declercq leading the peloton (©GettyImages)

Straight after the start, the race is the race. Fans and riders experience the Opening Weekend with passion and intensity. After the finish line, the post race begins. Analyses, reflections, retrospectives. The Opening Weekend certainly does not end on Sunday night and, above all, it’s only the start of the long sprint towards the spring classics.

“At the end of the day, you just want to be happy and proud to have given everything. That mood is something that can help to approach the Classics with a good vibe,” says Declercq.

“If something goes wrong in the Opening weekend, if the result is not what you expect, it’s not a disaster in view the spring season. The time to get better is there,” says Vergaerde.

“No man won OHN and De Ronde the same year. That says enough. As a team, if you select riders in view of the Holy Week, you should not be ridden away from it, because then it becomes hard to manage the energies,” says our observer, Hugo Coorevits.

“It’s hard to fly at OHN and do the same one month later. But by winning OHN, or getting close to it, you get a lot of confidence that can cover a bit the loss of shape. The key is to find a balance between being good in Opening Weekend and keep the form throughout the Classics. It’s not easy and you need to hope that everything goes well. Anyway, having a win in the bank, it’s never a bad thing,” adds Stuyven.

So, Opening Weekend is here. Let’s give Hugo the final word.

Yesterday I was on the roads of OHN to see the teams recon. On the Molenberg, I met an old fan sitting on his chair. He watched all the riders passing and then, with a happy smile, he said: Yes, now it’s race time again!