By Andrew Hood
Gentlemen, and ladies, start your engines.
Beginning Tuesday at noon with the junior women’s individual time trial and concluding Sunday with the elite men’s road race, the automobile racetrack in Belgium’s Flanders region is the center of the world for road racing. Road racing with two wheels and no motor, that is. The 2002 road cycling world championships are set to get underway. Perhaps it’s no mistake that Zolder rhymes with Boulder. During the next six, action-packed days, 10 rainbow jerseys and 30 world championship medals will be awarded. Twenty-five American athletes will be going head-to-head in the event that matches the Tour de France in prestige and honor.
With the exception of the absence of four-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and the sanctioned Jan Ullrich, most of cycling’s brightest stars have converged on this flat, dank lowlands of north central Belgium for a dramatic conclusion to the 2002 racing season. An estimated 55,000 fans poured into Zolder to watch the cyclo-cross world championships in a chilly February afternoon earlier this year. Officials are expecting to more than triple that for the men’s road race on Sunday.
Everyone is calling Zolder the “sprinters” worlds and indeed all the top sprinters have shown up, but the world championships rarely follow the script. The 13-km circuit is nearly dead flat, but wind, foul weather, high speeds, relentless attacks and a short climb (the road course’s only climb) in the final 3 km of each lap could spoil the best-laid plans for a bunch gallop.
The men’s road race has the makings of a classic showdown, with aging lions such as Mario “The Lion King” Cipollini and Johan “The Lion of Flanders” Museeuw the central characters. Cipollini says he’s been obsessed with the worlds since this spring while Museeuw is coming off a banner year that included a Paris-Roubaix victory. Museeuw turns 37 on Sunday, coincidentally the same birthday present he delivered for himself in Lugano in 1996. The time trial courses are long, flat and well suited for strong “rollers.” Wind and rain could be a factor on some of the technical corners, but otherwise it’s a big-ring drive to the finish-line. VeloNews reporters Bryan Jew and Andrew Hood are just getting settled in Zolder, so check back throughout the week for the latest from Belgium. In the meantime, here’s what some of the favorites told the race organizers:
Oscar Freire (Spanish, world champion 1999 and 2001):
“When I was scouting the course, I didn’t know what to think. I would rather have it a little tougher but, given the home straight, with its slight gradient and the wind, I certainly have a chance. But I won’t be the only one.” Erik Zabel (German, six-time green points jersey winner at Tour de France):
“I am worried a bit about the progress of the race. It could go any way. A great many riders could win, which opens up the opportunities for the daring. But if it ends up with a group sprint, I want to win. What plays into my hands is the distance of the world championships. The longer an event goes on, the better my legs are.” Robbie McEwen (Australian, 2002 Tour de France green jersey winner):
“It would be fantastic if I became the first Australian to win the world title. I was very proud to become Australian champion in January. That was the first dream to be realized. Then I won those jerseys and stages in the Giro and the Tour, there’s not a lot left. It has given me a great deal of satisfaction, and the remaining adrenalin will take me to the front in Zolder. Now there is only one job left – to become world champion.” Mario Cipollini (Italian, winner of 2002 Milan-San Remo):
“Zolder has been bugging me for a good 10 months. In the meantime, I have seen the course, which confirmed my ambitions: I can become world champion.”
Tom Steels (Belgian):
“The course itself should not be a problem. Actually, it is ideal for me although you never know with the wind and so on. The tarmac of the course may make the event tougher than we generally expect, but the final straight is a dream finish. Let’s roll.”
Schedule of events
Tuesday, Oct. 8
Noon — Junior women’s time trial, 15 km (9.3 miles)
2 p.m. — U23 time trial, 33.7 km (20.8 miles)Wednesday, Oct. 9
Noon — Junior men’s time trial: 23.3 km (14.4 miles)
3 p.m. — Elite women’s time trial: 23.3 km (14.4 miles) Thursday, Oct. 10
2 p.m. — Elite men’s time trial: 43.5 km (26.9 miles)
Friday, Oct. 11
9:30 a.m. — Junior women’s road race: 6 laps, 78.6 km (48.7 miles)
12:30 p.m. — U23 road race: 13 laps, 170 km (105.5 miles)
Saturday, Oct. 12
9:30 a.m. — Junior men’s road race: 10 laps, 131 km (81.2 miles)
1:30 p.m. — Elite women’s road race: 10 laps, 131 km (81.2 miles)
Sunday, Oct. 13
10:30 a.m. — Elite men’s road: 20 laps, 262 km (162.4 miles)