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Mont Ventoux
Photo ©: Sirotti

First Edition Cycling News, April 10, 2008

Edited by Sue George

Freire makes history

By Bjorn Haake in Wevelgem

Podium time for Spaniard Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Oscar Freire was fully aware that thanks to his sprint win in Gent-Wevelgem, he made history by becoming the first Spaniard to put himself in the winner's list of the Belgian semi-classic. "It's great to be the first Spaniard to win here," said Freire after his win, which must have been on his mind since he came so close last year. That's when he made the winning five-man break, but got worked over by the T-Mobile duo of Marcus Burghardt and Roger Hammond.

Freire knew that the day for a Spaniard had to come sooner or later. "Flecha could have won it, if there wouldn't have been any motorbikes; seems it was the organisers' fault," said Freire, reminding everyone of how strong his compatriot and now-team-mate was in 2005, when Nico Mattan was able to catch up with Flecha in the final kilometre, thanks to using the slipstream of the motorbikes.

"I came close last year, too," he said of his quest to make history. "One time has to be the first." His directeur sportif, Erik Dekker, described the versatility of his captain by saying "last year he was in a break. You never know with Oscar. We have a good chance if there is a sprint and Oscar is there."

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The Spaniard was quick to point out that it wasn't revenge that had driven him today. "No, no. I was in good shape. I realised towards the end that I had good legs, that the others were getting tired and it was my chance today; but it was difficult. There was a headwind in the last couple of kilometres. And [the race was] certainly different than last year." Freire felt more at home with a bunch sprint, rather than in a small group, where tactics can count out even the strongest rider.

Freire liked the fact that the sprint was not really controlled by any one team. The Spaniard had a simple explanation for the lack of a complete lead-out train. "There was just too much of a headwind." And with the peloton already cut in half at this point, control and team-mates were difficult to come by.

As for the different take of the Kemmelberg, Freire didn't think it changed the race much, but was happy with the alternate route. "I think it's easier, especially in bad weather. Now, the most complicated part is the uphill, so it's better for the riders." Because of the longer climb this year, the expected separation was accomplished and Freire said that "The second time up the Kemmelberg, there were less riders, but many from Rabobank."

Other didn't like the scenario. "But we didn't get any help from other riders, so we waited and went easy," said Freire. This allowed the others to catch back on for a final bunch sprint, which Freire had expected anyway, due to the weather and the wind. The sun and calm at the end set up a good scenario for Freire. "We did the perfect race today," the Spaniard smiled. He was happy that the first part of the race was fast so some of the other sprinters were already tired.

Freire's goals this year include the Tour de France, the Olympics and, of course, the World Championships. But the next race he is shooting for is the Amstel Gold race, where he would like to have another shot at history, and at also becoming the first Spaniard to win the race. He is not afraid of the Cauberg. "The problem will be to arrive together [in a big group]. I have always sprinted well here, but never for first," he admitted under much laughter. But he feels that he has the upper hand on the other sprinters, who get tired.

He has already proven his uphill sprint qualities on the stage six of the 43rd Tirreno-Adriatico in March. And knowing the ambitious Spaniard, he may well become the first Castilian to win the Amstel Gold race. It would hardly come as a surprise.

Dekker confident with Freire-card in his hand

By Brecht Decaluwé in Wevelgem

Erik Dekker checks his messages
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)

Rabobank's director sportif Erik Dekker was all smiles at the finish line of Gent-Wevelgem, where he waited for winner Oscar Freire to return from the podium. While talking with Cyclingnews the Dutchman drew an analogy to that Freire's win as the icing on the cake which the Dutch team lacked after the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

"As a team you're only as strong as your team leader, and that's why we have Oscar in the team. Last Sunday [at the Ronde van Vlaanderen] the team performed almost perfectly, but we didn't win the race. Today we did the same, but the win makes it perfect. That we did a lot of work to make it a bunch sprint adds even more to it," Dekker smiled. "Then again, I realize this isn't the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix."

The Rabobank team started pulling with three guys in the first group right after the second climb of the Kemmelberg when they noticed Freire was still with them. "I asked the guys to pull hard on the Kemmelberg, and that's what we did. Flecha attacked and eventually we ended up having five guys in the first group. You just now that you've got a good chance to win the race if you have the Freire-card to play in the sprint," Dekker said.

Weylandt ok with being beat by three-time world champion

By Brecht Decaluwé in Wevelgem

Wouter Weylandt
Photo ©: Brecht Decaluwé
(Click for larger image)

Wouter Weylandt was the man appointed by Team Quick Step for the bunch sprint. The blonde Belgian finished in third, but he couldn't overtake the early sprinting effort of the triple world champion [1999, 2001, 2004] Oscar Freire (Rabobank), who won the 70th edition of Gent-Wevelgem.

At the finish line in Wevelgem, Weylandt talked with Cyclingnews about how the sprint unfolded. "Our team helped to close down the gap with the leaders, and in the finale I had [Matteo] Tosatto who worked very hard to lead out the sprint for me. I was a bit further back than Freire and Clerc, sitting on the wheel of Zabel."

Freire started his sprint very early and manoeuvred from the left to the right. Weylandt came close in the final metres, but couldn't catch the Spanish sprinter or Swiss rider Aurélien Clerc (Bouygues Telecom), who finished second. "Actually, I wanted to start the sprint myself, but I was boxed in between Zabel and somebody else," said Weylandt. "I hope to get a rematch as soon as possible. One day I should be able to win this race."

The flamboyant Belgian wasn't too happy that he was unable to convert the team's work into a victory although he realized that there were would be more chances for him in the future. "Every sprinter will be pissed after a non-win, but if you see by whom I was beaten, then I shouldn't be ashamed. It was quite a big gap with Freire, so I can live with it," Weylandt said to Cyclingnews at the finish in Wevelgem.

On the famous Kemmelberg, with 37 kilometres to go, the peloton split into three groups, of which the last never made it back to the front of the race. "I was at the back of the second group on the Kemmelberg. The gap with the other peloton [the last group that didn't come back] was created right behind me. So, for once, I wasn't to blame," Weylandt laughed. "I knew the two groups would come back together after the climb."

Clerc enjoys the champagne

By Brecht Decaluwé in Wevelgem

Aurélien Clerc (Bouygues Telecom) (c) challenges
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Aurélien Clerc (Bouygues Telecom) wasn't named as a podium favourite for the 70th edition of the Belgian semi-classic Gent Wevelgem, but nevertheless the Swiss featured there in the end, next to winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank). While still sipping from the bottle of champagne offered to him, Clerc replied to Cyclingnews' question about whether he was satisfied with his second place in Wevelgem.

"Well, although I had good legs, Freire did create a big gap on us, so I'm not too disappointed. Of course, a win in a race like this would've been fantastic," Clerc daydreamed about what might have been. He then stepped Cyclingnews through his sprint, which he started in the best possible position. "I sat on Freire's wheel, and that wheel delivered me a great result," Clerc explained with a smile.

The Bouygues Telecom rider didn't feature in the first group of about 25 riders that had a gap cresting the Kemmelberg for the second time. Cyclingnews asked him if he had a bad moment on the famous cobbled climb, with its new descent. "I knew the course on the Kemmelberg well, as I rode here during the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen. I ended up riding in the second group, but realized that all would come back together before the finish. While some were battling to get away from the peloton, I focused on getting ready for the sprint, with this great second place as fantastic result."

Next Sunday, Clerc will head to Paris-Roubaix, although he goes into it with slightly different ambitions. "I like the cobbles a lot, and I want to be present in the race as long as I can. But winning isn't what I expect to do." Clerc smiled before joining his team-mates in the bus, "Right now, we'll enjoy the champagne a little more."

Flecha's performance goes unnoticed in Spain

By Bjorn Haake in Wevelgem

Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) was happy with his race
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)

Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) came within nine seconds of Stijn Devolder on Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen. He couldn't quite close the gap and ended up third. "I came close. You have to fight and when you do, you have to be happy."

"Riding well in Flanders was a challenge. I always try," said Flecha. "You can say that was my first season highlight. Even if I didn't win, I came close and I have to be happy about it. It's the feeling of having a good result, but not winning. I don't know how Devolder is feeling now," he smiled think it must be nice to feel like the Belgian did after his win.

Flanders is history now, and his mind is already on Paris-Roubaix. "That was my main goal. But it is difficult to predict and sometimes you need a lot of luck. But if the weather is like last Sunday, it should be good." Flecha made it clear he isn't your typical sun-loving Spaniard, targeting the hilly tours in southern Europe.

What the bigger news in Spain would be ­ a win by Flecha in Roubaix or Alberto Contador taking the Vuelta al País Vasco ­ was a tough question to answer for the Spaniard. "I don't know. But last Sunday there was not even anybody there from the Spanish media. I guess it's not important to them." Apparently, the Spanish media didn't think Flecha could do well in Belgium.

Things are a little different for this Sunday. He expected more attention. "Spanish media will follow me a couple of days before the race. And some newspaper asked me about Roubaix last week," he said, noting there are some expectations in his home country and that his performance last Sunday will only increase expectations further.

He wasn't frustrated about the oversight in Flanders and joked, "I have said that maybe some day I will win Flanders and then nobody [from the Spanish media] will be there to report about it." Relaxed, he added that "it's not my problem. There are a lot of people in Spain who appreciate what I am doing." He acknowledged the fans who "come out every year. And as long as they are happy about what I am doing, it's OK."

The calm Rabobank rider reflected on how he tried to get the Spanish more interested in the one-day classics. "It was my second year as a professional [ten years ago]. I was riding for Banesto and at the team presentation they asked me about my goals. I said I want to win the Tour of Flanders. Everybody was laughing." Flecha said, "I know that a lot of people in Spain like those races." but he noted that many Spanish consider a win in the Grand Tour to be the ultimate achievement so some riders have been reluctant to admit such goals.

It's different now. "Guys like Barredo, Reynes... A lot of Spanish riders like that race. Now they can say it!" Flecha is happy that he was one of the first Spanish riders to say he liked the race. His openness at that team presentation may have changed the outlook on the classics in Spain, even though there is still no live coverage of the Ronde. Now, with a bit of luck, he will also try to put himself into the winner's list for Paris-Roubaix.

McEwen without team-mates in Gent-Wevelgem finale

By Brecht Decaluwé in Wevelgem

Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen rode a strong race and featured in the first group that made it over the Kemmelberg – a moment which is often a key in the Belgian semi-Classic. "On the Kemmelberg I went full gas and afterwards I noticed that I didn't have any team-mates around," McEwen explained to Cyclingnews after the in Gent-Wevelgem.

When asked whether a team-mate could have helped him into a better final position, McEwen agreed. "Of course it would be of some help. It doesn't matter who would've done it, as long as there would be someone. I tried to find my own way in the sprint, but I received a couple of nudges during the build-up. I was in a good position, but I ended up riding in the wind during the final kilometre," McEwen said. "I sat on [Thor] Hushovd's wheel, but he came to a standstill. I tried to get through on the right, but they came from behind and went full gas on the left. I got boxed in and I didn't get out of it."

The 35 year-old Australian is still without a win in the 2008 season after illness and some crashes bothered his build-up to the season (Read recent feature on McEwen). "I haven't been able to think about winning up until now. I hoped for today though, but it didn't happen. Actually I'm ok with the current situation. It's the press that makes a big deal out of it."

Two weeks ago McEwen pointed out that he is keen on winning one of the semi-Classics this season; namely Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs. The first two events were claimed by Sylvain Chavanel and Oscar Freire, so next week's Scheldeprijs is the last chance for McEwen to add a semi-Classic to his already rich palmarès during the Spring Classics season.

Two fast team-mates Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Van Avermaet, were expected to feature alongside McEwen in Gent-Wevelgem, but both young riders were dropped on the Kemmelberg with 37 kilometres to go. "I sat too far back when cornering into the Kemmelberg," Van Avermaet admitted. While the 22 year-old Silence-Lotto rider showed glimpses of his talent during the E3 Prijs Harelbeke where he finished as runner-up behind Arvesen, the Belgian let his team down today. "After being dropped I crashed awkwardly on a roundabout; I tried to get back in front too quickly," Van Avermaet said to Cyclingnews.

Team-mate Jurgen Roelandts gave a similar story. He had clearly learned a lesson today. "I sat too far back on the Kemmelberg. I have to realize that this is a novice mistake; I'm going to keep quiet now."

Traffic clogs Gent-Wevelgem

Repeat issue noted by ProTour organizers

By Brecht Decaluwé in Wevelgem

The race heads down the Kemmelberg.
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

During the 70th Gent-Wevelgem, traffic issues brought back memories of the controversial victory of local hero Nico Mattan. In the 2005 edition of the race, the Belgian seemed to get a draft as he flew past Juan Antonio Flecha during the last kilometres. This year, a large amount of traffic formed a sort of windshield against the headwind for the breakaway riders, and organizer Hans De Clercq couldn't do much about it right away.

Probably the race wouldn't have developed any differently, but it doesn't put the race organization in the best light going into new negotiations with the ProTour. The last four editions of Gent-Wevelgem have been on the Pro Tour calendar, and the Belgian race is keen on extending the deal.

Cyclingnews talked with a motorbike rider who witnessed the mess during the finale. Koen Haedens drives a photographer motorbike, and he explained that the photographers weren't to blame. "There was one moment where all traffic was coming together. There was a breakaway that only had a small gap on the first chasing group. In between, there was a car and five motorbikes. Three of them were from the VRT (Belgian Public TV and radio) with one for the camera, one for the commentary and one for the radio. Then there was also the 'regulateur' and the race 'commissaire' from the UCI. And ok, there was one photographer as well, but for once we are not to blame, it's the organization and the police that should be looked at.

"I don't even know what the police were doing there. They should be 300 metres further up the road, but they probably wanted to see a bit of the race," Haedens pondered their presence and said the congestion was a local issue.

He cited other races without the same problem. "I mean, in Harelbeke [E3 Prijs] there's a baker who's sponsoring and today it's the local butcher who's important, and they all want to have the best spot in the race. Although the organizers are trying hard, I'm sure this wouldn't happen in Paris-Roubaix, or the Tour de France. In those races the same people return at each event, and they know exactly who's allowed to pass and who's not. They know where everybody should be," said Haedens who was referring to professional organizers, Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO).

The UCI's Pro Tour manager Alain Rumpf saw the problems, but said he felt that that the race would not have ended any differently. "I talked with the commissaires and they told me there were too many motorbikes. We have to look into this and make sure we can solve these problems if the race is still in the ProTour next year," Rumpf said to Cyclingnews.

Gent-Wevelgem is in the last year of its ProTour contract, and Rumpf explained that many teams are keen on their spot. "A lot of races are interested to join the ProTour and clearly Gent-Wevelgem is doing whatever they can to stay on the calendar. I feel that they have improved a lot since joining the ProTour," said Rumpf, complimentary to the Belgian organizers.

Rumpf was happy to see that the ProTour got rolling with three events in one week. "The rankings will start to have the strongest riders on top. Then again, the riders who performed well in Gent-Wevelgem are the guys who were strong Down Under. For sure, the organizers aren't always happy with an unknown rider on their winner's list, but a couple of years later they think differently. For example the Niedersachsen Rundfahrt had an unknown winner with a certain Alessandro Petacchi, but the young Italian proved to be one of the biggest stars they ever had on the winner's list," Rumpf recalled with a smile.

See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the 70th Gent-Wevelgem.

Burghardt: Rehab before racing

By Sarah Staber

Marcus Burghardt (Team High Road)
Photo ©: Team High Road
(Click for larger image)

Team High Road's Marcus Burghardt made a name for himself early in the 2007 season when he rode to victory at Gent-Wevelgem. But fans of the 25-year-old might be wondering why he's not defending his title in Belgium this week; he unfortunately watched the race on television after having surgery on his knee. Just a week ago, there was no talk of a hospital visit.

Burghardt was earnestly training at the end of March, in the company of this girlfriend Maria, on the same island where he had an accident in early December in Mallorca. The Team High Road rider has been desperately trying to rehabilitate his knee which was injured in that crash, but the pain has kept him from joining his colleagues in many of this years early races.

The injury came about when Burghardt had come to Mallorca for some winter training. He was practicing sprints when the chain slipped over the ring and his right knee hit the handlebar with full force. After physical therapy and some training, the 25-year-old began his season by completing the Tour Down Under but had to give up on the first stage in the Tour of Algarve due to excruciating knee pain. The pain continued at the team's February camp in California, and on Tuesday, Burghardt announced he would go under the knife to help correct the injury on the day of Gent-Wevelgem.

Writing on his personal website,, he explained that the attempts at rehabilitation to this point had failed. "I am confident that after successful rehabilitation and with a lot of hard training, there will be a new start for this year," he said, continuing to assert that his goals for the season have not changed. "I have not given up on my goals, including a 2008 Pro Tour victory," he said, adding that only the timeline has shifted. "I have a good coach and a strong team on my side. Therefore, I go into my surgery with optimism," he wrote.

Read the complete feature.

Vande Velde scores Slipstream's first international win

By Jean-François Quénet in Angers

Christian Vande Velde
Photo ©: Jean-François Quénet
(Click for larger image)

Christian Vande Velde won the individual time trial stage 2b and just missed taking the overall lead of the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe - Pays de la Loire in France by one second on Wednesday. Vande Velde's win was important – the first for his new team Slipstream team after Julian Dean's individual national title in New Zealand in January.

Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) moved into the overall lead after he completed the race just 20 seconds behind the American. Going into the stage, the Frenchman had had an advantage of 21 seconds after finishing second in stage one following a long breakaway with Anthony Ravard.

"The yellow jersey has not been played on much at all," Voeckler said. "When I learned the time of [Benoît] Vaugrenard who had the best one at one point, I thought I could maybe get the lead, but I worried as I heard what Vande Velde had done. I kind of believed it was impossible for me to stay within 20 seconds of him. I did a good time trial though."

Although they could celebrate the stage win, Slipstream riders couldn't help but thinking they may have lost the overall victory in the Circuit de la Sarthe due to a crash with 20 kilometres to go into stage one. That's when Julian Dean had just given the go to his team-mates to chase Voeckler and Ravard. The team's designated sprinter, Chris Sutton, went down, so the riders stopped their effort.

Thomas Voeckler gained the yellow
Photo ©: Jean-François Quénet
(Click for larger image)

"I crashed as well," Vande Velde remembered. "For sure I would have lost less time on Voeckler if that crash didn't take place. Now it's hard to say what's gonna happen in the next two days. With six men per team, it's a very hard race to control. More than tomorrow's stage, I think the last one will be interesting with the steep climb six times on the final circuit."

After coming third in the time trial of the Tour of California and sixth in the same event at the Vuelta Castilla and Leon, the 32 year-old Vande Velde scored what was only his third win in eleven professional seasons after the Redlands Classic in 1999 and the Tour of Luxembourg in 2006. His win came at the same race where in 1999, as a young team-mate of Lance Armstrong, he finished fourth and helped Armstrong to the overall win.

See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the Cycliste Sarthe - Pays de la Loire.

Teutenberg and Arndt to lead High Road at Ronde Van Drenthe

Judith Arndt (Team High Road) winning in Flanders
Photo ©: CJ Farquharson
(Click for larger image)

With their morale on a high after Judith Arndt's victory in the Tour of Flanders, High Road's women's team will tackle the Ronde Van Drenthe, the fourth round of the World Cup on Saturday.

The high point of a three-race series in and around Drenthe, the 136.6km event features a triple ascent of the notorious Vamberg climb. 750 metres long and with sections at a 20 percent gradient, the race features a number of cobbled sections. Narrow, twisting and frequently exposed roads, not to mention potentially bad weather, make the race a tough event, normally fraught with tension.

"The cobbles and tough terrain make Drenthe very similar in some ways to [men's one-day Classic] Paris-Roubaix," said High Road's sports director Petra Rossner. "You need both strength and skill to handle the cobbles well."

To multiply their options in a race which is usually wide-open, High Road will be racing with sprinter Ina-Yoko Teutenberg as well as Flanders' winner Arndt.

"She's our fastest rider in a bunch sprint, and that's always a plus to have that option." Rossner pointed out. Teutenberg finished fourth last year in the Dutch race and was the best finisher for her team. "But we've got a very strong, well-rounded line-up for the cobbles in any case. Any of our riders could perfectly well have won Flanders, in the end it came down to Judith but they're all in great condition."

"We're going to be flexible about what we can do, rather than just gamble on one particular outcome. Tactically Drenthe is not simple, the cobbles make it much harder, much more unpredictable, and you have to be able to change strategy very quickly. Drenthe not going to be easy to win, but we have a line-up which is definitely capable of doing so."

Team High Road for Ronde van Drenthe: Judith Arndt, Kate Bates, Chantal Beltman, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, Linda Villumsen, Oenone Wood.

Tour de France modifies route

The risk of rock falls on the climb up the Col de Larche has forced organizers to move the start of stage 15 of the Tour de France from Digne-les-Bains to Embrun. The decision was made to move the beginning of the July 20 stage after conferring with local authorities and the state department about how to ensure riders and spectators will be safe. About four kilometres of the original course were affected by the danger.

The revised stage 15 will run 30km less than originally planned. After starting in Embrun, it will head to Prato Nevoso. The riders will climb the Col d'Agnel (2744m) instead of the Col de Larche.

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