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Belgium, March 28-April 1
As we were getting closer to the end of March, I was hoping for the rain to disappear with it. Milan-San Remo had been and gone and the Northern Classics were next on the list, starting off with Dwars Door Vlaanderen (Waregem, Belgium 1.2). The cold temperatures, the continuous rain and way too much wind made it anything but fun to ride this one. 200km with 12 climbs, of which 7 had cobbles.
Nico Eeckhout took off early in the race, after 8 kilometers, with his team-mate Thierry Marichal. It had all the hallmarks of a suicide mission, but the peloton could not organize itself to close the gap, which at one stage went up to 12 minutes.
Nico Eeckhout was that strong he even left Marichal 'bleeding' on the Kemmelberg, with another 50 kilometres to go. Although it seemed virtually impossible for him to keep off the peloton - which had finally decided to chase - he pulled it off.
Despite the storm, which sent painful hailstones to torture our faces and chilled bodies, Eeckhout crossed the line one minute in front of a group of nine, followed by the peloton. A great moment of glory for the Lotto rider, who said to the press afterwards he thought he had done a stupid thing jumping away that early in the race but as the peloton wasn't chasing, he couldn't do anything else but keep going.
I finished the race, 50th (or something) frozen to the bone. I did not have the morale to have another cold shower and with the heating in the car on max, my wife drove home. I was happy to put my feet under the table after a good massage. The glass of red wine mellowed me even more and I slept like a rock that night, only to wake up early the next morning because my ribs were still giving me strife (see Fayt-le-Franc).
The E3 Prijs Harelbeke (1.1) was next on Saturday, March 31. Sunny, dry weather but a lot more wind. This parcours is similar to the one in Waregem. A few more teams showed up for this race, with the top guns finding their way to the start of one of the dress rehearsals for the Tour of Flanders. Harelbeke has only a few more kilometres (210km) than Waregem, the same amount of climbs but a lot more cobbles though (5 climbs and 5 sections of flat cobbles).
I felt all right but didn't make the final break and cruised to the finish line with the rest of the peloton. I was not happy about how I rode the race. I was strong enough, my legs felt good but I was not able to go with the decisive break.
Mick Rogers and Corey Sweet got introduced to the spring classics in a pretty abrupt way that day. I asked Corey how he was going and he responded that his legs were smashed and he was tired of fighting for his position at the front the group. Mick Rogers remarked he was tired and couldn't believe how his knuckles were hurting from clinching to the handlebars on the cobbles.
I assured him that with experience will come the ability to relax and hold on to the handlebars more lightly, without losing the fight with the cobbles. Hopefully these guys will get to know all the cobbles, all the climbs and all the turns in the years to come, and they will acquire all the ingredients necessary to become a good classics rider. It's a great skill to be able to do this kind of races; a skill envied by many, only put down by the ones who can't get hold of them. This is what makes Tchmil, Ballerini great riders and why Museeuw is regarded a god in Europe...
The next day, the 1st of April we rode the Brabantse Pijl (1.2). As I felt unhappy about the previous day and I was determined to finish of this series of three races with a good result. Not only for myself, also for the team it was important. Kim Andersen, Peter Meinert and the rest of the team had seen that I was riding strongly but people who don't actually see the races or who don't have the opportunity to read the highlights anywhere do not know how your ride went. The ranking is often the only reference people see, but in plenty of races the strongest riders of the day do not make top 10.
A sprinter's finish is most likely to have those guys in the front who worked the least during the race itself. The team protects the sprinter and brings him to the last kilometers "sitting in a couch" as the journalists call it. Their job is to win in the sprint, not to animate the hundred kilometers which lead up to it...that's the job of the "lesser gods".
For Brabantse Pijl, the classification did mirror the strength of the field.
It was a fast, hard race with a parcours which was very rough. The weather was on my side and the early sun was lifting my spirit. The television commentators told me afterwards that they had enjoyed every minute of the race. It was broadcasted live, as most big races here in Europe are. My fans alongside the parcours were all hyped up and I was told people watching the race at home were on the edge of their seat.
The Rabobank team was dominating in numbers (Boogerd, Verheyen and Lotz) when our group formed with 27 kilometres to go. Three Rabobank guys, two Domo-Farm Frites (Merckx and Bruylandts) and four other "individuals", Dierckxsens, Casarotto, Voskamp and I, made a group of 9.
The frequent attacks and the great form Bruylandts, Merckx and Dierckxsens were displaying, made the finale of the race very exciting and nervous! As Domo and Rabobank had the numbers, I had to be vigilant the whole time. Every time one of them went, I had to be sure to be with it otherwise they might have let the break go.
The crowd went absolutely mad when Axel attacked going into the last lap and the electricity generated by the public was incredible. But Merckx couldn't hold off our group; we chased him down . As soon as we caught Axel, Dierckxsens jumped with Verheyen in his wheel. We chased them immediately and then Bruylandts attacked, in vain.
Having Lotz there was vital to Boogerd. Every attack got chased down by Boogerd's lieutenant, so was mine. I attacked with 4 kilometres to go. I looked under my arm to see Lotz in the back of the group. I jumped, thinking: "This is the right time, he's sitting behind the others", but in a matter of seconds, I felt him breathing down my neck. Dierckxsens tried again too. It was again Lotz who grabbed him by the collar and jerked him back into the remaining group of six. Boogerd finished it off in style and Axel and I could only sprint for the remaining podium places.
I felt good all day and finished 2nd. Michael Boogerd was simply unbeatable that day. He came up from Spain victoriously and in the 48 hours preceding Brabantse Pijl, he recuperated perfectly and he sure hadn't lost the taste for winning.
Personally, this was a good result and it surely boosted the team's morale. Although the disappointment about not getting a wildcard for the Tour of Flanders is big, I will be trying to make the best of my weekend in France, where the Team will be riding Adélie (1.3) and G.P.Rennes (1.4) on the weekend. I'll be back in Belgium next week for Pino Cerami (1.3), one of my favourite races. I'll have some more time to write to you after that!
Dwars Door Vlaanderen
GP E3-Harelbeke (1.1)
Brabantse Pijl (1.2)