By Andrew Hood
Johan Museeuw showed no signs of age as he roared to victory in Saturday’s Het Volk, the opener of the Belgian racing season. His Quick Step team dominated the 200km course across the cobbles of Belgium, finishing with four riders in the top-five.
Only U.S. Postal’s Max Van Heeswijk challenged the team’s gauntlet and there was little he could do on his own but hang on to finish second ahead of Paolo Bettini at 16 seconds back. Het Volk marked the Quick Step debut of Tom Boonen and the return of Franck Vandenbroucke, who crossed the line hand-in-hand to take fourth and fifth, respectively, at 1:30 back.
“I’m 37 years old but I feel I’m in my 20s with all the young people around,” Museeuw beamed after hoisting his second career Het Volk trophy.
Quick Step sent a strong message to its rivals as the classics season kicks off. There were several crashes throughout the day and none other than Jacky Durand (Fdjeux.com) attacked early, followed by Christof Trouve (Palmans) and Tony Brake (Landbouwkrediet) and opened up a gap of nearly 9 minutes.
With about 65km to go and the main group down to about 40 riders, Boonen powered ahead followed by Vandenbroucke, Bettini and Museeuw. Following them were Fassa Bortolo’s Filippo Pozzato and Cofidis’ Peter Farazijn. These six quickly opened up a gap, but on a steep section of cobbles, Postal’s newest addition, Van Heeswijk, shot across.
At 54km, the leading seven riders reeled the remnants of the early break and Boonen and Bettini drove the group hard to open up a 30-second gap on a group of chasing riders that included defending champion Peter Van Petegem (Lotto), Jaan Kirsipuu (AG2R), Fabio Saachi (Saeco) and about a dozen others.
Quick Step was driving it like a team time trial, through Pozzato sat the back and refused to take a pull until Museeuw dropped back for a word of advice to the Italian youngster. None of the chase groups were very well organized and the gap quickly widened to more than 1 minute.
At 25km to go, Museeuw and Bettini attack and split the lead group when only Pozzato and Van Heeswijk fought to hang on. More accelerations eliminated Pozzato, leaving Van Heeswijk to fend for himself against the defending World Cup champion and Paris-Roubaix champion.
With 11km to go, Boonen accelerated and was quickly joined by Vandenbroucke, who was making his big comeback following a string of injuries and a six-month ban after doping products were found in his house. The pair worked behind the leading trio.
Museeuw attacked at 6km and again at 5km and succeeded to open up a 100-yard gap on Van Heeswijk. The Dutch rider hung on, keeping Museeuw within sight until he sat up with 2km to go and Museeuw’s victory was certain. Following in behind Boonen and Vandenbroucke were Pozzato (winner of the Trofeo Laigueglia last month in Italy) and Farazijn at 2:29 back.
American Fred Rodriguez was a late scratch, but teammate and former world champion Romans Vainsteins led the front group across at 3:39.
Het Volk, 200km, March 1, 2003
1. Johan Museeuw (B), Quick Step, 4:55:31, (40.6kph)
2. Max Van Heeswijk (Nl), U.S. Postal, at 0:15
3. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step, s.t.
4. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step, at 1:30
5. Frank Vandenbroucke (B), Quick Step, s.t.
6. Filippo Pozzato (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 2:39
7. Peter Farazijn (B), Cofidis, s.t.
8. Romans Vainsteins (Lat), Sidermec, at 3:36
9. Gabriele Balducci (I), Sidermec, s.t
10. Robbie McEwen (Aus), Lotto, s.t.
Frigo wraps Valenciana, Petacchi wins finale
Fassa Bortolo’s Dario Frigo wrapped up the overall title of the 61st Tour of Valencia after finishing safely in the lead bunch in Saturday’s 165km final stage won by teammate Alessandro Petacchi.
World champion Mario Cipollini refused to start the final stage, complaining that the Valencia mountainous stages were too difficult and left few chances for the sprinters. His DNS made his season debut less-than-spectacular for the world champion, who didn’t finish in the lead group in last weekend’s Trofeo Luis Puig.
Petacchi made easy work of Cipollini’s stand-in, up and coming Italian Daniele Bennati,-to give him a stage-win to go with his Luis Puig victory last week and his Fassa Bortolo team its third win in a week.
Frigo won Tuesday’s opening time trial and finished second in Friday’s difficult climbing stage to Campello to wrap up his first title since returning to Fassa Bortolo after being fired by the team in the 2001 Giro d’Italia. Frigo was emotional when he recounted his feelings during this tumultuous chapter of his racing career.
“I almost quit cycling,” Frigo said. “It was very difficult following the 2001 Giro, but I decided the best thing to do was to keep racing and I won a few races with Tacconi last year, but not a big tour. That is my main goal for this year, to win the Giro.”
Stage 5, Valencia-Valencia
1. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Fassa Bortolo 165km in 4:00:06
2. Daniele Bennati (I), Domina Vacanze, same time
3. Fabrizio Guidi (I), Coast, s.t.
4. Igor Astarloa (Sp), Saeco, s.t.
5. Giovanni Lombardi (I), Domina Vacanze, s.t.
6. David Millar (GB), Cofidis, s.t.
7. Jorge Ferrio (Sp), Paternina, s.t.
8. Eddy Engels (Nl), Rabobank, s.t.
9. Javier Pas (Sp), iBanesto.com, s.t.
10. David Bernabeu (Sp), Paternina, s.t.
14. Bobby Julich (USA), Telekom, s.t.
16. Guido Trenti (USA), Fassa Bortolo, s.t.Final overall, 61st Vuelta Ciclista a Communidad Valenciana:
1. Dario Frigo (I, Fassa Bortolo), 15:34:07
2. David Bernabeu (Sp, Milaneza-MSS) at 0:15
3. Javier Pascual Llorente (Sp, Kelme) at 0:15
4. David Millar (GB), Cofidis at 0:24
5. Xavier Florencio (Sp), ONCE at 0:36
6. Alexandre Moos (Swi), Phonak at 0:47
7. Alex Zülle (Swi), Coast at 0:47
8. Inigo Cuesta (Sp), Cofidis at 0:49
9. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank at 0:51
10. Francisco Perez (Sp), Milaneza-MSS, at 0:52
73. Bobby Julich (USA), Telekom, at 33:55
101. Guido Trenti (USA), Fassa Bortolo, at 46:36
Figueras wins GP Chiasso
Italian Giuliano Figueras (Panaria) won the opener of the Swiss racing season in Saturday’s GP Chiasso, winning a bunch sprint ahead of compatriot Mirko Celestino (Saeco) and Giuseppe Palumbo (De Nardi-Colpack).
Gonzalez gets green light to race
2002 Vuelta a España winner Aitor Gonzalez got the green light from the UCI on Friday to return to racing. The UCI agreed that his contract with Italian squad Fassa Bortolo is valid and he can resume racing as soon as he’d like.
Domina Vacanze (formerly Acqua & Sapone) challenged Gonzalez’ contract with Fassa Bortolo after it contended he signed a contract with them early in 2002, before he won the Vuelta. Following his dramatic victory in the Spanish tour, several teams came bidding and Gonzalez settled on Fassa Bortolo.
Gonzalez was forced to watch the opening time trial of this week’s Tour of Valencia in his hometown while the UCI pondered the situation. The UCI released its decision Friday and Gonzalez said he was never worried, except that it was taking so long to work out. Gonzalez could return to racing as soon as March 8 in Italy.