By John Wilcockson
Most of the rabid cycling fans lining the Halsesteenweg at Meerbeke, Belgium, this coming Sunday afternoon, will be hoping for a repeat of the 2005 Tour of Flanders result: a win for favorite son Tom Boonen. Those fans know that Quick Step-Innergetic’s Boonen’s not a shoo-in because the 258km course that faces the likely 200 starters is full of potential pitfalls: diabolical pavé stretches like the Paddestraat, steep hills like the 400-meter, 12.5-percent Paterberg, and countless off-camber blind turns that guide the riders through a maze of narrow back roads through the lush green countryside of the Flemish Ardennes.
The formula for winning was summed up this week by two-time Flanders champion Peter Van Petegem of Davitamon-Lotto, who said, “First, you have to be with the best riders in the race, and then you have to have some luck, be well supported by your teammates and, above all, not make any mistakes.”
The parts about not making mistakes and having some luck ring so true when you consider that in the 89 editions of De Ronde van Vlaanderen only four men have taken consecutive victories: Belgian sprinter Eric Leman in 1972-73 (when the race often finished with a group sprint), Italian ironman Fiorenzo Magni (1949-51), and, at a time when the Ronde field was made up almost exclusively of Belgians, Achiel Buysse (1940-41) and Romain Gijssels (1931-32).
With history against him, world champion Boonen is going to have to be at his very best and receive the total support of his seven Quick Step teammates. Without a team having strength in numbers, not even Boonen can expect to fend of the opposition. As the young Belgian’s illustrious teammate Paolo Bettini said Thursday: “Tom will be the team leader at the start and will be protected. What’s [most] important is for the team to be with him in the finale.”
Boonen knows all about the importance of strong teammates, because in his first three years as a pro he was riding for other team leaders at the Ronde. In his rookie year of 2002 with U.S. Postal, Boonen finished 24th at 2:37 after riding for teammate George Hincapie (who came in fourth); in 2003, he was 25th at 3:03 when his Quick Step leader Frank Vandenbroucke placed second; and, in 2004, Boonen was again 25th, at 2:10, when team leader Bettini placed ninth.
Last year, after great support from his teammates Nick Nuyens and Marc Lotz, Boonen escaped in a six-man group and then went solo 9km from the finish to win by 35 seconds over German Andreas Klier of T-Mobile. Five seconds later, Van Petegem took the third-place sprint from Germany’s Erik Zabel and the Italians Roberto Petito and Alessandro Ballan, while Discovery Channel’s Hincapie out-sprinted five others for seventh place at 1:42.
The Tour of Flanders is often a highly tactical race despite the string of 17 climbs in the final 113km — that’s one hill every 6km for the best part of three hours — after a likely windswept opening 145km from the start in ancient Bruges. The main climbs are the very short and steep Paterberg (hill No. 4), which has a 20-percent pitch on broken cobblestones; the very narrow 600-meter Koppenberg (hill No. 5) with its 22-percent grade; and the infamous Mur de Grammont (or the Muur-Kapelmuur at Geraardsbergen in Flemish), the penultimate hill that has 20-percent cobblestone section and summits 16km from the finish.
In the good weather that has blessed recent editions of the Ronde the course is a constant physical and mental challenge. But when conditions turn foul — the forecast this Sunday is for temperatures in the mid-50s, a 70-percent chance of rain and 30-kph southwest winds — the likelihood of crashes on slick roads makes the outcome even more problematical. At least there will be a tail wind for the finale on Sunday, a fact that will favor a small group or a solo breakaway.
And who will be the first man across the line on the Halsesteenweg at about 4:20 pm. on Sunday? Besides Boonen there are a dozen potential winners, including Bettini, Van Petegem, Milram’s Zabel, Lampre-Fondital’s Ballan, T-Mobile’s Klier and the Discovery Channel trio of Hincapie, Leif Hoste and Stijn Devolder — who boosted their collective morale by placing 1-2-3 in the closing time trial at the Three Days of De Panne on Thursday.
Great morale, of course, is highly important. That’s something that has defined Boonen’s riding ever since he won Flanders last year and followed it up with victory in Paris-Roubaix. He has already won 11 times this season, including an impressive win over Ballan at last Saturday’s GP E3.
On Thursday, after deciding not to risk starting on wet roads at the last day of De Panne, said at a press conference, “Of course, I can’t deny I’m the big favorite [on Sunday]. But that doesn’t worry me because I intend to do the Flanders-Roubaix double [again]. I say it as I see it.”
The mood of his opponents was no less confident. Van Petegem, who has not pleased his sponsors with a seemingly poor early season, said, “Despite the critics, I believe that our preparation has gone very well. I wasn’t sick nor did I crash at the Three Days of De Panne. And the team is strong. I’m ready and I promise you’ll hear talk of me at the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.”
Discovery’s Devolder was no less confident. “It’s normal to be a little anxious a few days before the Tour of Flanders,” he said. “We’re all thinking how can we beat Boonen, and we know that everything is possible.”
Indeed, it is.