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By John Wilcockson
Outrageous. That’s the only way to describe the “new” Mario Cipollini. Dressed in his zebra-stripe tights, he engaged the media in a light-hearted post-race press conference Wednesday evening, discussing his, yes, outrageous, victory in the 64th edition of Ghent-Wevelgem. He has won this Belgian classic twice before, in 1992 and ’93, beating out first Johan Capiot and then Eric Vanderaerden, both in massive field sprints.
Wednesday was different.
Yes, he used his signature sprint to win, but he won from a five-man break, with his runners-up being the other two men with the best form in this hectic period of spring classics: Fred Rodriguez and George Hincapie. Yes, the two Americans outclassed the Belgians in their own backyard. But they both had to cede to the outrageous Cipollini.
The remarkable fact of the 208km race, conducted at a blistering 44.7 kph on an afternoon of cold north winds, is that the winning break came together up and over the last climb of the day: the nasty, steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg.
First, a 21-strong lead group escaped halfway through the race, when violent crosswinds battered the 193-strong pack into six echelons. Next, 37km from the finish, and 2km before the Kemmelberg, Rodriguez of Domo-Farm Frites (who had three teammates with him in the break) attacked with Belgian Hendrik Van Dijk of Palmans-Collstrop and Frenchman Jean-Patrick Nazon of La Française des Jeux. They had 18 seconds on the group as they started the climb.
While Nazon was quickly dropped, U.S. Postal’s Hincapie attacked from the chasers — “I wanted to show the critics that you don’t finish fourth at the Tour of Flanders by sitting on wheels.” He showed them. Big George rode Johan Museeuw and Cipollini off his wheel, and only the remarkable Slovenian Martin Hvastija of Alessio managed to catch the American’s wheel. The two of them bridged up to Rodriguez and Van Dijk.
It looked like the winning break had formed. But Cipollini wasn’t beaten. He took advantage of his strong ride up the hill to launch a solo (!) counterattack on the downhill — this is the one where Andrei Tchmil and six others crashed and went the hospital last week. Well, SuperMario kept chasing on the subsequent flat roads heading across the Flanders plain to Wevelgem. And caught the break!
“I’m not a champion,” Cipollini said in the press conference, “”but I did something that a champion does today.” He sure did.
What was even more shocking, when you consider that he is in his 14th season as a professional, is the next thing Cipollini said: “I’ve never been a break like that before, with all the cars and motos around me. It was a new experience for me. and I liked it!”
At 35, Cipollini is enjoying the best form of his career. In February, he won a stage of the Mediterranean Tour in miserably cold, wet conditions. In March, he toughed his way through a mountainous edition of Tirreno-Adriatico and duly won the final flat stage in a massive field sprint. Three days later, he won his first-ever World Cup classic, Milan-San Remo, taking a 50-man sprint on the Via Roma, just ahead of the other major revelation of these early-season classics, Rodriguez.
Now, in April, he defended his World Cup leadership with an astounding ninth place in the hilly, cobblestone Tour of Flanders. And he follows it up with his winning a third Ghent-Wevelgem. Coming into the finish Wednesday, Hincapie tried an attack with 5km to go — “[but] the wind was so strong, it was hard to do anything,” he said. With 3km left, Van Dijk made his attempt, again to no avail. So it came down to the sprint.
Coming in to the final 500 meters, Cipollini was in third place, Rodriguez fourth and Hincapie at the back. When Van Dijk tried a long one from the front, Hincapie shot after him. “I saw George jump,” said Rodriguez, “and so I started my sprint, but I was in the wind. Then Cipollini came across and put me in the barriers, so I had to try to come around him on the other side.”
But the U.S. champion ran out of real estate, just as he did at San Remo — in a very different sprint — two and a half weeks ago. Mario won, Fred was second, George was third.
1. Mario Cipollini (I) Acqua e Sapone 207km in 4:42:14,(44.26 kph);
2. Fred Rodriguez (USA) Domo-Farm Frites;
3. George Hincapie (USA) U.S. Postal Service;
4. Hendrik Van Dijck (B) Collstrop-Palmans;
5. Martin Hvastija (Slo) Alessio;
6. Robert Hunter (SA) Mapei-Quick Step, at 1:29;
7. Tom Boonen (B) U.S. Postal Service;
8. Erik Zabel (G) Telekom;
9. Tristan Hoffman (Nl) CSC-Tiscali;
10. Johan Museeuw (B) Domo-Farm Frites;
11. Servais Knaven (Nl) Domo-Farm Frites;
12. Aart Vierhouten (Nl) Lotto-Adecco;
13. Hans De Clercq (B) Lotto-Adecco;
14. Franck Pencole (F) Francaise des Jeux;
15. Paul Van Hyfte (B) CSC-Tiscali.
16. Andreas Klier (G), Deutsche Telekom, at 1:43;
17. Marco Serpellini (I), Lampre-Daikin, at 2:18;
18. Matthias Buxhofer (A), Phonak, at 2:21;
19. Remco Van der Ven (Nl), Bankgiroloterij-Batavus, at 4:19;
20. Danilo Hondo (G), Deutsche Telekom, s.t.
193 starters, 83 finishers.