The cobblestone Classics campaign has started! And in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the traditional opening event of the season in Flanders, the team Groupama-FDJ showed some promise on Saturday. Aggressive in the final part of the race, Stefan Küng and his teammates only missed a great result to conclude their efforts. Behind solo winner Dylan van Baarle, Jake Stewart took seventeenth place in a reduced bunch. A slightly modified group will aim to do better on Sunday on Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

The sweet atmosphere of the Flemish Classics was back on Saturday in Ghent. First Belgian event of the season, first cobbled race, first major Classic, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was surely much anticipated. Thirteen bergs and nine cobblestone sectors were on the menu for this 2023 edition, with the “Muur” as a probable decisive point of the race. Seven men wanted to pave the way before the rest on this first Classic: Louis Blouwe (Bingoal WB), Alex Colman, Gilles de Wilde (Flanders-Baloise), Adam De Vos (Human Powered Health), Mathis Le Berre (Arkéa- Samsic), Mathias Norsgaard (Movistar) and Jelle Wallays (Cofidis). The peloton also gave them quite some space during the first two hours, as their lead even reached eight minutes. “The start was rather calm”, confirmed Frédéric Guesdon. “Jumbo-Visma wanted to pull but no one wanted to help them and so the pace was very slow”. The action eventually resumed in quite a spectacular way as the halfway mark approached. “After 90k, we tackled a long, exposed cobbled portion, and with the side wind, the bunch split up”, said Frédéric. “A group of twenty broke away, it was then reduced to six guys, but that forced other teams to pull. We were not in this group. We weren’t careful enough and we had a tough start-up. The race was on anyway, we had to find to catch our breath, which the guys did”.

“It’s a decent start, but we have to improve for the future”, Frédéric Guesdon

Everything finally came back together about sixty kilometres from the finish when the chasing group was caught by the peloton. Another race started soon after, and Stefan Küng got into the fight for the first time in the Molenberg. The peloton broke up, and a few minutes later, Dylan van Baarle (Jumbo-Visma) took advantage of a speed drop at the head of the bunch to attack with Mathis Le Berre (Arkéa-Samsic), Jonathan Milan (Bahrain-Victorious) and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Dstny). The four riders took a gap, then Kevin Geniets chased them with Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). The Luxembourger remained in-between groups for ten kilometres but wasn’t able to jump across. The peloton then reorganized ahead of the “Muur”, where Van Baarle went alone in the lead, while Stefan Küng tried to bridge across together with the best. At the top, however, the Swiss found himself alone behind a four-man chasing group. “We were active, but our timing wasn’t the best”, explained Frédéric. “Kevin could have followed Van Baarle, but he went a bit too late. In the Muur of Geraardsbergen, Stefan just came up short. He didn’t miss much to be with the four chasers of Van Baarle, but it made a big difference”.

Isolated in-between, the Swiss rider kept on pushing for a few kilometres before a small peloton joined him in the Bosberg, the last climb of the day. Kevin Geniets tried to attack again at the top with his Swiss mate, but the two men could not break away. From then on, they pulled for Jake Stewart, who was still present in the small peloton. “We chased to go for second place,” explained Frédéric. At the very last moment, the pack caught with the chasing group, but the Briton had to settle for seventeenth on the line. “He had quite heavy legs and the sprint was not easy on an uphill false flat,” added Frédéric. “The result is the day’s regret. We would have hoped for better, but the positive point is that we were right up there as a team. It’s a decent start, but we have to improve for the future. It wasn’t bad, but we lacked a little something and we can see it in the results”. “It was a correct start with three guys in the final group,” Kevin Geniets briefly added. The second act of the Opening weekend should allow the sprinters to show themselves on Sunday in Kuurne. “Paul and Miles join the group”, concluded Frédéric. “We have a card for the final sprint, but we must always be careful, and some riders will be able to follow the moves if necessary”.

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