By John Wilcockson
A lot of question marks hang over the men who will be battling for supremacy in this year’s spring classics, which kicks off Saturday with the traditional Belgium season-opener, the Omloop Het Volk. The only sure things are that the weather will be cold — a max of 37 degrees F. is forecast — and the 200km race will be played out on its nine short climbs and 16 sections of cobblestones. It was raining Friday, ensuring that Saturday’s course, under partly cloudy skies, will be as treacherous as ever.
Double-comeback man Johan Museeuw will be defending his title, this time at the head of the new Domo-Farm Frites formation, which contains two other potential winners in world champion Roman Vainsteins of Latvia and U.S. champion Fred Rodriguez. The Domo men will be out to impress their new team sponsor in its backyard.
Others shooting for the podium are two-time Het Volk winner Peter Van Petegem, now with Mercury-Viatel, which is making its classics debut; last year’s runner-up, German Steffen Weseman of Telekom; Lotto-Adecco leader Andrei Tchmil; Festina’s German sprinter Sven Teutenberg; Mapei-Quick Step’s Michele Bartoli, who is determined to return to his classics-winning form after a knee-in-rehab season; local Marc Wauters of Rabobank; Dutch specialist Tristan Hoffman of CSC-World Online; Italian Fabio Baldato of Fassa Bortolo; Aussie Stuart O’Grady of Crédit Agricole; and British hope Roger Hammond of Collstrop-Palmans.
Besides Rodriguez, four other Americans start Het Volk: Floyd Landis and Mike Sayers of Mercury-Viatel, Seth Pelusi of Flanders-Prefetex and Jeff Lauder of Landbaukrediet-Colnago.
The race starts in Ghent, follows a looping course to the southwest, before heading northeast to the finish in Lokeren. The main climbs are the third (Old Kwaremont), fifth (Mur de Grammont), seventh (Eikenberg) and ninth (Molenberg) — which comes 57km from the finish. As last year, the final decision will probably come on the four sections of cobblestones in the last 18km.
Museuuw and the Domo riders should be the ones who have all the answers.