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94th Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen - 1.HC
Schoten, Belgium, April 12, 2006
By D'Arcy Price
The Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen (formerly known as Grote Scheldeprijs Schoten), Flanders' oldest race (starting in 1907), is traditionally a sprinters contest, run over a dead flat parcours with a few cobbled sections thrown in for good measure. Its similar to, albeit less demanding, the mid-week ProTour race of Gent-Wevelgem, and is raced over a similar distance of roughly 200 km.
The race starts in Antwerp and continues on a 155km loop into the Flemish countryside before riders hit three 15km finishing circuits in the town of Schoten. The route includes seven cobbled sections, varying between 1300 and 3000 meters. The Gent-Weveglem/Scheldeprijs double has been done five times; Tom Boonen in 2004; Mario Cipollini in 1993; Rik Van Looy in 1957 and 1956 and Alberic Schotte in 1955.
The weather forecast for the race is for sunny and dry conditions, with temperatures ranging from 5-11 degrees Celsius and a moderately strong northwesterly wind blowing.
The Quick-Step team will look for some revenge after its slightly disappointing Paris-Roubaix, especially world champ Boonen. The Belgian superstar has 12 victories so far this season, and finished second in Roubaix after taking out his second successive victory in the Tour of Flanders. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner, Nick Nuyens, rode an excellent Milan-San Remo and was one of the key riders in Quick-Steps successful team plan in that race. Showing hes a vital team player he also helped Boonen to victory in Flanders, taking a respectable 17th place himself.
Davitamon-Lotto are Quick-Steps #1 rivals. Star sprinter Robbie McEwen, who won this race in 2002, hasnt enjoyed an eventful spring, although the 2005 Australian road champion looks to be recovering from a crash a month ago in time for the Giro dItalia. McEwen may not want to take the necessary risks over the cobbles while recovering from injury, but if hes in contention at the finish, watch closely for the Aussie pocket rocket in the closing 200 metres. Peter Van Petegem is another former winner of the race (1994), and if he was to win it again, 12 years later, it would be sufficient revenge for his disqualification from Paris-Roubaix. But, the Scheldeprijs comes only three days after Roubaix, and 'de Peet' will have to be fortunate to find himself in a winning position in Schoten.
Bert Roesems is also a strong chance for Davitamon after a massive effort in the closing stages of Gent-Weveglem and an eighth in Paris-Roubaix. Leon Van Bon is another northern classics specialist with a fast finish who seems to be coming back to form, after taking 14th in Roubaix. Australias Henk Vogels, who took 12th in Gent-Weveglem, is timing his run for the Giro, and this is the type of race that suits him. Gert Steegmans is building on his early-season form which saw him take a stage in Portugals Volta ao Algarve and third place in the decisive, first stage of the KBC Driedaagse van De Panne. He maintained this to perform well in both Flanders and Roubaix, in support of Roesems and Van Petegem.
Unibet.Com is sending a strong team with Baden Cooke and Jeremy Hunt as their leaders. Cooke has ridden well all year, taking the win in GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise in January and finishing 17th in Sundays Paris-Roubaix. The 2003 green jersey winner told Cyclingnews earlier this year that hes focusing on the classics in 2006, and has been growing in confidence since then. Although Cooke is yet to find the form of 2003, he still maintains plenty of his raw speed and could well upset Boonen and McEwen in a mass sprint finish. Former British champion Hunt, who has always been a fast finishing classics rider, finished among the big names in Roubaix, and has been a regular in the top placings in the smaller Belgian classics.
Niko Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen) is another sprinter/classics rider who has been in good shape all year, and currently leads the UCI European Tour. The Belgian took a stage and the overall at Record Driedaagse, Omloop Waasland-Kemzeke, fourth in Dwars door Vlaanderen, second in CholetPays de Loire and fourth in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. The route is almost perfect for him, too.
An outsider to watch would be Igor Abakoumov (Jartazi-7Mobile), yet another classic rider with a good finish. The Belgian (of Russian descent) has achieved seven top-10 finishes, including sixth in Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl and eighth in Le Samyn. He may not be the favourite in a mass sprint finish, and the route may be slightly too hard for him, but if hes present in a small group he may well take his first win of the season for the small squad.
German squad Wiesenhof-AKUD are sending their teenage German champion, Gerald Ciolek, to Belgium this weekend. The sprinter has won a stage and took sixth overall at Istrian Spring Trophy in March, and although he may lack the experienc to take out a Belgian semi-classic, he has proven more than once that he has enough speed to get the job done in the last 200 metres. Like Abakoumov, he is very unlikely to take out a mass sprint finish, but watch for him if he gets in a small group.
Other contenders include Enrico Gasparotto (Liquigas), Sebastian Siedler (Milram), Jan Boven and Mathew Hayman (Rabobank), and Jean-Patrick Nazon (Ag2r).
Cyclingnews will be covering the 94th Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen live from 14:30 CEST/08:30 EDT (USA east)/05:30 PDT (USA west)/22:30 AEST (Australia east).