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Thursday’s Euro-file: Merckx takes over Tour of Belgium

Dutch rider Jans Koerts won Thursday's second stage of the Tour of Belgium, but the headlines tomorrow will be Axel Merckx taking the leader's jersey. Landbouwkrediet seemed to have the stage under control, in order to protect the lead of stage 1 winner Tom Steels. But once the race hit a finishing circuit in Knokke, riders began counter-attacking, including runs by Johan Museeuw (Quick Step), Geer Verheyen (Marlux) and Max Van Heeswijk (USPS). Merckx and Koerts finally escaped the grip of the peloton with 8km to go and quickly opened up a 20-second gap. Koerts gets the win, Merckx gets the

By Andrew Hood

Dutch rider Jans Koerts won Thursday’s second stage of the Tour of Belgium, but the headlines tomorrow will be Axel Merckx taking the leader’s jersey.

Landbouwkrediet seemed to have the stage under control, in order to protect the lead of stage 1 winner Tom Steels. But once the race hit a finishing circuit in Knokke, riders began counter-attacking, including runs by Johan Museeuw (Quick Step), Geer Verheyen (Marlux) and Max Van Heeswijk (USPS). Merckx and Koerts finally escaped the grip of the peloton with 8km to go and quickly opened up a 20-second gap. Koerts gets the win, Merckx gets the leader’s jersey.

Tour of Belgium (UCI 2.3)
Stage 2, 177km

1. Jan Koerts (Ned), Bankgiroloterij, 4 hours, 15 minutes, 12 seconds
2. Axel Merckx (B), Lotto-Domo – same time
3. Laslo Bodrogi (Hun), Quick Step, at 14 seconds
4. Tom Steels (B), Landbouwkrediet
5. Saulius Ruskys (Lit), Marlux – all same timeOverall standings after two stages
1. Axel Merckx (B), Lotto-Domo, 8 hours, 27 minutes, 34 seconds
2. Tom Steels (B), Landbouwkrediet, at 8 seconds
3. Rik Reinerik (Ned), Bankgiroloterij, at 12 seconds
4. Stefan Van Dijk (Ned), Lotto-Domo, 14 seconds
5. Max Van Heeswijk (Ned), USPS, s.t.

Castilla y Leon: Perdiguero takes stage
Pint-sized sprinter Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Domina Vacanze) held off hulking Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) in Thursday’s 164km third stage of the Tour of Castilla y Leon. Martin Perdiguero started his sprint early and had just enough to hold off Hushovd and Andrej Hauptman (Caldirola-Sidermec), who came across third. Both Hushovd and Hauptman were wagging their fingers at Martin Perdiguero, but the home-field advantage seemed to help the Spaniard keep his win against any protests.

iBanesto’s Javier Pascual Rodriguez took the overall lead after having the best placement in the sprint among his teammates. The team won Wednesday’s time trial and Pascual Rodriguez, who lives in the region, was happy to get the race leader’s jersey.

Vuelta a Castilla y Leon (UCI 2.3)
Stage 3, Lerma to Almazan, 164km

1. Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Sp), Domina Vacanze, 3 hours, 38 minutes, 9 seconds
2. Thor Hushovd (N), Credit Agricole
3. Andrej Hauptman (Caldirola-Sidermec)
4. Alberto Hierro (Sp), Labarca 2
5. Plamen Stoyanov (Bul), BigMat – all same timeOverall standings after three stages
1. Javier Pascual Rodriguez, 7 hours, 50 minutes, 3 seconds
2. Francisco Mancebo
3. Vladimir Karpets
4. Denis Menchov
5. 5 Evgeni Petrov – all iBanesto.com, all same time

Bavaria: Strazzer wins stage
Massimo Strazzer (Phonak) won Thursday’s third stage while Michael Rich (Gerolsteiner) retained the overall lead he took in Wednesday’s time trial stage. Friday’s 167km fourth stage takes the race into the mountains of southern Germany and is sure to shake up the overall standings.

Tour of Bavaria (UCI 2.3)
Stage 3, Siegsdorf to Plattling, 200km

1. Massimo Strazzer (I), Phonak, 4 hours, 36 minutes, 5 seconds
2. Luca Paolini (I), Quick Step
3. Olaf Pollack (G), Gerolsteiner – all same timeOverall standings after three stages
1. Michael Rich (G), Gerolsteiner, 7 hours, 41 minutes, 17 seconds
2. Thomas Liese (G), German national team, at 34 seconds
3. Olaf Pollack (G), Gerolsteiner, at 37 seconds

Cipollini out of Giro
World champion Mario Cipollini didn’t start Thursday’s difficult climbing stage to Monte Zoncolan. The world champion crashed hard on his shoulder on the final turn in Wednesday’s 11th stage after Kelme’s Isaac Galvez slipped out in the rain-soaked finish. While X-rays later revealed no broken bones, Cipollini couldn’t sleep overnight and is out of the 86th Giro d’Italia.

“He had a big contusion and the team doctors suggested he not start,” said Simone Toccafondi, who works with the team’s bike sponsor, Specialized. “He was extremely upset to leave. His shape was really coming up. He wanted to show something to Mr. Leblanc, to show that he’s a champion, that he could make it over the mountains.”

Cipollini’s abandon means he won’t be using the special bike the team had prepared for the world champion. For the steep, menacing climb to the Monte Zoncolan summit, Cipollini was going to ride a full-suspension mountain bike fitted with road tires.

Cipollini’s immediate future is unknown. The popular Tuscan won two Giro stages to set a new stage-win record with 42 career victories, but the week was dominated by news that Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze team was not among the final four teams invited to race in the Tour de France.

Tour rejects adding 23rd team
Tour de France officials rejected the idea of inviting an additional team to the already 22 teams slated to start the race in order to make room for Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze team.

Following the outcry that Cipo’s team was left out of the Tour, there’s been growing support for the idea to add an extra team. Tour officials said logistically that would prove improbable this late in the game.

“There will not be a 23rd team,” the Tour’s director of cycling Daniel Baal told L’Equipe. “The only possibility is that Domina Vacanze is the 22nd team.”

However, there’s still a chance for the world champion. On Monday, when Tour officials revealed the four wild-card bids (Jean Delatour, Brioches la Boulangere, Ag2r and Euskaltel-Euskadi), the fate of the financially-troubled Team Coast was still unsettled. Tour officials set aside the issue, in the hopes that Bianchi can step forward to take over in time for the Tour.

Team Coast, now the team of 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich, earned an automatic bid after finishing last season among the top-10 teams. If the team’s situation isn’t settled soon, Baal hinted the world champion still might get into the Tour.

“We are still waiting formal proof from the UCI that Team Coast no longer exists,” Baal said. “Because it is a qualified team, we do not have any legal right to exclude the team.”

Zülle mulls another season
Alex Zülle hinted he might race one more season. The veteran Swiss rider told VeloNews his contract with team Phonak includes an option to sign for the 2004 season.

“I have a clause that allows me to consider next year. Earlier, I had said that this year would be my last year with Coast, but now the situation is different here with Phonak,” Zülle said. “But I really don’t yet, there’s still a lot of time left in this season. We’ll see.”

Zülle left the troubled Team Coast in March to sign with the Swiss Phonak team.

“I am very content in Phonak. They’re very professional, very well-run,” he said. “Of course, Coast doesn’t exist anymore, but with now they might have a new sponsor with Bianchi and finally they will probably be in the Tour.”

Zülle said following Phonak’s Tour snub he was more disappointed for the team’s sponsor and other riders than his own ambitions.

“Sure, it’s not good for the team, but we knew it was only a 50-50 shot to make the Tour,” Zülle said. “The Tour is very difficult. I’ve done a lot of Tours, I’ve done some good, some bad, and therefore it’s sadder for the sponsor, for the young riders, than it is for me,” he said. “The sponsor here is secure and patient. We talked yesterday and they said they will continue for next year and want to be in the Tour.”

Zülle agreed that Mario Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze team should not have been overlooked in favor of the modest Jean Delatour team.

“It’s a disaster that the world champion is not invited to the Tour de France. Cipollini needs to be in the Tour. You have to remember that he is someone very important, so it’s another example that this is all politics,” he said. “But this is all politics. You can have lots of wins and still not get in the Tour. Sure, at Phonak we’ve not had a great spring, but last year at Coast we won lots of races and still didn’t make it in. It’s more a shame for the sponsor, but we are realistic and we will go to the Vuelta and make a good race. What’s more important is that we make a strong second half of the season so we are sure to be among the best teams for next season.”

Zülle is a rider who knows the Tour and has experienced plenty of highs and lows during his career. Zülle finished second overall in 1995 and again in 1999, but was part of the Festina team fiasco in 1998 and later served a racing ban after admitting he took banned products.

Zülle, like most observers, believes Armstrong is the favorite.

“Yes, if everything goes with normality, without crashes or illnesses, Lance is the strongest in cycling at this moment,” Zülle said. “I believe that inside Lance’s mind, he wants the sixth win. He wants the record and then he’ll retire. But there’s still a lot of things can happen, but under normal conditions, I believe it will happen.”