As an invalid, I’ve been able to take in quite a bit of Tivo’ed Tour of California coverage over the past week – far more, in fact, than anyone who is not heavily medicated should be allowed to endure. Through the haze, mine mental and the race’s meteorological, it seems like a nice little race they have going there – right spot on the calendar, good course, exceptional organization, and a strong field. But as much as I want to see the ToC continue to thrive (and avoid the ambition overdose that kills so many good events), it’ll still always be a preseason game to me, because on my calendar, the road season begins with Het Volk.

I know, I know – last Saturday’s Belgian season opener isn’t called Het Volk anymore. The sponsoring newspaper that gave the event that name struggled for a few years before finally stopping the presses for good in 2008. Het Volk (the paper) was already a property of Het Nieuwsblad, the paper whose name now adorns the race, so the transfer was seamless and the race itself never appeared to be in any danger. In today’s sponsorship climate, that sort of security is a rare thing indeed – the bank shenanigans in the U.S. have already shrunk “Philly Week” to “just Philly,” and the newspaper business isn’t exactly the picture of health these days, either. Of course, Het Nieuwsblad also publishes Sportwereld, the Flemish sports paper that naturally has a heavy cycling bent, so Het Nieuwsblad coming in and killing off the region’s revered season opener wouldn’t have been the most sound business move, regardless of the sponsorship financials. Good will counts a lot sometimes.

While last year’s Het Volk was the last to be run under that historic name, that edition also marked a return of one of the race’s fundamental elements – the finish in the center of Gent. From the inaugural edition in 1945 until 1995, the race started in Gent and looped south through the hellingen of the Flemish Ardennes before returning north to finish in Gent (logically, the alternate name for the race was always Gent-Gent). In 1995, the organization moved the finish to Lokeren, a small town 19 kilometers northeast of Gent. Usually, organizers make changes like that to combat issues like increasing frequency of bunch sprints (we looked at Milan-San Remo’s battle with the bunch back here). I don’t know the details of all those pre-1996 Het Volk finishes well enough to know if that’s what sparked the move to Lokeren, but a cursory look at the list of winners shows a good number of notably fast finishers. However, it really could have been anything – maybe the Lokeren chamber of commerce was handing out more cash, or maybe Het Volk’s accounting department was located there, I don’t know. But if you’ve been to both Lokeren and Gent, you know they didn’t switch for the ambiance.

That said, if trying to move the finish closer to key selection points – hills and cobbles – was the goal of the Lokeren move, then the organizers seem to have achieved an even greater victory to that end with the move back to Gent. Using the 2001 course as a representative of the Lokeren years, we can make a few comparisons to this year’s course. Both courses use the Molenberg, a nasty 463 meter climb with 300 meters of cobblestones and a max gradient of 14.2%, as the final climb before the stampede to the finish. (The 2009 edition also featured 11 climbs to 2001’s nine. However, the inclusion or exclusion of climbs in the hill zone has little to do with the finish location.) Measured from the top of the Molenberg, the distance to the finish line shrunk by 18 kilometers, from 57 to 39 kilometers, theoretically giving a well-established breakaway a better shot at survival.

Though shorter than before, the new final dash squeezes in 400 more meters of cobblestones than the 2001 version. The new course also serves up the stones in larger helpings, dishing out its 7,100 meters over 5 sections, whereas 2001 chopped its 6,700 meters into 7 portions. Cobbles aside, the final 15 kilometers in 2009 also presented additional difficulties to riders compared to 2001 – the approach to Lokeren was a wide, straight speedway, but the run-in to Gent is significantly more technical, weaving in and out of the city’s myriad street furniture and tram tracks as it snakes toward the town center. Finally, the new finish straight on Charles de Kerchovelaan street features a tough uphill grunt, a marked contrast to the pannenkoek-flat Lokeren straight.

So, has the objectively harder finale thinned the herd coming to the line? Not really. In 2001, a break of 11 (helped by a well-timed freight train) came to the line, with Michele Bartoli (then Mapei) taking the win. This year, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) led home an 18-man front group, with the bulk of the field arriving 45 seconds later. On the other hand, Philippe Gilbert (then FDJ, now Lotto) soloed in for the win in Gent last year. So while some careful course planning can certainly help shape outcomes, as the saying goes, it’s the riders (and sometimes the weather) that make the race.

But really, whether the win comes from a big sprint like this year or a great late race solo move, Het Volk/Het Nieuwsblad is always a great race, because it’s the first real race of the year – for me. Why Het Volk? Why not the Tour Down Under way back in January? Or the GP Marseillaise in France, or the Trofeo Laigueglia in Italy, big one-day races that both precede Het Volk on the calendar? Pure personal bias, that’s why. Because I love the classics, and in the spring that means Belgium. And because, in 2001, when Bartoli rolled across the line, I was there, floundering my way through my first international assignment. So for me, it starts with Het Volk.