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By VeloNews Interactive, Copyright AFP2004
Cycling’s most successful active one-day rider – Johan Museeuw, the “Lion of Flanders” — will continue winding down his lengthy career on the second race of the 10-leg World Cup here on Sunday.
Museeuw, who is gunning for a record fourth victory in the 88th Tour of Flanders before he retires after the GP de l’Escaut on April 14, admits that as he approaches hanging up his bike for good, what should be his final roar on the “Ronde” could turn out to be more of a whimper.
The 38-year-old Belgian conceded this week that his failing legs “on the harder climbs” mean he could end up playing a support role for Quick Step teammates Paolo Bettini or young countryman Tom Boonen.
“I have doubts about myself,” said Museeuw at the Three Days of La Panne race in midweek. “I’m not as explosive as I was. Even forcing on the climbs is harder. I could end up playing a support role in the finale for Boonen and Bettini.”
Whether he’s bluffing or not, it’s not the kind of pre-race talk the Lion’s legions of fans like to hear. Nevertheless, the reality is that Museeuw will have to raise his game if he is to ward off the likes of the 2003 champion, fellow Belgian Peter Van Petegem (Lotto).
“Van Petegem can deal with the pressure of the race. You don’t see him in the race, and then he attacks from out of nowhere,” said Museeuw, the winner here in 1993, 1995 and 1998. “He has been strong in recent races and is certainly one of the favorites.” Add American George Hincapie (U.S. Postal) and a host of top Dutch and Belgian contenders to the chase and the Lion’s chances of moving in for the kill seem diminished.
Coming a week before Paris-Roubaix – the world’s most famous race after the Tour de France – the Tour of Flanders is for many riders, including Hincapie, just as important a race as the “Hell of the North.”
“In the United States no one knows the Tour of Flanders, it’s Paris-Roubaix that everyone talks about,” said Hincapie, who got his first taste of classics success after winning Ghent-Wevelgem in 2001.
A year later, the New Yorker’s fourth-place finish in the Ronde confirmed his ability to compete ably in the tough one-day races, and since then he’s been on a mission.
“I really love these kind of races,” added Hincapie. “I feel right at home here.”
Despite his lack of a World Cup win, Hincapie’s victory on Thursday in the Three Days of La Panne was perhaps a sign of things to come. However, the American says he is keeping all thoughts of victory safely stashed away.
“Sunday will be a different race altogether, and there will be men like Museeuw or Van Petegem who have a lot more experience than me in that kind of race,” said Hincapie, who often trains on the tight and winding cobbled roads in the area. “I’ve never won a World Cup event, so how can I compare myself to them?”
Other contenders for Sunday’s race include Dutchmen Erik Dekker (Rabobank) and his Spanish teammate, Oscar Freire, who pipped Germany’s Erik Zabel to victory on the opening Milan-San Remo two weeks ago and could become the first Spanish winner since 1912. And Belgian Franck Vandenbroucke (Fassa Bortolo) is hoping to go one better than his two second-place finishes, one of which was last year.
“It’s my dream race,” said VDB, who is aiming for nothing less than victory.
But whatever the outcome after the tough 257km ride from Bruges to Meerbeke – which includes a total of 18 climbs of varying difficulties after 130km of riding – Museeuw is certain to steal the limelight. Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevere hopes the Lion has one more roar in him.
“He’s been keeping whatever emotions he has deep inside himself,” Lefevere said in midweek. “But I hope they will come to the fore, for a major feat on Sunday.”
O’Grady won’t let busted rib keep him out of Flanders
Australian sprinter Stuart O’Grady is hoping the effects of a recently broken rib will not prove too much of a pain when he saddles up with victory in mind at the Tour of Flanders.
The second leg of the World Cup is held over long stretches of cobblestones, and the 30-year-old from Adelaide knows he could be in for a rough time as he aims to do better than last year’s encouraging third-place finish.
“I had a good test ride today for three hours behind the motorbike, and I felt okay, but we’ll see how it goes on the pavé,” O’Grady told AFP Friday from his base in Toulouse. “It could be a different story altogether.”
The Tour of Flanders, otherwise known as the “Ronde,” is one of the World Cup’s 10 races that O’Grady has yet to add to his respectable honors list. But having switched teams at the end of last season, leaving Credit Agricole for the currently embattled Cofidis outfit, he feels his World Cup chances can only improve.
Despite claiming Tour de France stage wins and wearing the yellow jersey for six days in 2001, the addition of a World Cup victory would do wonders for O’Grady’s status within the peloton.
“I think my chances with Cofidis are probably better than when I was with Agricole,” added O’Grady, whose season got off to a flier when he came third behind winner Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel in Milan-San Remo.
“I’ve been really happy with the team change. It’s a bigger team, better riders, and I think if we work together enough then my chances will only improve.”
If not for his injury last week, O’Grady would have approached the 257km of tough riding from Bruges to Meerbeke in Belgium, including 18 climbs of varying lengths, with a bit more confidence. As it is, he is among a solid bunch of weathered contenders who are aiming to topple Freire from the top spot in the World Cup standings.
Reigning Ronde champion Peter Van Petegem (Lotto) is being tipped by almost everybody to win again, and O’Grady agrees that Van Petegem – who did the Tour of Flanders-Paris-Roubaix double last year – will be the one to watch.
Still, even after trying to deal with the reality of his Cofidis team being embroiled in an unwelcome doping affair, O’Grady is hoping his teammates can rise above adversity and concentrate on keeping up with the bunch.
“Like everyone else I’m pretty surprised and shocked at what’s been happening with the team (investigation),” said O’Grady. “It’s been shattering news. But I don’t feel at all concerned with it – all I can do is concentrate on doing my job.
“We’ve got (world champion) Igor Astarloa, and (Australian) Matt White coming along on Sunday so we’ve got some solid riders there. After that it just becomes a numbers game – and you have to just make sure you keep up with the attacks and not get too isolated.”
Cipo’ bails on Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem
Domina Vacanze’s Mario Cipollini has pulled out of Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, his team announced on Friday.
Cipollini, who has won a record 42 stages in the Giro d’Italia and 12 in the Tour de France, has also pulled out of Wednesday’s Gent-Wevelgem classic, a race he has won three times.
Domina Vacanze officials did not reveal the reason for the 37-year-old Cipollini’s withdrawal.
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