By Ryan Newill, VeloNews Correspondent
Italian national champion and multi-classic winner Michele Bartoli sent a strong message today with a convincing win over a world class field in the Belgian season opener Het Volk.
The 30 year-old Mapei-Quick step rider returned to form late last season following a difficult knee injury, and with today’s win showed that he may again be on the level that has already placed him among the sport’s legendary classics riders.
The 200 kilometer test between Gent and Lokeren, covering much of the same terrain as the classic Tour of Flanders, got off to a chilly start with temperatures barely creeping out of the negatives, and the wind chill dropping them well below.
Most riders, including local favorite Johan Museeuw, were content to remain in team busses until just before start time, a tactic which whipped the crowd outside the Domo-Farm Frites bus into a near frenzy before their champion emerged. But, despite a strong team including former winner Museeuw, US Champion Fred Rodriguez, World Champion Romans Vainsteins, and former Mapei classics mainstays Wilfried Peeters and Max Van Heeswijk, Domo failed to register in the final selection.
Also notably absent in the closing kilometers was the revamped for 2001 Mercury-Viatel formation, anchored by double Het Volk winner Peter Van Petegem, and supported by a roster of proven hardmen.
The final move formed shortly after the final climb of the day, the frighteningly steep, badly cobbled Molenberg climb that then turns the riders directly into open of wind-swept farm roads before the finale. Team representation seemed to correlate directly to nationality within the break: Belgian Lotto trio Fabian De Waele, Hendrik Van Dyck and Paul Van Hyfte, Mapei Italians Nardello and Bartoli, Bonjour Frenchmen Didier Rous and Fabrice Salanson, and Rabobank Dutchmen Maarten Den Bakker and Matte Pronk. With these and single representatives Peter Vries (NED, Bankgiroloterij) and CSC-World Online’s Arvis Piziks (LAT), the break steadily gained time with a training-ride smooth paceline in the Flanders wind.
Behind, Eric DeClerq (Collstrop) and Peter Farazijn (Cofidis) tried desperately to chase on, having missed the move originally.
Lotto began its finishing strategy with a powerful attack on the final cobbled section outside of Lokeren which shook Rous and Vries from the group and strung the rest out for several kilometers.
While it appeared that the home team’s one man advantage might allow them to chalk up another Belgian win, the attacks could not shake a determined Bartoli, who took over early in the sprint and held off the others for a victory which looks very much like the shape of things to come.
Notes:· Of the 56 editions of the Omloop Het Volk, this was only the seventh time the race was won by a non-Belgian. That puts the victory tally at:
Ireland: 1Germany: 1Italy: 2Netherlands: 3Belgium: 49
1 Michele Bartoli (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step
2 Hendrik Van Dyck (Bel) Lotto-Adecco
3 Matthe Pronk (Ned) Rabobank
4 Arvis Piziks (Lat) CSC-World Online
5 Fabian De Waele (Bel) Lotto-Adecco
6 Daniele Nardello (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step
7 Maarten Den Bakker (Ned) Rabobank
8 Didier Rous (Fra) Bonjour
9 Pieter Vries (Ned) Bankgiroloterij-Batavus