By Andrew Hood
Tom Boonen dares to dream of making it three in a row as he lines up as a five-star favorite for Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen. The Quick Step-Innergetic captain talked to the Belgian media Thursday about his chances.
“Over these last few days I’ve realized that I really could do something unique – winning the Flanders for the third time in a row, but I’ll also need a bit of luck on my side to do this. It won’t be an easy feat,” Boonen said. “I’m approaching the Ronde in good condition. I’ve done everything possible to be at the Ronde in excellent form.”
Boonen has snagged his fair share of victories this year, including some recent morale-boosting wins on home roads. The 2005 world champion says this year more than ever, tactics and teamwork will be decisive.
“I don’t like predicting results but I will say that this year team strategy will be fundamental. There are a lot of good teams taking part and it will be important to have teammates close-by in the final. I’m sure Peter Van Petegem and Paolo Bettini will be alongside me,” he continued. “The changes to the [course] this year could change the race during the final as well as the weather conditions. The weather forecast is sun and hardly any wind – it is hard to say whether this is a positive or a negative thing. More often with the weather that has been forecast the race becomes very quick and difficult to interpret and control.”
Bettini, Van Petegem behind Boonen
Quick Step has the enviable position of lining up with three outright candidates for victory. Besides Boonen, reigning world champion Paolo Bettini and two-time Flanders champ Peter Van Petegem cannot be counted out.
Bettini admitted a string of crashes and health problems could derail his dreams of winning Flanders while in the rainbow jersey. “I trained for four hours [Thursday] along with Leonardo Scarselli in Italy. I’m on reasonable form even though all of the problems I have had recently certainly don’t help in my being at the top,” he told Belgian journalists. “This is not the approach to the race that I dreamed during the winter but I’ll be giving my all as usual. If during the race, I realize that I’m not up to win, I’ll do everything to help Tom and the rest of the team just as I did at San Remo.”
Van Petegem promises he’ll be working for the interests of the team. The veteran classics specialist swapped his leadership role at Davitamon-Lotto for the role of joker at Quick Step. Earlier this year, Boonen said Van Petegem shouldn’t be discounted as a wildcard for victory.
Van Petegem, however, downplayed his ambitions for the good of the team.
“Our leader is Tom Boonen, then we have Paolo Bettini,” he said. “On Saturday evening during a team meeting, I’ll find out what my role and what the team will be expecting of me. The problem with my knee? A slight inflammation, nothing more.”
Quick Step-Innergetic for Tour of FlandersPaolo BettiniTom BoonenSteven De JonghKevin HulsmansSebastien RosselerGert SteegmansKevin Van ImpePeter Van Petegem
Hincapie-less Discovery optimistic
For the first time in eight years, Discovery Channel [formerly U.S. Postal Service] will line up without pre-race favorite George Hincapie in the lineup. The eternal classics candidate fractured his wrist at the Tour of California and will be unfortunately sidelined for his preferred races.
While Hincapie is eyeing a comeback at the Tour de Georgia later this month, Discovery Channel rolls on with a young, but motivated team.
Russian powerhouse Vladimir Gusev – DQ’d last year of his excellent ride at Paris-Roubaix after the controversial railroad crossing ruling – will be stepping into the void. Others looking to rise to the occasion will be Stijn Devolder, fresh off a TT victory in the Three Days of De Panne, and Tomas Vaitkus.
Discovery sport director Dirk Demol expressed optimism ahead of the northern classics following the team’s solid performance at De Panne.
“Although we have won the Three Days of De Panne race the past three years, we did not make it a priority in 2007. Our goals were for the guys to race hard, stay out of trouble and try to win a stage or place high in the overall,” Demol said in a team release. “We accomplished everything we wanted this week and I am happy as I look to Sunday. Stijn winning the Time Trial today was very impressive, and Gusev and Vaitkus are also looking very strong. It gives us some nice options, so now we just wait and see.”
Tony Cruz, back in Europe after racing last season domestically, will be one of only two North Americans starting Flanders on Sunday. Also lining up will be Allan Davis, fresh off his second place at Milan-San Remo.
Discovery Channel for Tour of FlandersStijn DevolderAllan DavisMatthew WhiteVladimir GusevSteven CummingsTony CruzVologymyr BilekaTomas Vaitkus
Sánchez doesn’t want favorite status
While the northern classics will be taking center-stage this week, the Tour of the Basque Country revs up in northern Spain in one of the most difficult stage races of the year.
A grueling six-day route, featuring no less than 36 rated climbs and two summit finishes, should provide for an exciting week of competition in one of Europe’s cycling hotbeds.
The race is of particular importance for Euskaltel-Euskadi, which considers the ProTour event its hometown race. The team is sponsored by the regional telephone company as well as by contributions from fans.
Euskaltel-Euskadi captain Samuel Sánchez, second overall in last year’s ProTour standings, says he shouldn’t be the only rider considered a favorite.
“There are riders who are in very good form right now. I raced against Contador at Paris-Nice, he won and repeated it at Castilla y León, so he’s arriving in great condition,” Sánchez told El Diario Vasco. “And Valverde, with the talent he has, should never be counted out.”
Sánchez said he’s been training hard, but admitted it’s time to “prove it on the road.”
The team has left nothing to chance and inspected key stages earlier this week to prepare for what’s considered Spain’s most important stage race behind the Vuelta a España.
Several other big-name riders are expected to show up for the challenging route, ideal preparation ahead of the Ardennes classics. Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), Denis Menchov and Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), defending champion Jose Angel Gomez Marchante and Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital), Michael Rogers (T-Mobile), Frank Schleck, Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt (CSC) and Igor Astarloa (Milram) are among the other marquee riders expected to start.
Route for Tour of the Basque Country, April 9-14Stage 1, April 9: Urretxu-Urretxu, 139kmStage 2, April 10: Urretxu to Karrantza, 191.5kmStage 3, April 11: Karrantza to Vitoria-Gasteiz, 173kmStage 4, April 12: Vitoria-Gasteiz to Lekunberri, 176kmStage 5, April 13: Lekunberri to Oiartzun, 169kmStage 6, April 14: Oiartzun-Oiartzun, 14km (ITT)
Total = 863km
Plaza expected to sign with Caisse d’Epargne
Rubén Plaza, who raced last year with the now-defunct Comunitat Valenciana, is poised to sign a deal with Caisse d’Epargne, according to reports in the Spanish media.
Plaza hasn’t raced since last August after his name was linked to the Operación Puerto doping investigation, but like many on the former Spanish continental team, he was never fully implicated in the alleged blood doping ring. No sanctions were ever issued by the Spanish cycling federation to any of the nearly 60 riders allegedly linked to the doping ring.