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96th Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen - 1.HC

Belgium, April 16, 2008

A High Road to Schoten?

By Bjorn Haake in Gent

Mark Cavendish sprinted to victory last year and is eager to repeat it for Team High Road
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
(Click for larger image)

British rider Mark Cavendish has shown in the recent past that he is comfortable on the Belgian roads, having won two stages in the KBC-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. So the High Road rider will be eager to defend his title at the Scheldeprijs, which he earned by beating Robbie McEwen of Silence-Lotto in a bunch sprint last year.

Chances of a sprint involving most riders of the peloton are good in Schoten, where the race traditionally finishes. After a loop of more than 150 kilometres, the peloton faces three local laps of 16 kilometres, not involving any climbing at all. The likelihood of a sprint finish is emphasised by High Road's line-up. In addition to Mark Cavendish, fast men like Bernhard Eisel, Gerald Ciolek and Edvald Boasson Hagen will try to help secure another win for the American team.

It was Erik Zabel who won the race back in 1997, riding for High Road's predecessor team, Telekom. The German will take to the start once again, albeit with the German Milram team. He will have support from Aussie Brett Lancaster, who can keep the pace high in the closing kilometres of a race.

But both Cavendish and Zabel will have to watch out for versatile Tom Boonen, who comes from having a good Ronde van Vlaanderen and an even better Paris-Roubaix, which he won in a three-up sprint against Fabian Cancellara (CSC) and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre). Boonen's team looks already very familiar for these kinds of races, with Cretskens, De Jongh, Hulsmans, Rosseler, Steegmans, Tosatto and Weylandt. The latter has good chances himself, having won Nokere Koerse recently. Gert Steegmans is usually pretty fast, too, but missed Paris-Roubaix due to his ongoing problems following a crash in Dwars van Vlaanderen.

Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) is showing good form this year
Photo ©: Nicolas Götz
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Last year's runner-up, Robbie McEwen, is still looking for a win this season and this may be the best opportunity for him prior to the Giro d'Italia. He told Cyclingnews in De Panne that "I am feeling strong," but described his frustration with getting boxed in in the last few bunch sprints he participated in. The Aussie made the Scheldeprijs one of his priority races for April. He can bank on Greg van Avermaet, who is a good sprinter in his own right.

While Rabobank doesn't have its undisputed captain, Oscar Freire, in the line-up, Australian Graeme Brown can be the man for the Dutch squad to take the win on the flat roads around Antwerp. One rider in the Rabobank team will have his final race on Wednesday. Jan Boven is calling it quits after 12 years as a professional ­ all spent with Rabobank. He will continue as a directeur sportif with the team.

Erik Zabel (Milram) would like to add another Scheldeprijs, more than a decade after his last success
Photo ©: AFP
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Barloworld will bank on Baden Cooke, who can sprint with the best, but does not have Robbie Hunter with him this time.

Other teams with sprinters that have outsider chances include Elk Haus Simplon (Steffen Radochla, Jochen Summer), Volksbank (Olaf Pollack, André; Korff), Topsport Vlaanderen (Niko Eeckhout) and Mitsubishi-Jartazi (Stefan Van Dijck). And of course some riders will try to create a surprise by breaking away. But riders like Gerrit Glomser (Volksbank), Andy Capelle and Bert de Waele (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner), Geert Omloop (Mitsubishi-Jartazi), Matthé Pronk (Cycle Collstrop) or Serhiy Honchar (Preti Mangimi) will find it very difficult to stay away on the flat course. The big hope they will have is that the top riders may lack a bit of motivation after a tough Paris-Roubaix and with the prospect of the Amstel Gold race coming up.

After the neutral roll-out from Antwerp the peloton will go through the start finish area in Schoten and start a big, clockwise 150-kilometre loop. They will ride straight north, turning back south before actually entering the neighbouring Netherlands. Nonetheless, the bunch will follow the Dutch border for several kilometres and in Minderhout virtually touch another country.

After that the loop continues southward, passing the city of Lille, which has nothing in common with the French town where former pro Cédric Vasseur resides. When they hit the easternmost point of Lichaart, they will turn back west towards Antwerp. Once back in Schoten they will tackle the first of three local laps of 16 kilometres each. That is when the sprinters' teams are expected to reel in any breakaway attempts to set up for an exciting showdown on the Paalstraat.

Live coverage

Cyclingnews will be covering the 96th Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen live on Wednesday starting at 14:30 local European time (CEST)/ 8:30 (USA East)/ 23:30 Australia (EST) - also on WAP-enabled mobile devices at http://live.cyclingnews.com/wap/