By Andrew Hood
One of the top stories coming out of last year’s Tour de France was the fighting panache of Thomas Voeckler, the quiet, hard-working national champion who held the yellow jersey for more than a week.
The fresh-faced national champion defied the odds and carried the maillot jaune out of the Pyrénées, giving French fans something to cheer for as Lance Armstrong barnstormed to a record sixth consecutive win.
Voeckler is making his season debut at the Tour of Qatar with his fellow Bouygues Telecom teammates. Here are excerpts from an interview posted on the official race page: Q: How do you feel in the first weeks of this new season?
Thomas Voeckler: I was lucky enough not to have problems during my preparation and that’s good news. I did the same kind of preparation as last year before starting here in Qatar and then heading to the Tour Méditerranéen. For the moment all is going as planned. I need quite a few days of racing to be in shape.
Q: How are you coping with your new life after your fantastic Tour de France 2004?
TV: Of course, I have more pressure but we’ll see how it goes. I’m not going to change my habits just because of what happened last year. People will probably expect a lot of me and the riders will keep an eye on me. I just hope to be as good. If you look a year back, I wasn’t as popular, but it’s good sign, it means that people pay attention to what I do. It’s now up to me to make sure I carry on improving.
Q: What are your goals for this season?
TV: I’m not the kind of rider that has specific goals on this or that race. I don’t need that to find motivation. I prefer to get into good condition and try to get good results when I’m in shape. However, I keep in mind that the most important part of the season will be in July. I’m not going to start the Tour thinking about a good place in the overall or a stage victory. I’ll just start with the same spirit as last year just like the way my team does, in offensive fashion.
Tafi to retire after ‘Hell of North’
Classics strongman Andrea Tafi has confirmed he’ll retire following Paris-Roubaix in April. The 38-year-old Italian wants one more shot at the cobbles before calling it quits.
“I dream of shining one last time on the cobbles,” Tafi told reporters at last month’s training camp. “It’s my favorite race and I’ve had a couple of bad years at Roubaix, but this year I am putting everything on the race.”
Tafi’s career began in 1989, competing on such teams as Eurocar, Selle Italia, Carrera, Mapei, CSC, Alessio-Bianchi and Saunier Duval for 2005.
Tafi won five major World Cup races during his career, including the Giro di Lombardia in 1996, the Rochester International Classic (no longer held) in 1997, Paris-Roubaix in 1999, Paris-Tours in 2000 and Tour of Flanders in 2002.
Minor changes for Ardennes classics
Race officials have announced minor changes for the upcoming Ardennes classics. There are no bombshells, akin to the elimination of the Arenberg section of cobbles at Paris-Roubaix this year. Instead, just minor modifications on the respective routes.
Condition of certain roads has resulted in a slight change to Flèche Wallonne, but the 201.5km course will include two climbs and the traditional finish at the top of the Mur de Huy. The women’s World Cup road race is set for 105km and will start and finish atop the Mur de Huy.
The 91st Liège-Bastogne-Liège will hit such familiar landmarks as Aywaille, the Roche en Ardenne, Bastogne, the côtes de Wanne, Stockeu and the Haute Levée before the traditional final stretch via the Redoute, Tilff, and Saint Nicolas up to the finish at the top of the côte d’Ans. The distance is set for 261km with minor changes to the route.
VdB passes on classics
Troubled Belgian star Frank Vandenbroucke won’t be racing in the Flanders classics this year due to a lack of base fitness. In an interview with the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste News, Vandenbroucke said he won’t have the strength to battle for the spoils at Tour of Flanders or Ghent-Wevelgem. The Ardennes classics are also in doubt for the ex-Liège champion.
“The Tour of Belgium, the Benelux tour and the national championships are better races for me,” he said. “I’m only riding now two or three hours per day. I’ve had too long a period without training. I wouldn’t have the strength to compete.”
Vandenbroucke is set to ride this year with the national team MrBookmaker.com.
Top sprinters converge on Ruta del Sol
This year’s Ruta del Sol looks to be a battle of the sprinters as such names as Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo), Erik Zabel (T-Mobile), Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) and three-time world champ Oscar Freire (Rabobank) have confirmed they’ll line up Feb. 13-17.
Fifteen teams are set to line up for the race held in southern Spain’s Andalucia region. The race opens with a hilly stage from Benalmádena to Comares featuring a difficult Cat. 1 climb.
Cipollini to race Tour Méditerranéen
Mario Cipollini, fresh off his stage victory Thursday in the Tour of Qatar, will race next week in the Tour Méditerranéen (Feb. 9-13). Also set to line up include two-time champion Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Erik Dekker (Rabobank) and Baden Cooke (FDJeux.com).
Cipollini has fond memories of the Tour Méditerranéen, holding the record with 14 career stage victories in the race held along France’s Cote d’Azur. This year’s course features such challenges as Mont Faron and the Poggio, the climb featured in Milan-San Remo.
The five-day Tour of Qatar wraps up with the 153km finale from the Sealine Beach Resort to Doha Corniche. Lars Michaelsen (CSC) holds the overall lead with two teammates sitting second and third, respectively.
The l’Etoile de Bessèges in France continues with the 143km third stage from Branoux to La Grand-Combe. French rider Freddy Bichot (FDJeux.com) retained his lead in Thursday’s second stage, won by Belgian veteran Tom Steels (Davitamon-Lotto).