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Boonen favorite for grueling 258km Classic
By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor
It didn’t take nearly as long as some expected for Belgium’s rabid cycling fans to find a new hero to cheer in the wake of Johan Museeuw’s exit from the sport. Here in northern Belgium, known until recently as Lion of Flanders country, one need only witness the support banners and newsstand racks to see the new face of Belgian cycling. Gracing the cover of L’Equipe magazine, which comes with the Saturday edition of the French sports daily, is Tom Boonen, a cycling star with enough wattage to make people forget about the doping controversies that have surrounded Museeuw’s retirement.
On the eve of the 90th Tour of Flanders — the fourth race of the 2006 UCI ProTour, and the first of two consecutive monumental classics in this region of Europe — pictures of Boonen are plastered everywhere. He may be most familiar in his blue-and-white Quick Step-Innergetic kit, but L’Equipe chose to display cycling’s crown prince sans helmet and glasses, wearing instead just jeans, a striped shirt and that trademark smile.
It’s no secret that Boonen is the favorite for Sunday’s grueling 258km race from the walled city of Bruges to Meerbeke, a small town in the outer Brussels suburb of Ninove. Even Boonen acknowledges that it’s his race to lose, but the fact is his current hot streak could make a repeat win more difficult in one of cycling’s most chaotic events. At Flanders, there are more things to worry about than how the legs feel.
Challenging Boonen are a handful of on-form favorites, including some hungry young Belgians waiting to pounce should anything go haywire for the defending champion on Sunday. If the current weather pattern holds, that’s a real possibility. Thousands of amateur cyclists tested themselves on the jagged Flanders course, known to Belgians as “La Ronde,” on Saturday, and periodic rainstorms made for slow going. More rainfall will leave the cobblestones treacherous, and it will also turn the single-track dirt trails that skirt the sides of the narrow roads — offering occasional relief from the jackhammering surface — into muck.
If anyone knows how to handle Belgium’s adverse conditions, it’s 2003 winner Peter Van Petegem (Davitamon-Lotto), who that year achieved the same Flanders/Paris-Roubaix double that rocketed Boonen to stardom in 2005. Van Petegem hasn’t shown the same spark that led him to that historic achievement in recent races, but he has one key advantage: an experienced team. Anything can happen on the 17 ranked climbs, including the infamous Koppenberg and Mur de Grammont monsters, so to have men like Nico Mattan and Leon Van Bon at his side will be a plus for the veteran Van Petegem.
It also means Davitamon has more options. Joining the attack for Van Petegem’s team is American Fred Rodriguez, who fell ill after February’s Tour of California and had to miss Milan-San Remo.
Another team with multiple weapons is Discovery Channel, which showed its strength at the Three Days of De Panne earlier this week. Belgian Leif Hoste won that Belgian stage race, and then created a stir by saying Discovery is stronger than Quick Step. With a second-place finish at the 2004 Flanders race, Hoste has shown he has the tactical savvy to be there at the end of this uniquely punishing race, which is good news for American team leader George Hincapie. Add the on-form Stijn Devolder, who won at De Panne last year, and Hoste could be right about Discovery’s strength.
But if tactics, mechanicals, or crashes do indeed stifle Boonen, Quick Step has plenty of other options, too. They start with Italians Paolo Bettini and Filippo Pozzato — winner of the March 18 Milan-San Remo — and continue with the fast-improving Belgian Nick Nuyens.
Joining the men in Sunday’s adventures will be pro women, who will tackle a similar course that includes a dozen ranked climbs over 111km from Oudenaarde to Ninove. The women’s Tour of Flanders is the third race of the women’s World Cup series, and all will be hoping for a better finish than last year’s race here, which ended in confusion after a late-race chase group was misdirected in then final kilometers. Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel was awarded the victory, but the course snafu spoiled a unique race that many women consider one of the toughest in the world.
Tune into VeloNews.com on Sunday for a full report and photos from the Tour of Flanders.