By Andrew Hood
Belgian Tom Steels (Landbouwkrediet) got his season off to a good start Wednesday, beating compatriot Jo Planckaert (Mr Bookmakers) in a bunch sprint to open the five-day l’Etoile de Bessèges race in France.
Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) and Gorka Gonzalez (Euskaltel) livened things up early with a long breakaway, but the Aussie was reeled in with 15km to go and it came down to a mass gallop coming into Marseille.
The race continues Thursday with the 149km second stage into Palavas-les-Flots.
l’Etoile de Bessèges, Stage 1, Marseille
1. Tom Steels (B), Landbouwkrediet, 139km in 3:34:03 (39.131 kph)
2. Jo Planckaert (B), Mr Bookmakers
3. Thor Hushovd (N), Credit Agricole
4. Saulius Ruskys (Lit), Chocolade
5. Stefan Van Dijck (Ned), Lotto-Domo, all same time
Davis doubles in Mallorca
Australian Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros) won his second stage in four days in the Mallorca Challenge in Wednesday’s fourth stage held over fast and flat roads 159km from Calabona to Manacor.
Davis, who pipped two-time world champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) in the opening stage Sunday, this time took down German sprinting ace Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) to score the win.
A 10-man break tore away early, but leading Illes Balears-Banesto wasn’t about to let anything get away heading into Thursday’s finale. Homeboy Toni Colom retained his overall lead and the Kelmes will be on the attack again in Thursday’s five-climb stage.
American Bobby Julich (CSC) made an attack 1.5km from the finish, but the high speed made it impossible to pull off the surprise.
Mallorca Challenge, Trofeo Manacor(UCI 1.3)
1. Allan Davis, Liberty Seguros, 159.8km in 3:29:02
2. Erik Zabel, Telekom
3. Danilo Hondo, Gerolsteiner
4. Steven de Jongh, Rabobank
5. Carlos Garcia, Kelme, all s.t.Overall standings after four stages
1. Toni Colom, Illes Balears-Banesto, 12:45:57
2. David Blanco, Kelme
3. Carlos Garcia, Kelme
4. Ruben Plaza, Kelme
5. Koldo Gil, Liberty Seguros, all same time
Hunter snags Qatar lead
South African Robert Hunter (Rabobank) sprung to victory and into the overall lead Wednesday in the 189.5km third stage of the Tour of Qatar.
A break got away from the main bunch and held on to the end, leaving some of the overall favorites fighting for leftovers. Hunter attacked the lead bunch in the final kilometer for the surprise victory, finishing three second ahead of Aussie sprinter Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) and Jean-Patrick Nazon (Ag2r), who came across third.
A reinvigorated Frank Vandenbroucke (Fassa Bortolo) tried his luck with 6km to go, but settled for fourth in the stage and moved into the top 5 overall Yesterday’s winner and leader Tom Boonen (Quick Step) fell to fourth at 11 seconds back.
The five-day Tour of Qatar continues Thursday with the 168.5km fourth stage, starting and finishing in Al Wakra.
Tour of Qatar (UCI 2.3) Stage 3, Camel Race Track circuit
1. Robert Hunter, Rabobank, 189.5km in 4:54:46
2. Robbie McEwen, Lotto-Domo, at 0:03
3. Jean-Patrick Nazon, Ag2r
4. Frank Vandenbroucke, Fassa Bortolo, all same time
5. Roberto Petito, Fassa Bortolo, at 0:07Overall standings after three stages
1. Hunter, 11:02:10
2. McEwen, at 0:03
3. Nazon, s.t.
4. Tom Boonen, Quick Step, at 0:11
5. Vandenbroucke, at 0:19
Heras targets Tour
Liberty Seguros Roberto Heras said he believes his former boss Lance Armstrong isn’t unbeatable and said Armstrong “won’t have it easy” as the Texan goes for a record sixth Tour de France.
“It’s clear that Armstrong is a complete champion and he’s proved it in the last five seasons when he’s achieved his goals, which is to win the Tour,” Heras told the Spanish daily MARCA. “But I believe he’s not unbeatable and he won’t have it easy in this next Tour, with his traditional rivals such as Ullrich, Simoni, Vinokourov and even me.”
Heras said his transfer from U.S. Postal Service to Liberty Seguros occurred “without difficulty” and that he changed “dollars for competition, I’m still just 30 years old and physically I feel very good.”
Heras said he didn’t know what to expect when he sees Armstrong at the races.
“We haven’t spoke since I left in November. I am never going to speak poorly of him. I don’t know what he will think of me now that I am his rival,” said Heras, who shares with Armstrong and many American pros the same Spanish city of Gerona as his home-base.
“My relations with Armstrong have been fair,” Heras said. “I have learned a lot racing by his side. He’s a racer that focuses and prepares meticulously for his objectives.”
Armstrong solidifies plans for U.S. swing
Lance Armstrong has apparently committed to be racing in April’s Tour de Georgia, according to the Tour winner’s personal website (www.LanceArmstrong.com).
Organizers of the stage race across Georgia had earlier announced that Armstrong and U.S. Postal team would be taking part in the race scheduled for April 20-25, 2004, but were then taken aback by his apparent indecision during press conferences at the team roll-out in California. Armstrong indicated that he would either race in Georgia or New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila (April 28 – May 2).
While Georgia course decisions are still being finalized, Mark Higgins of Capital Sports & Entertainment, the firm of Armstrong’s agent, noted that the race will suit the Postal team’s plans.
“We know one of the stages will feature a challenging route in the morning, then a short rest period followed by an Individual Time Trial in the afternoon,” he said. “There are also some good climbing opportunities on the route as well.” Ballerini to chose Italian Olympic team after Tour
Italian national coach Franco Ballerini said selections for the 2004 Olympic Games will be made after the Tour de France. Twenty riders are already on a short list to make the five-man team, but Ballerini said other riders will be considered as well.
“Important indications of form will come during the Tour,” Ballerini told DataSport.
Ballerini, who will also make the always-controversial selection for the world championship team, said the choice will be even harder because the world’s are in Verona.
“When it’s on home ground it’s always more difficult to choose who will be the favorites,” Ballerini said.
USPS for Ruta del Sol
Manuel Beltrán will lead U.S. Postal Service at the Ruta del Sol (Feb. 15-19) as the team makes its season debut. Joining Beltrán will be George Hincapie, Antonio Cruz, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Guennadi Mikhailov, Max van Heeswijk, Benoit Joachim and newcomer Stjn Devolver.
Five-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong will be racing later that week at the Tour of Algarve in southern Portugal.
Changes Settimana Lombarda
Organizers of the Settimana Lombarda have been forced to change the date of the race for the third time, according to a report in La Gazzetta dello Sport. To avoid a conflict with the Giro d’Abruzzo, the Settimana Lombarda will be held April 8-12.