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Giro finale
Photo ©: Bettini

Special Edition Cycling News, April 6, 2008

Edited by Laura Weislo

Ballan plots Ronde defence

By Gregor Brown

Alessandro Ballan (Lampre)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Alessandro Ballan will line up in the 92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen with dossard number one to mark him out as returning champion. Last year, the 28 year-old Italian from Castelfranco Veneto bolted free with Leif Hoste and went on to out-gun the Belgian in the sprint. Once again, Team Lampre's Ballan will count on his team to battle the Belgian and other rivals to do what few have managed, win De Ronde back-to-back.

Coming off as a conservative rider, Ballan has the strength to get himself to the line and packs a mean kick when he arrives there. In addition to winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen last year, he won the Driedaagse De Panne and Hamburg Cyclassics, while also helping his captains in the Tour de France and World Championships. All and all, Ballan is a contender for Sunday's race and knows his rivals well.

"Cancellara is going very well," he stated when Cyclingnews spoke with him on the eve of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. "He has demonstrated to be very strong up until now. He has the desire to win, even if there is rain."

Cyclingnews questioned the top players regarding the possibility of bad weather, and Belgian Leif Hoste took a dig at Ballan' training partner, Filippo Pozzato. "Pozzato? He will be wondering whether to get his shoes dirty or not," commented Hoste. Ballan laughed, "It's true, it's true! He does not go at his best in the rain," he continued, but reminded us, "at Het Volk last year he showed he could go very strong and was able to win."

"Unfortunately, [Hoste] crashed in the first stage [of De Panne] and so I have not had a chance to see him up close. He went really strong in the time trial, he knows [Ronde] very well, he lives in this area; surely, he will be up front for the finale," he summarised of the rider who has finished second in 2007, 2006 and 2004.

However, the number one favourite, according to the odd-makers, is two-time winner Tom Boonen. "Like everyone says, Tom has won less with respect to the last years; however, he can very well vie for the win. He has a strong team that is full of experience – all for him – he is one of the top favourites for the win."

Continue to the full feature.

CSC troops rally behind Cancellara

By Brecht Decaluwé in Kortrijk

Fabian Cancellara (CSC) began the year well in California
Photo ©: Jon Devich
(Click for larger image)

Ask every team about who they think has the strongest formation for the Ronde van Vlaanderen and there's a good chance that Team CSC will be the most picked squad. The Danish formation led by Bjarne Riis arrived in Flanders with good form and a bag full of confidence built upon the team's wins in Almeria, Tirrenno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo, Critérium International and the E3 Prijs Harelbeke.

The Danish formation will be led in the Ronde van Vlaanderen by Fabian Cancellara, whose tall, muscular build and crushing power has earned him the nickname 'Spartacus'. The 27 year-old Swiss has developed from a strong time trial rider into an all-round top-class rider in recent years and right now he is about the strongest rider in the peloton.

He will be supported by '07 Paris-Roubaix winner Stuart O'Grady, E3 Prijs Harelbeke winner Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Karsten Kroon, Matti Breschel, Lars Bak, Allan Johansen and Marcus Ljunqvist. In the past the Danish team never managed to get a rider on the podium in the 'Ronde mooiste', but in their last year as Team CSC, they have a silent hope that Cancellara can do the double: winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. On the other hand, winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen with whatever rider is the first goal and that's what everybody is focusing on. Fabian Cancellara is the outright team leader, but the team has the great advantage that they can play some more cards besides the Swiss.

Cancellara wasn't trying to shy away from under his role as a top favourite when Cyclingnews talked him. "Flanders is my main goal and now it's time to go to the start. Team CSC, and especially me, we're ready. With Milano-Sanremo and Tirreno-Adriatico in the pocket, I can be more relaxed than other riders who haven't won anything," Cancellara discretely hinted that his biggest rival for Sunday, Tom Boonen, was still without a big victory this season.

Cancellara was confident that the team would bring him into a perfect position in the finale, but he also felt that he wasn't the only CSC-rider who could win the Ronde van Vlaanderen. "The team is stronger than in Tirreno-Adriatico. Last week in Harelbeke, we showed a perfect race and now, with Karsten we're even stronger. We know we have a lot of pressure, but a lot of other riders are nearly obligated to win, so we know that we're not alone on the road. For example, in Paris-Roubaix last year everybody was looking at me, but although I didn't win it was still CSC that won the race. When everybody is looking at me, then maybe I have to do nothing and the team should play another card," Cancellara explained.

For now, Cancellara is still the man with the best form, so in an honest finale he should be there to battle for a much desired win. "Just like last year I know what to do. Everybody expected my attack in Sanremo, but nobody could react. The same for Flanders: everybody knows that I will attack, but nobody knows when it will happen. Personally, I feel that it is positive for me as it means that the other riders have a lot of respect for what I already achieved."

Sizing up the opposition

CSC puts the train to work
Photo ©: Jon Devich
(Click for larger image)

When asked if Cancellara knew what the other riders had achieved up until now, he explained that some riders had been hiding. "I've watched some results, but results can only show if someone is strong. Others might not be noticed because they crashed or eased off in the end." Tom Boonen, without a doubt another man to beat on Sunday, was hard for Cancellara to estimate. "Up until last week in the E3-prijs Harelbeke I had only seen him riding at the front in the Omloop Het Volk. The rest of the time he has been training and hiding. But he will be strong, we noticed. Tom will be there. He will not have less pressure than me, because he has still the pressure from everybody and himself. He wants to show that he is still the Tom he used to be."

The area where the finale starts is spread out over three successive hills, according to Cancellara. "Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg. That's the first important point of the race. From there on it is another race. I can say that I'm happy that the Koppenberg is back in the race. It's like the Poggio and Cipressa in Milano-Sanremo, or the Madeleine and Alpe d'Huez in the Tour de France. We saw the new Koppenberg during a training ride and it's not the same Koppenberg like a few years ago. The special work they did on the Koppenberg was a good idea," Cancellara applauded the work from the local government.

The 27 year-old didn't want to say how and where he would play his cards, but he did explain that he didn't want to start foolish attacks 50 kilometres away from the finish, like he did last year. "I started realizing that if you do too many things like that you might be too tired in the finale. I did the Muur [van Geraardsbergen] once in training and I almost walked it up because it was so slippery. In the race I want to show up at the Muur at a higher speed. Hopefully I'll be alone or with somebody else, because that's the place where it happens," Cancellara said, recalling the attack from Alessandro Ballan and Leif Hoste last year.

When Cyclingnews asked the Swiss if he felt he had a chance in a two-man sprint against Tom Boonen, he talked in guarded terms. "I've beaten Tom before, but maybe I shouldn't be waiting for a sprint, should I," Cancellara bounced the ball back.

Hoste not keen on becoming new Poulidor

By Brecht Decaluwé

Last year, after finishing second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen for the third time in his career, Hoste promised that he would come back to win the race one day. This year his Silence-Lotto team allowed him to build-up specifically towards the week with the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. Team manager Marc Sergeant was delighted with Hoste's preparation, but then bad luck hit Hoste when he crashed during the first stage of the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde.

Although Hoste sustained several injuries he continued the Driedaagse and he will definitely start in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. If his injuries don't bother him too much, Leif Hoste could finally claim that much desired win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. If he finishes as runner-up for the fourth time, then he'll go on as the Poulidor of modern cycling, and become even more popular than he is now.

Cyclingnews listened to what Leif Hoste had to say about his injuries and his aspirations for glory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, right after the finish of the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. Hoste explained that the injuries where annoying, but not dramatic. "With such a crash you can't expect to be without sores, but it is like it is," Hoste said. The Belgian had four days to recover from the crash, of which two days were without racing. "It's not a drama, but it's not ideal when approaching such an important race. Every percentage you lose is one too much. I will not be worrying, because maybe I don't need to worry. It's not that I've broken my collarbone. If it is not going well, then that's bad luck. There's still Paris-Roubaix."

The Belgian's knee looked awful when he crossed the finish line in Zottegem on Tuesday, but Hoste explained that his knee was the least of his concerns. "It's the hidden things - my ribs and my pelvis – that bother me the most. My pelvis isn't twisted [like last year ahead of the Ronde], but still one side is higher than the other because I crashed on my bottom."

The Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde is considered to be a dangerous race, and that's why for example Team CSC didn't line up a team in the Belgian three-day event. "I've raced the Driedaagse more than once. If I shouldn't be racing there, then I shouldn't be riding in Tirreno-Adriatico or Milano-Sanremo either. Hopefully it will turn out well for Sunday. It has gotten better a lot already, so I'm hopeful it'll be alright."

Hoste considers the favourites to be the same like last year, but he added one particular name to the list. "Some riders are better now, like Cancellara. I'm a little better as well, but with that crash I need to await the race. Then there's Manuel Quinziato who came close for the victory in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. He has become stronger, and he has a good team. That's why we need to take him into account for the Ronde. The amount of kilometres shouldn't be a problem for him, he can deal with that," Hoste said.

In comparison to the Liquigas team, Hoste talked about the Silence-Lotto line-up [without Robbie McEwen]. "Our team is very strong breadth-wise. I don't expect to have five men along my side with 50km to go. Everybody who's in the team is expected to be worthy of the spot. Top my opinion CSC has the strongest block. You can't disregard what they've accomplished recently," Hoste said.

The 30-year-old Spring Classics specialist doesn't like to be compared with Belgian's big star, Tom Boonen. Nevertheless he is grateful that because of Boonen he isn't recognized on the streets."He takes away a lot of media attention, but I don't mind about that. I'm happy that I can walk around in the supermarket without being recognized. Thanks for that, Tom," Hoste said.

When a journalist asked if Hoste had noticed that Boonen had been pulling in front of the peloton during the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, Hoste reacted irritatably. "What Tom did in the Driedaagse isn't my concern. Actually, I don't know if you noticed that I've delivered Robbie [McEwen] at the last kilometre," Hoste sneered back to the journalist who posed the question.

O'Grady in support role for Ronde and Roubaix

By Brecht Decaluwé in Kortrijk

Stuart O'Grady
Photo ©: Emory Ball
(Click for larger image)

One Australian with the potential chance for glory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen is Stuart O'Grady, but the 34 year-old will likely be playing a support role for his team-mate Fabian Cancellara, rather than trying to repeat the exploits of last year's Paris-Roubaix. The affable rider from Adelaide explained that he hadn't recovered his top form after a crash in the Tour de France last year. The cold weather forecast didn't favour the Australian either, but he wouldn't be less motivated to work for the team.

"I'm happy that the team is flying," O'Grady referred to the huge confidence in the Danish team. Last year the Australian was the CSC-card that was played when Cancellara couldn't get rid of his rivals. "Last year in Paris-Roubaix we changed tactics, and it worked. That's the main strength of the Team CSC. We adapt to the conditions and we can adapt our scenario. That what we train for and that's what we do in small races as well. Every rider from the team can step up and go on to win," O'Grady explained.

"Most teams have one or two riders who can win, but the way Kurt won last week shows how many cards we can play." The race is the team's to lose with such an advantage in numbers. "For sure there's a lot of pressure on our team, but that's not something news, so we know how to deal with that."

The CSC-rider explained that he hasn't yet reach the form that brought him to that fantastic win in Paris-Roubaix last year. "After my crash in the Tour de France it has taken me a lot of time to recover. Everyday I'm feeling better and better, but I'm definitely not in the form I was last year. I'm more than happy to work for the boys and do what I have to do to help the team to the win. I'm just happy with getting back to 'around' the same kind of level where I was," he continued. 'Stuey' then pointed out that he wouldn't mind playing the Paris-Roubaix trick once again. "When the opportunity arises, then I'll go for it and do my job and we'll see what happens."

Greipel roped into Ronde for ProTour

Team High Road will have two duties in Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen - one will be to place American George Hincapie into a good position to try to take his first Classic, while the other will be to keep André Greipel in the ProTour jersey.

Greipel, who won the Tour Down Under, underwent a bit of a change in his season plan after taking the jersey in Australia. Normally, the German would skip Flanders, but this year his position in the ProTour led his team manager, Rolf Aldag, to change those plans.

"He hadn't planned to do Flanders, but once he'd got the ProTour lead we changed his race program," Aldag said. "He's going quite well, with a third place in the Nokere Koerse [on March 19] but punctured in Harelbeke at exactly the wrong time."

Despite the responsibility of the ProTour defence, Aldag is counting on Hincapie, who placed third in the Tour of Flanders back in 2006 and fourth in 2002, to be the team's key player on Sunday. Hincapie knows the roads well, but will have Andreas Klier to help guide the way. Aldag said, ,"[Klier] will be our team captain, since he knows every corner of Flanders."

If the men's team doesn't score a win, they'll still have another chance with a strong women's team who will race the fifth edition of the event, which is also the third World Cup round. The team is anticipating a hard race, but are sure that their well-rounded squad will be able to take anything the course, or the other teams, can dish out.

"Experience is crucial in Flanders." argues team manager Petra Rossner. "and knowing the course. That's why we've already checked it out again in the build-up to the race, because there are always small but important changes."

The team will have "more than just one leader for sure. We're very flexible in this team, it depends on who's going well for each race and we take it from there. But we'll be ready."

According to High Road rider Oenone Wood - taking part in the Belgian race this year - Flanders could be more intense than usual in 2008.

"Judging from the last few weeks of racing, Flanders this year is going to even harder than the last." Wood predicted.

High Road Men's Team for Flanders: Bernhard Eisel (Aut), AndreGreipel (Ger), Bert Grabsch (Ger), George Hincapie (USA), Roger Hammond (GB), Andreas Klier (Ger), Vicente Reynes (Spa), Marcel Sieberg (Ger).

High Road's Women's team for Flanders: Judith Arndt (Ger), Kate Bates (Aus), Chantal Beltman (Hol), Luise Keller (Ger), Linda VIllumsen (Den), Oenone Wood (Aus).

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