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Mont Ventoux
Photo ©: Sirotti

Latest Cycling News for February 26, 2004

Edited by Jeff Jones & Chris Henry

Belgian season opens with a bang

By Jeff Jones

Johan Museeuw
Photo: © Sirotti
Click for larger image

After a winter of watching Bart Wellens and Sven Nys duel it out in the dirt and mud, the attention of Belgian cycling fans will fully switch to the road on the weekend of February 28-29 with the 59th Omloop Het Volk and the 57th Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, the country's two traditional season openers. In addition to being the first race of the season, Het Volk is also one of the most prestigious to win, especially for a Flemish rider. Last year, Johan Museeuw showed that he hadn't been idle over winter as he and his Quick.Step team ripped the race apart to finish four riders in the top five. But with Museeuw a little off form at the moment, the race is wide open.

The 200 km parcours which starts in Gent's Citadelpark and finishes in Lokeren features nine of the famous bergs of the Vlaamse Ardennen, a region in the southern part of Flanders. These, combined with a series of cobbled sections over the last 30 km make it a challenging parcours, even though bunch sprints are certainly not out of the ordinary in this race. However, with snow and strong winds predicted all week in Belgium, it could be a very fragmented affair.

This year's hills start with the Côte de Trieu after 44 km, continuing with the tough Oude-Kwaremont (km 51), Kanarieberg (km 66), Abdijstraat-Muur (km 89), Kleiberg (km 106), Eikenberg (km 116), Leberg (km 127), Berendries (km 131) and Molenberg (km 139). The final hill comes with 60 km to go but the Molenberg is no easy task. The riders will turn off a wide road into a narrow, cobbled laneway past a mill, which suddenly gets very steep for 300m before the summit is reached. A short, narrow descent follows and it's back to the flat and windy roads again.

Quick.Step had already forced a selection by the Molenberg last year, and once over that, five of them team time trialled to the finish with van Heeswijk, Pozzato and Farazijn in tow, with Museeuw eventually proving too strong for the rest and riding away to a solo win.

In addition to the climbs, there are several key cobbled sections that will make a difference, especially if the conditions are bad. The Holleweg at Volkegem (km 117), Haaghoek at Sint-Kornelis-Horebeke (km 124), Paddestraat/Lippenhovestraat at Velzeke, just after the Molenberg (km 145) and the Vogelzangstraat in Lokeren (km 184) will all present opportunities for attacks.


Quick.Step-Davitamon's Johan Museeuw will certainly start as one of the favourites, having won this race twice previously and never a man to bet against in a Flemish classic. His lack of form due to sickness this year may mean that one of his teammates, such as Paolo Bettini or Tom Boonen, gets a chance.

Right behind Quick.Step is Lotto-Domo, with three time winner Peter Van Petegem already showing some good legs in the early season Spanish races this season. With Robbie McEwen there for a bunch sprint and Leon Van Bon for an opportunistic breakaway, watch for Lotto-Domo in this important race for them.

Landbouwkrediet-Colnago's Tom Steels won Het Volk back in 1996, and the sprinter seems to be recovering his form again after suffering for a long time with glandular fever and subsequent illnesses. But he suffered a setback in mid-February when he crashed during the Track World Cup in Moscow, and had to have 60 splinters taken out of his back.

Last year Max van Heeswijk (US Postal-Berry Floor) surprised a few people by taking second place from the wheels of the Quick.Step steam roller. This year he's back and already has wins to his credit this year. Along with a healthy George Hincapie and the promising Stijn Devolder, US Postal could well make its mark again in Het Volk.

Frank Vandenbroucke (Fassa Bortolo) is perhaps a little under-raced this season to be in top condition for Het Volk, but he also knows the roads like the back of his hand and could well be up there in the selection. Of the other Italian teams, Saeco will be looking to Dario Pieri to kick off his classics campaign in a strong manner, while Lampre's Romans Vainsteins could be one to watch. Alessio-Bianchi's leader will likely be Fabio Baldato, who will have able support from his team which includes "local" Scott Sunderland.

Looking at the French teams, Jaan Kirsipuu (Ag2r) will probably be the protected man in his team, while Cofidis will be looking to put Stuart O'Grady in a good position. Crédit Agricole's Thor Hushovd will have support from Andrey Kashechkin, who was excellent in this race last year.'s Baden Cooke, Bernhard Eisel and Matthew Wilson tend to be their best performers in Belgium.

For T-Mobile, Andreas Klier, Daniele Nardello and Steffen Wesemann are the guys to watch, while Frank Høj will lead Danish Team CSC's charge. Finally Rabobank will be there with riders like Steven de Jongh, Roy Sentjens, Mark Wauters

Join us for live coverage of the 59th Omloop Het Volk, starting approximately 11:45 local time (5:45 EST/2:45 PST/23:45 AEDT).

Start List

Past winners

2002  Peter Van Petegem (Bel)   200 km in 4.52.30 (41.026 km/h)
2001  Michele Bartoli (Ita)     200 km in 4.52.00 (41.096 km/h)
2000  Johan Museeuw (Bel)       204 km in 5.01.00 (40.664 km/h)
1999  Frank Vandenbroucke (Bel) 202 km in 5.12.00 (38.846 km/h)
1998  Peter Van Petegem (Bel)   202 km in 5.08.00

Organisers optimistic about weather

Het Vlokt
Photo ©: Cyclingnews

The regular snowstorms this week in Belgium have cast doubts on whether Omloop Het Volk will go ahead on Saturday. The winter weather is predicted to continue until then, and the organisers may have to cancel the race, as they did in 1960 and 1986, if they can't guarantee its safety.

On Thursday morning in Gent (where the race starts), the snow was thick on the ground, and although by midday the sun had come out and it was starting to melt, the roads were still very icy and slippery. The conditions are worse on the small roads in the hilly southern area of Flanders where there is little traffic to melt the snow, and race director Lucien Van Hoorde was out on Thursday morning examining the roads.

"We remain optimistic," Van Hoorde told De Standaard. "The salt teams are out there making the parcours snow and ice free. The Eikenberg and the Molenberg particularly are in a wretched state. But there is a solution for everything. We can put in a diversion and not do those hills. It's better than canceling the whole race. The salt teams will stay alert and we will evaluate it every hour. There are still two days left."

Eeckhout out

Nico Eeckhout (Lotto-Domo) will miss the Belgian opening weekend due to a sore throat, something that his teammates Hans De Clercq and Peter Van Petegem have also been suffering from. Eeckhout's place will be taken by Thierry Marichal, while De Clercq and Van Petegem are expected to ride both Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Steels in doubt

Tom Steels (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) will probably only ride one of either Het Volk or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne this weekend. The sprinter, who won Het Volk in 1996, is recovering from a fever and will make his decision on Thursday which race to ride.

No Het Volk for Francesco Planckaert

Eddy Planckaert's son Francesco will not be doing Het Volk or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. After Planckaert rode the parcours with his Chocolade Jacques teammates yesterday, his team director Johan Capiot decided against letting him start. The climb of the Oude Kwaremont was decisive.

"Francesco did his best, felt good for the 180 kilometre tour but...rode as thirteenth of thirteen over the top," Capiot told Het Nieuwsblad. "[His next race] will thus be Fayt-le-Franc next week."

"Wrong, I was within the first ten!" responded Francesco. "I would have happily ridden Kuurne, but respect Capiot's decision. I had very good legs yesterday."

Pro Tour puts noses out of joint

2004 final year of the World Cup

The UCI's grand plan to reform cycling via the Pro Tour in 2005 is not being met with unbridled enthusiasm, particularly by race organisers and sponsors who will miss the cut when their races are re-classified according to the new rules. The Pro Tour will include the top 20 teams who will have to ride the top 30 races, including the three grand tours and all the current World Cup races, for a maximum of 180 racing days. The World Cup will thus be superceded.

For a country like Belgium, which is steeped in cycling, the Pro Tour could have a negative effect on the quality of the races. The UCI has only promised Pro Tour status to four one day races in Belgium: Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Gent-Wevelgem and Flèche Wallonne. Significant races such as the Omloop Het Volk, GP E3, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Grote Scheldeprijs, Driedaagse van de Panne will all be relegated to non-Pro Tour status, meaning fewer UCI points and fewer of the top teams. But is this such a disadvantage? These races are not World Cups or Grand Tours at the moment, carry fewer UCI points, but are still contested by very good fields.

UCI president Hein Verbruggen believes that the Belgians have nothing to fear for their non-Pro Tour races. In an interview/debate in Het Nieuwsblad, Verbruggen responded to the question by saying, "I think that Het Volk would gain no advantage by starting in the Pro Tour. It gives you more financial obligations and you must also bring more Spanish teams to the start, that you actually don't miss now. A foreigner who looks at Belgium says 'April is a Belgian month in the Pro Tour, including Paris-Roubaix and the Amstel.'"

Organiser Wim Van Herreweghe responded by saying, "Amstel is not Belgian. And Liege is not in Flanders. The Pro Tour comes along only two times for half a week. That is too little. The Belgian public and the sponsors must see the top riders more often."

Despite this, and accusations that he is not respecting cycling's culture there, Verbruggen maintained that the top teams will still come to Belgium in order to prepare for the classics. And under the proposed rules, there will be no real restrictions on the top 20 professional teams entering races such as Het Volk.

Verbruggen has also offered more Pro Tour racing days in the form of the "Benelux Tour", a stage race combining the tours of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg that would be held at the end of August. "Bring them all together," said Verbruggen. "Then I'm thinking of two or three stages in the Netherlands, throw in a team time trial over the Afsluitdijk, where we would get some nice pictures, then the parcours of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - because they know that in Italy - and then one or two stages in Luxembourg. Whoever wins this can do more than just sprint on a tablecloth. At the moment you have three tours that I really don't stay up to watch in the evenings in Switzerland."

The debate will no doubt continue for the rest of the season, and although the UCI's Pro Tour plans are not set in stone yet, it is hard to imagine that they will be able to please all of The People, all of the time.

Moreau returning slowly

Sidelined by another season-beginning injury, Crédit Agricole leader Christophe Moreau is slowly but steadily building back up after tearing ligaments in his knee during the team's January training camp. After several weeks on the home trainer, Moreau has hit the open roads once more, but is still looking at a wait of another month before he begins competition.

"For Christophe, it's as if he's back at the level he had in December," directeur sportif Denis Roux told l'Equipe. "If everything goes well, we can (at best) think about his coming back for the Cholet-Pays de Loire on March 21st."

Moncoutié back

Cofidis' David Moncoutié, who suffered numerous cuts and received stitches in his knee after a crash in the Trofeo Laigueglia, will return to competition this weekend at the GP Chiasso in Switzerland, followed by the GP Lugano. Moncoutié only lost three days of training, but held off on racing while his knee healed.

Garzelli criticises Italy's treatment of Pantani

Former Giro d'Italia winner Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola) offered harsh words over the tragic death of Marco Pantani in an interview with Spanish paper Meta2Mil, saying that Pantani was "treated worse than a mafia boss". Garzelli, a former teammate of Pantani's and subsequent rival on the bike, spoke out in particular of the state of cycling in his home country Italy.

"Italy is not being fair with cycling," Garzelli said. "Not only with Pantani, although it's clear he felt this more than anyone. Marco was the visible leader of Italian cycling, and he became the object of this injustice."

Garzelli, noting that in addition to the legal investigations into doping and Pantani's expulsion from the 1999 Giro, not being invited to the 2003 Tour de France was perhaps the final blow to the troubled champion.

"Pantani faced more police investigations than a mafia boss," Garzelli said. "That pressure, the persecution, became unbearable, particularly for someone like Pantani who had a fragile head. More than one person could stand to take back their words."

Salvetat joins Lapierre

Maryline Salvetat of France, silver medal in the women's Cyclo-cross World Championships behind compatriot Laurence Leboucher, has signed a contract to ride with Team Lapierre International for 2004. Salvetat, who also won the national cyclo-cross title in France, will race mountain bike events this season, alongside Sabrina Enaux and Hélène Marcouyre, before tackling the next 'cross season.

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