By Andrew Hood
The opening stage of the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen was called off Friday some 50km into the race due to heavy snow.
Heavy snow started piling down and created dangerous race conditions, leaving organizers with the undesirable choice of canceling the 159km opening stage after it already started. It was a second bit of ill fortune for the Belgian race, which coincides with the ProTour debut of Paris-Nice on Sunday and Tirreno-Adriatico later next week. As a consequence, just five ProTour teams – among them Navigators and Discovery Channel – were among the squads taking today’s start.
Record cold has gripped Europe for the better part of two weeks, creating headaches for race organizers throughout the continent. The Memorial Samyn Fayt-le-Franc was also canceled this week due to inclement weather.
Organizers will try to conduct the final two stages Saturday and Sunday. Saturday’s 185km stage hits a circuit course between Handzame-Coxyde-Handzame, while Sunday’s 182km finale hits Mont Kemmel with a start and finish in Ichtegem.
Cioni, Di Luca ready to roll
Liquigas-Bianchi stars Dario Cioni and Danilo Di Luca are back from their Mexican high-altitude adventure and are ready to put their well-trained legs to test. Each will make their respective season debuts, with Cioni set to for Paris-Nice while Di Luca will race Milan-Torino on Saturday ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico.
Di Luca, Cioni and other teammates spent 26 days riding at altitude topping 8,000 feet in the mountains near Toluca just west of Mexico City. Teammate Franco Pellizotti will join Cioni at Paris-Nice and he said he’s ready for a win.
“I am in the right condition. I collected enough placings, now I miss a victory,” Pellizotti said. “The Paris-Nice could represent my occasion to win, even if I expect a lot of well-trained opponents, starting from the CSC team. Let’s remember that this race will mark the start of the ProTour, so many riders will look forward to succeeding. I’m thinking about the stage finishing on Mont Faron, but I can’t deny I’m also interested in the final ranking.”
Joining Pellizotti and Cioni will be Brazilian sprinter Luciano Pagliarini and Italian Marco Zanotti. Patrick Calcagni, Kjell Carlström, Nicola Loda and Charlie Wegelius will complete the team.
Di Luca, meanwhile, will race in Milano-Torino, the former fall semi-classic moved up on the new UCI calendar to early March.
“I look forward to riding again after a long time abroad,” Di Luca said. “In Mexico we’ve been training very well and we had a good understanding. Now it’s time to enjoy the results of our work.”
After the Milano-Torino, Di Luca will race in the Giro della Provincia di Lucca, Tirreno-Adriatico and then Milan-San Remo. Quick Step readies for ProTour debut
Tom Boonen and Michael Rogers will lead Quick Step in the ProTour debut at Paris-Nice starting Sunday with a short prologue in the Paris suburbs.
Boonen will be looking to hone his sprint form ahead of Milan-San Remo while world time trial champion Rogers will be eyeing a spot in the GC.
“Traditionally the Paris-Nice race is very challenging,” Boonen said. “The first stage has a finish that is very much tailored to my way of racing. This race will be important in giving me the chance to refine my condition in light of the Milan-San Remo, a race that always fascinates me.”
Rogers and Belgian veteran Rik Verbrugghe, winner last Sunday’s GP Lugano, will be the team’s two cards to play for the GC. “I’m in good form,” Rogers said. “I’ve been improving daily and now I’m ready for the Paris-Nice in great form. The short prologue suits my way of racing, as does most of the rest of the route in general. The presence of lots of valued competitors will represent an important test for me.”
Quick Step sport director Wilfried Peeters said he expects Boonen to be in the hunt for the sprints and Rogers and Verbrugghe to be among the favorites for the overall title when the “Race to the Sun” concludes March 13 in Nice. “There is bound to be a lot of interest which means it is important for our team to be protagonists,” Peeters said. “We have a couple of objectives for the race. We’ll be looking toward Michael Rogers and Rik Verbrugghe, both of whom are in good form. For the wins of the day we’ll be working for Tom Boonen. We’ve got a strong well-balanced team that is more than able to support the leaders in both of our objectives.”
Ag2r’s assistant director detained
Ag2r’s assistant sport director Laurent Biondi was detained by French authorities Wednesday as part of the so-called “Pot Belge” doping investigation in France and Belgium.
Authorities arrested Biondi at his home outside Bordeaux and he is expected to face a French judge sometime next week.
More than 15 people have been arrested in France and Belgium for alleged trafficking of doping products and other illegal substances, the French wires reported.
While Ag2r isn’t part of the UCI’s new ProTour, the continental French team is hoping of securing an invitation to race the 2005 Tour de France.
Team officials said Biondi has been immediately released from the team pending the investigation.
Petacchi to race Coppi e Bartali
Fresh off victory at the Vuelta a Valencia, Alessandro Petacchi confirmed he’ll race at the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali from March 22-26. Petacchi will also race Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo later this month.
Teams for Basque Country
Spanish teams Relax-Fuenlabrada, Kaiku and Comunidad Valenciana were invited to race the next edition of the Vuelta a Pais Vasco (April 4-8). The three teams, which will also race in the Clásica de San Sebastián later this summer, will line up against the 20 ProTour teams already set to race.
As it stands, 23 teams with eight riders each will compete on the hilly roads of Spain’s Basque Country.
Teams for Pais Vasco
Saunier Duval and T-Mobile