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On a cool, windy Brussels Friday afternoon, the 2004 edition of the 23 rider strong Landbouwkrediet-Colnago team was presented to the media at Vandenstock Stadium, where FC Anderlecht plays. Now in its 16th year of activity, when the team started as S.E.F.B., Landbouwkrediet-Colnago in its present form started in 2001 and is in its second year as a Division I squad. When the team races in Italy, the sponsor name will change to Colnago-Landbouwkrediet.
Belgian team manager Gerard Bulens has made some key off-season acquisitions to beef up the Belgian-Italian squad and for 2004, the team has a good mix of young talent and experienced pros. "I'm proud to say that if our team can put a rider on the podium in a grand tour as we did with Popovych, this shows that we can be very competitive with teams that are much bigger than us", explained team manager Bulens. With ex-D.S. Olivano Locatelli out of Landbouwkrediet-Colnago over last year's doping accusations, Marco Saligari has stepped up as D.S., being joined in the team technical staff by experienced ex-pro Adriano Baffi.
As for Yaroslav Popovych, the Ukrainian fuoriclasse is out to show that his super sophomore season was no fluke in 2004. The powerful young all-rounder, who just turned 24 twelve days ago, ended up on the podium in last year's Giro d'Italia with an excellent third place. Popo is looking to do even more for this season, telling Cyclingnews that, "I'm hoping to improve even more this year, I want to make our sponsors happy. Since I haven't raced in Belgium in a few years, I'm hoping to ride well in classics like Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It's hard to win a World Cup or a classic, but I think top ten is possible. Of course the Giro d'Italia as my important goal. Plus I hope to ride the Tour De France this year, I've heard so much about it, how different it is from the Giro...plus it would be important to learn from great riders like Armstrong and Ullrich."
Tom Steels is looking to regain his place among the best road sprinters going. Steels, who won four races last year, also has ambitions on the track for Athens Olympics, where he will pair with Matthew Gilmore in the Madison. "I'm feeling better already this year and hope this is a good sign for my performances," Steels told Cyclingnews. "The track racing is hard at first but it might bring me some extra speed."
Heir apparent to Steels could be Ukrainian Yuri Metlushenko. The muscular Metlu appears to be 100 percent back from his terrible crash two seasons ago and with four pro wins posted last season, the Ukrainian is looking for more in 2004.
At 39, Ludo Dierckxsens is still as aggressive as ever. The seemingly tireless former auto factory assembly-line worker can always be counted on in the Spring Classics to create problems for the others by attacking relentlessly. "Last year I broke my collarbone and lost most of the spring racing, but this year I've worked hard and feel good," he said. This season, Dierckxsens will be joined by hyper aggressive 37 year old Jacky "Dudu" Durand, who just signed his contract yesterday.
"I'm very happy to be on this team," said Belgian 33 year old hardman for the classics Geert Van Bondt, who told Cyclingnews that "I've had a lot of ups and downs over the last few years, but Landbouwkrediet-Colnago is a good team for me."
Newest arrival is neo-pro Sergey Lagutin, U23 World Road Race Champion in Hamilton. Lagutin is looking forward to representing his native Uzbekistan in the Athens Olympics road race next August as the highlight of his rookie season. His new teammate Tomas Vaitkus, another major young talent who was U23 World TT Champion in Zolder in 2002 just returned from a tough training session in central Asia with the Lithuanian national track team. The likeable, soft-spoken Vaitkus will focus more on the track for Athens in pursuit events, then shift his direction to the TT Worlds in Lake Garda, Italy in late September.
Joining the other young guns at Landbouwkrediet-Colnago is talented 21 year old Belgian neo-pro Maxime Monfort and Italian climber Santo Anza. Add Cristiano Gasperoni from Mercatone Uno and returning riders like Verstrepen, Duma, Capelle, Adveyev and the Belgian-Italian Landbouwkrediet-Colnago team looks like one of the most interesting teams to follow for 2004.
Images by Tim Maloney/Cyclingnews.com
Images by AFP Photo