Saturday, March 19, 2005


Valverde Out To See the World

A few days ago I wrote that, now that he’s achieved his first win outside of his native Spain at Paris-Nice, all-rounder Alejandro Valverde (Illes Belears) was set to be unleashed on the broader cycling world. Apparently, Valverde beat me to the punch on that prediction, announcing on Tuesday that he would be targeting all of the spring classics, save Paris-Roubaix. From the Amstel Gold Race website:

This spring, Alejandro Valverde will ride in all the cycling classics except Paris-Roubaix. The last few years, the Spaniard never rode in the first World Cup races. However, because of his second place in the World Championship in Hamilton and his leading role in supporting Oscar Freire in the World Championship in Verona, he believes he could win. "I hope I can attack on the Poggio in Milan-San Remo. I have a lot of doubts about the Tour of Flanders. The Amstel Gold Race and the Flèche Wallonne should suit me," says the leader of Illes Balears.

At last, a generation of Spaniards are emerging who realize there is more to racing than the Vuelta, the Tour, and week long stage races. Together with currently wounded former world champion Igor Astarloa (Barloworld) and formerly wounded current world champion Oscar Friere (Rabobank), Valverde might finally change the image of Spanish riders in the northern classics—from skinny, shivering, pissed-off second stringers sent north as sacrificial lambs to genuine contenders for the victory. That said, Valverde is right not to get his hopes up for the cobbled classics, as the smoother, rolling roads of Ardennes week have always been kinder to stage-race crossover than Flanders' jarring bergs.

Before he jets too far north, however, Valverde will get his first taste of the classics on Sunday at Milan-San Remo. He could have the right combination of sprinting prowess and explosiveness on the Cipressa and Poggio climbs to make him a factor in a diminished bunch sprint on the Via Roma--a situation that would likely put him in a face-off with five-time winner Erik Zabel (T-Mobil), countryman Friere, and possibly Paulo Bettini (Quick.Step), who has had a quiet spring thus far. But if Petacchi's (Fassa Bartolo) and Cipollini's (Liquigas) teams reign things in enough for them to make it over those hurdles with the bunch, Valverde's elbows and top end speed aren't quite sharp enough to take out a full bunch gallop.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Paris-Nice: Beyond the GC

Just because the race for the overall at Paris-Nice was less than a nail-biter didn’t mean that the race didn’t have any good stories.

First Wins

Paris-Nice saw a lot of good results from proven contenders like Erik Dekker, Gilberto Simoni, Bobby Julich, and Jens Voigt, but three winners marked important firsts in their careers.

23-year-old Spaniard Vicente Reynes (Illes Belears) stepped out of Alejandro Valverde’s shadow to ride to a bunch sprint win in Stage 3, part of a confusing and alarming new trend of capable Spanish sprinters. The third-year pro’s previous best result was a second place in Stage 1 of last year’s Ruta del Sol.

Dutch hope Joost Posthuma (Rabobank), who was already visible in the early Belgian races, scored his first professional win in fine style on Stage 6. Posthuma was part of an early headbanger break that went away after just 5k of the 184k haul from LaCrau to Cannes. He rode away alone after catching sole remaining early break companion Jorg Ludewig (Domina Vacanze) on the final climb, the Col du Tanneron. Posthuma flew down the backside of the Tanneron, taking so many chances that he eventually missed a corner, but kept his feet in the pedals and managed to contort himself back onto the road. After that, it was all tailwinds as the 24-year-old streaked into Cannes.

Stage 7 was hardly the first win for the prolific Valverde (Illes Belears), but it was a notable first nonetheless. The all-rounder—probably the peloton’s most versatile rider since the departure of Laurent Jalabert two years ago—finally notched his first victory outside of his native Spain. It was inevitable, of course, but the peloton has to be worried. With an away win finally on the board, Valverde is officially on the loose, and there are plenty of races out there that will suit him.

Dawn of the ProTour

Paris-Nice, as everyone has mentioned, officially marks the start of the ProTour era. Could you tell? I couldn’t, and that’s a good thing, since it never really promised earth-shaking changes to the racing itself. Supposedly, it should have amped up the racing by mandating the participation of the best teams, but poor field quality hasn't really been a big problem for Paris-Nice in the past. I guess we'll see when we roll around to some of the less traditional races.

There didn’t seem to be much visible impact, aside from Axel Merckx and others getting fined for taking their helmets off on the climb of Mt. Faron, which, though allowed last year and in some races this year, isn’t allowed in ProTour races. Well, as long as the rules are clear and easy to understand…

Of course, by winning the GC at Paris-Nice, Bobby Julich became the first leader of the ProTour. He’s already lost that distinction to Oscar Friere, who won 3 stages and the GC at Tirreno-Adriatico, and I’m sure it’s an afterthought to winning Paris-Nice, but it has to be nice for him anyway. After all, there aren’t many big prizes in cycling that an American has been the first to hold. If the ProTour structure lasts more than a year, that may become significant, in a record book kind of way.

One bizarre thing about the ProTour leader’s jersey is that it is the only leaders jersey in cycling that you can lose to someone riding in a different race at the same time you’re racing somewhere else. All the others--race leader's jerseys, the old World Cup jersey--your competition was there at the same race with you, or sitting it out. Not gathering points for the same competition somewhere else. Julich lost his ProTour jersey, earned in France, to a guy who was racing in Italy at the same time. Not even CSC can defend against those tactics.


Even though he didn’t take the overall, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jens Voigt was the strongest rider at Paris-Nice. After winning the prologue and losing the leader’s jersey on Stage 1, he settled back into a role as one head of CSC’s multi-pronged attack. But even though he remained high on GC, he never rode like he was, burying himself every day on the front for the team.

Simply put, the guy is an ox, and will probably find a team to ride for as long as he wants to work. Julich has promised to pay him back with interest at the Criterium International, which is certainly a race that suits him. Here’s hoping he gets his due.

Let It Snow, Part I

Snow in the opening days of the race kept things from really getting rolling early, as Stages 2, 3, and 4 were shortened to varying degrees. All told, 284.5 kilometers were hacked off of the 2005 edition, leaving a paltry 947.5k remaining.

The biggest casualty was Stage 2, which slimmed down by 144.5 kilometers, leaving a 46.5k jaunt for Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) to finish off. Boonen crossed the line in 53:31, for a shocking 52.13kph average speed.

Let It Snow, Part II

With every mention of the slippery, icy roads at Paris-Nice, Cadel Evan’s (Davitamon-Lotto) collarbones flashed before my eyes. But the heir apparent to the Tyler Hamilton/Alex Zulle mantle of two-wheeled instability seems to have turned over a new leaf, keeping things upright all the way to the line while taking enough risks to finish a respectable 8th in Nice. Now that he’s extracted himself from T-Mobile, who dealt with his asphalt magnetism by keeping him at home in bubble wrap for most of the 2004 season, maybe he’ll finally live up to the promise he showed in the 2002 Giro.

Armstrong’s Departure

He wasn’t in great shape at the start. Then he got sick. Then he left. How have people been talking about this for a week?

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Monday, March 14, 2005


Paris-Nice: Call It A Comeback, But…

On Sunday, Bobby Julich (CSC) became the first American to take the overall title in Paris-Nice. His victory will likely be heralded with glossy print and cover shots as the biggest achievement yet of his much-reported “rebirth” under CSC mastermind Bjarne Riis.

In part, that representation is true— Paris-Nice is a pretty big prize to have on your palmares, and builds nicely on the momentum he established last season, when he took third at Paris-Nice and bronze in the Olympic time trial after years in the doldrums with Telekom and Cofidis.

But when I think of someone having a rebirth, I think of them as having undergone some sort of sea change, a transformation. In the context of cycling, think of the evolution of Laurent Jalabert from field sprinter, to classics threat, Vuelta winner, and finally a Tour de France polka dot jersey winner. Or Lance Armstrong's involuntary transformation from classics rider to multi-Tour winner. Watching Paris-Nice this past week, what we’re seeing in Julich is certainly a return, a reinvigoration—and that alone is remarkable achievement for him—but it isn’t a rebirth. This is the same Bobby J. we’ve known for years.

Julich’s and CSC’s performances were tenacious, consistent, and most importantly victorious, but they were far from exciting. Like his third place at the 1998 Tour and his Criterium International win the same year, Bobby’s strategy was simply to follow the wheels, not get dropped, and guard the lead when he fell into it. In effect, he simply defended for the entire race, whether he had the lead or not.

17th in the Prologue, seven seconds behind teammate Jens Voigt, Julich kept safely to the front through three ensuing sprint stages. His most aggressive moment probably came on Stage 4, when he followed an acceleration by Fassa Bortolo trio Flecha, Bossoni, and Cancellara on the Col du bois de Grignan. Jorg Jaksche and Jaan Kirsipuu also made the split, which happened with less than 20k left to race into the finish town of Montelimar. Cancellara would take the stage and the race lead by outsprinting Kirsipuu, while Julich would arrive 4th, five seconds down, together with Jaksche and Nicolas Jalabert.

Now closer than ever to his first yellow ASO-provided jersey, Julich again followed the wheels up the feared Mont Faron climb at the finish of Stage 5. He finished 10th, 41 seconds down on stage winner Gilberto Simoni, enough to give him a 19 second advantage over a similarly quiet Constantino Zaballa (Suanier-Duval) and 20 seconds over the dangerous Valverde (Illes-Balears).

When CSC rolled out for Stage 6 from La Crau to Cannes, there was obviously no intent of extending Julich’s lead—only defending and keeping an eye on things as Dutchman Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) risked life and limb on final descent to the coast to take the stage win and his first professional victory. Stage 7 was much the same, with Julich staying tucked in behind the tireless Voigt throughout the day, finally finishing the stage 13th in a 21-strong lead group to take the final GC victory.

You can’t argue with the effectiveness of the strategy—one that, by and large, Miguel Indurain rode to five successive Tour de France victories. And if riding conservatively with a certain rider wins races for the sponsor, it’s hard to advocate a slash-and-burn style that has never—rebirth or no—been Julich’s forte. But Julich is no Indurain, a quiet man who created his excitement by being head and shoulders, literally and figuratively, above everyone else against the clock.

Had Julich won the prologue, battled at the front for a stage win, or taken the reigns to dispose of a rival, his victory as the first American would seem more historic. As it is, he simply got dropped less than anyone else. It will be hard for anyone other than American fans to remember the highlights of his victory, because there were no highlights for Julich, just a steady burn below the surface. But those who have followed Julich’s career wouldn’t have expected much else. Julich is certainly back and I’m glad of it, but rebirth is simply too strong a word.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005



It seems like the overarching story in European cycling this week has been snow. After Het Volk fell victim to snowy roads last year, forcing its cancellation, early season promoters crossed their fingers, hoped for the best, and, in the case of Het Volk, bought insurance in case things went white again. Though they both featured snow showers and freezing temperatures, the opening weekend duo of Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne fared well this year.

Just a week later (and thus seemingly with a week’s better chance at good weather), the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen didn’t fare as well. Organizers called off the first stage last Friday after just 70 kilometers, when snow began to pile up on the roads and made life in the peloton and the caravan a little too sketchy, even by local standards.

While everyone trucked back to their hotels and organizers tried to look on the bright side, the snow continued to pile up through the evening. Still not quite ready to admit defeat, organizers hatched an unsuccessful plan to race Saturday’s stage on a local circuit rather than the planned 185k. (Similar to a plan that saved this year’s Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania, which was ravaged by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.) The organizers finally acquiesced when they awoke to more snow Saturday, canceling the race completely, and freeing themselves from another night of staring at whatever the Belgian equivalent of the Weather Channel is. A second race in Flanders scheduled for Sunday, the Vlaamse Pijl, was also cancelled due to the snow.

All of which begs the question: how do you plow cobblestones? Apparently, you can't. A little rough on the plow blade, I'd guess.

Snow also got the better of the second stage of Paris-Nice today, shortening the planned 144.5k run between La Chatre and Thiers to a 45k sprint from Aigueperse to Thiers. Yes, that’s just a little less than half the length of the average professional criterium here in the States. The way this circus worked was to have the riders all sign in at the original start village, then have everyone pack up and drive the first 99.5 kilometers for the start. From there, riders faced one intermediate sprint (won by race leader Dekker), the remaining one of five planned Cat. 3 climbs, and a bunch sprint finish.

It all sounds like kind of a joke, especially when many of the classics are roughly 200k longer than this stage. But, you have to give credit to ASO, they got the word out early, everything seemed to move smoothly, and they avoided an outright cancellation, which is a lot better option for the sponsors, the finish town, and the riders. It worked out extra well for Tom Boonen (Quick.Step), who snatched his second stage win and the leader’s jersey—not bad for 45k of work. Boonen had already dedicated his Stage 1 win to his best friend Dieter, who perished last weekend in a skiing accident in Germany. See—snow.

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Of Paris-Nice, Phoenix-es, and CSC

Does anyone else think that it’s fitting that CSC has made some deep impressions at Paris-Nice the last several years?

I wrote it for VeloNews a few years ago and I’ll write it again now---the cycling season starts a few different times and places depending on where you live and what sort of racing you’re into. If it’s the spring classics, it might start with Het Volk, or if you’re more Italian-oriented, Milan-San Remo. If you’re a calendar freak, it starts at the Tour Down Under. French? Then it's probably the GP Marseillaise. If you get your cycling news from American television, it starts (and ends) with the Tour de France.

But despite an ever-expanding season pushing it deeper into the schedule every year, Paris-Nice has always had a special symbolism to it---after all, it’s the “race to the sun”, where riders physically and metaphorically ride out of the cold of winter and into the warmth of a new season.

Last year, the story of Paris-Nice was the dominance of Bjarne Riis’s CSC team, which seemed to steamroll the rest of the field and have a near monopoly on the top 10 in GC for much of the race. The team rode strongly in the prologue, then rode a sudden and furious virtual team time trial on the front to break the field to pieces in brutal crosswinds, all of which paved the way to the overall win for Jorg Jaksche.

This year, CSC is sitting pretty again, with Jens Voigt taking the prologue and a resurgent Bobby Julich riding well again. Crashes and weather-shortened stages have played a bit of havoc with CSC’s initial impact, tipping the scales in favor of lowlanders Rabobank and Quick.Step. Right now though, CSC still occupies third through fifth on GC with Arvesen, Gusev, and Voigt, with Julich lurking in 11th, and with Mt. Faron still looming, things are far from over.

And CSC doing well in Paris-Nice just seems right. Just as Paris-Nice resurrects the cycling season from the dead of winter each year, Bjarne Riis has quickly established a reputation for resurrecting careers—whether from decline or stagnation.

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140th But Not Least...

SC refuses to be the only website that mentions cycling but doesn’t mention the extremely poor quality of Armstrong’s Paris-Nice prologue performance. 140th and dropping 27 seconds in a 4k prologue? Yes, that’s bad, and Armstrong has said as much, pointing to the fact that it’s his first race of the season. Bruyneel was on the same wavelength in his home Belgian press, if seemingly a little more bothered by it.

But it isn’t just that it’s bad--it’s that it’s suspiciously bad. Like trying too hard to be bad, or maybe trying to be really bad to cover what might have just been bad. Or being bad to cover up being good too early. Who knows?

But everything around Armstrong is about suspicion, about the chance that he may be bluffing. Or not. People were suspicious when he said he wouldn’t ride the Tour de France this year, and now, according to Armstrong, they were right to be. Credit prologue winner Jens Voigt (CSC) with being the first to buck the trend and go the other way. According to, Voigt told the Berliner Morgenpost that “Basso can win the Tour. And especially because, I still don't believe that Lance Armstrong will participate. Lance knows that his streak won't last forever. And he sure doesn't want to finish in second place. If he does start, then he will win the Tour again with five minutes advantage. But I just don't believe it."

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Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Speak His Name and He Shall Appear (or Disappear)

Yesterday, I mentioned Frank Vandenbrouke, everyone’s favorite problem man-child. Today, his Mr. Bookmaker squad secured its golden ticket to ride in the Tour of Flanders, the stage that could have catapulted a motivated Vandenbrouke back onto the public eye in something more than a punchline capacity. But a motivated Vandenbrouke has been a scarce commodity for years.

Whether or not Mr. Bookmaker got an invite to the big show, VDB had already long since renounced any intention of riding the spring classics due to lack of form. So today, he backed off even further, announcing that he’s having problems with an infected Achilles tendon, and won’t be able to start his season at the Tour of Murcia (Spain) as planned. Now sure, he may really be injured and in need of his planned six days of treatment back in Belgium. But the guy has burned through so many excuses---from the legitimate, to the illegitimate, to the absurd---that nobody seems to be able to take him seriously.

So, riding or not VDB continues to entertain a nation and the cycling world. Under the “not entertained” category, we have his director sportive, Lucien Van Impe, who told Sportwereld (roughly translated), “I think Frank needs to finally take some responsibility. We’re fast approaching mid-March and he still hasn’t raced a meter. Hilaire (Van Schueren, the team manager) might think that I’m from the old mold, that Frank deserves a more gentle treatment, but that’s the way I am.”

According to Van Schueren, VDB will continue to ride during his treatment, but three hours rather than five. Asked whether the world can still believe in VDB, Van Schueren is still shockingly optimistic, “That doesn’t interest me. First I have to (believe in him), then the rest follows.”

Maybe I’m from the old mold, too, but I’m with Van Impe---give him a hiding.

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Tour of Flanders Wildcards Announced

Three Belgian/One French Continental Team Selected

The spring classics picture continues to shape up, as four of the five wildcard teams were announced for the Tour of Flanders today. In addition to the 20 ProTour teams that are guaranteed entries (whether they want to be there or not--I’m looking at you Spain), Belgian home teams Landboukrediet-Colnago, Mr., and Chocolade Jacques/T-Interim got the nod. French squad Ag2r-Prevoyance also gets a spot on the line.

The final wildcard spot will be awarded following the first classic of the season, Milan-San Remo. If Igor Astarloa hadn’t just broken his wrist and arm in Marseille, I’d say his Barloworld-Valsir squad would have a great shot, but without him they’re looking pretty thin. I’m guessing it’ll go to a nice second-string Italian squad, like Acqua&Sapone.

Luck of the Irish?

Speaking of second string Italian teams, has anyone noticed that Tenax-Nobili Rubinetterie is registered in Dublin, Ireland? Granted, the team isn't as Italian as it was a few years back---now it’s a mix of Italians (7), Australians (3), Slovenians (3), a Zimbabwe-an, a Ukranian, and a Croatian. That mix may make you a lot of things, but it ain’t Irish.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2005


The Return of the Flandriens

The fact that American George Hincapie (Discovery) rode to a well-deserved win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday will no doubt dominate the pages of the American cycling press this week. Hincapie had vowed to ride more aggressively this year—abandoning his sometimes frustrating follow-the-moves, wait-and-see style—and followed through on his promise by spotting the right break at the right time and taking a two-up sprint over young Kevin Van Impe (Chocolate Jacques). As the only remaining member of the original 1997 US Postal squad that morphed into Discovery Channel this year, it seems right that the 31-year-old delivered the first victory to the squad’s new sponsor. It's certainly more interesting than their big purchase, Armstrong, taking the team’s first win and having to read a bad recap by some Washington Post stringer, who would really only tell us about LA’s six Tour wins and maybe something about cancer anyway. But now, for reliable George, the speculation will begin again, just like it did after his 2001 Gent-Wevelgem win—can he deliver a big one? Flanders? Roubaix? Dare we dream?

Of course, nobody knows if it will happen, this year or ever, not even George or Johan Bruyneel. But that won't stop the drawled-out, well-I’ll-tell-ya-what talk posing as informed debate on countless message boards, newsgroups, and Sunday group rides for the next month. Tyler Hamilton’s doping trial will put a dent in the chatter, of course, but after that weird and ugly debacle, damned if people aren’t going to be looking for hope. But enough about those vile things, needles and blood and all that. In the course of all that will-he-or-won't-he talk about Hincapie, his K-B-K ride, and their hopes for him, American cycling fans are in grave, insidious danger of missing the true big story of this past weekend--the emergence of a new generation of Flemish classics riders. The fact is, few probably realize how bleak things have been for the Belgian fans.

Let’s face it, the Belgians have a reputation in cycling. (Probably the only reputation they have for anything outside of the macho, testosterone-driven worlds of chocolate and beer brewing by holy men.) They’re tough, they ride well in wind, in rain, on cobblestones. In fact, it seems as though Belgium always had a stoic, stone-hard character or three who could come through over the kasselin to take the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, or Gent-Wevelgem, or anything else with lots of kilometers, poor conditions, and bad roads. But big wins have been thin for years. Recent results of the classics—cobbled and otherwise—are littered with Italians, Americans, Swedes, Danes, and, fergodssake, Spaniards. Blasphemy.

Peter Van Petegem’s 2003 Flanders-Roubaix double, in the context of current Flemish and Belgian cycling, was starting to look like a bit of a last gasp. The Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw, is retired now, his legend mired in suspect text messages about wasps and other mystery drugs. Van Petegem will be next to go—at 35 he’s taken over Museeuw’s elder statesman role in the Flandrian peloton, a deal that seemed sealed with their hand-holding across the line at the 2004 Paris-Roubaix (Van Petegem claims he would have sprinted it out for 5th, but deferred to Museeuw’s request for a show of mutual respect). Before Museeuw there was Van Hooydonck, before Van Hooydonck, there was Vanderaerden, the greater and lesser Planckaerts, Pollentier, DeMeyer, DeVlaeminck, Merckx, Van Looy, Van Steenbergen, Schotte…

But what now? After “de Leuw” and “de Peet,” things were looking pretty sparse. Mario Aerts (31) won Fleche Wallone for Lotto-Adecco in 2002 and promptly jumped ship to T-Mobile, where, like so many others, he languished for 2 years before going back to Davitamon-Lotto this year. Before that Fleche-Wallone, he won the 1996 GP Isbergues and 1997 Circuit Franco-Belge for Vlaanderen 2002, which helped land him a contract with Lotto, where he languished for 5 years before his Fleche win. In 2001, Rik Verbrugge (30) grabbed Fleche, the Criterium International, and the fastest Giro d’Italia prologue in history, and then…nothing…until he landed the GP Lugano in Switzerland on Saturday.

Then there’s Vandenbrouke, always Vandenbrouke, the prodigy who grabbed Paris-Nice and Gent-Wevelgem in 1998 and the GP D’Ouverture la Marseillaise, Het Volk, and Liege in 1999 before descending about five circles into what he tells us is some sort of personal and professional hell. Of course, somehow, year after year, he finds the inside of a courtroom and an employer or two. Now, at 30, it’s the modest Mr. Bookmaker squad, for whom he’s yet to make an appearance, but at least hasn’t committed a felony. Those in charge at Mr. Bookmaker shouldn’t feel too foolish when he finally cracks and mails them his jersey and half an unplucked chicken, though; Patrick Lefevre and Giancarlo Ferretti both bought his act in the recent past, and there’s worse company to be in.

Who else? Dave Bruylandts? Taking a couple years off after an EPO positive. Jo Planckaert? The same. Axel Merckx? Always a solid rider, but carrying hopes he could never live up to. Tom Steels? Still around, still constantly on the comeback trail, but like so many of the Belgian hopes, aging fast.

But of course, there’s Tom Boonen. A third at Roubiax in 2002 after working for Hincapie most of the race lit the khakis of the Belgian press afire, and he followed up with a what he seemed to know would be a quiet year learning under Lefevre and Museeuw at QuickStep-Davitamon in 2003. In 2004, he exploded, winning Gent-Wevelgem in apocalyptic conditions, the Grote Scheldeprijs, E3-Harelbeke, two Tour stages, two stages and the overall at the Tour of Picardie, the Memorial Rik Van Steenbergen, and 10 other victories. At the end of 2004, there were two directions to go---the 24-year-old could go on and live up to the heavy “next Museeuw” title the Belgian press hung on him in 2002, or go the Vandenbrouke route, crack under the pressure, and descend the professional ladder. He seems to have taken the former, and more importantly, he stands a chance at staying that course.

And here’s where we get back to the original point of this little missive—Boonen stands a better chance of not melting in the heat because, for the first time in recent history, he’ll be sharing the weight of his home country's hopes with a group of fellow young Belgians who are starting to prove they can live up to the Flandrian reputation.

At Het Volk on Saturday, Nick Nuyens, Boonen’s 24-year-old QuickStep teammate buried himself on more than one occasion to bring back dangerous moves—including one containing Hincapie, Van Petegem, and Hincapie’s young Belgian teammate Stijn Devolder. With around 18k remaining, Nuyens continued to work, jetting off the front to join old man Ludo Dierckxens and 26-year-old Belgian Johan Coenen (Mr. Bookmaker). Nuyens knew that the longer he could stay away, the better rested Boonen would be to take the sprint in Lokeren. And he was right, in a sense. Nuyens dropped his breakaway companions on the final cobbled sector, and rode in to a comfortable solo win, while Boonen took the field sprint for second place ahead of Dutchman Steven DeJongh (Rabobank).

In the week leading up to Het Volk, Boonen had already told Belgium’s Sportwereld newspaper that he considered another 25-year-old Belgian, the aforementioned Stijn Devolder, a favorite for the win. That was a pretty bold prediction, especially given that Devolder’s Discovery squad for Het Volk would include classics standouts like Hincapie, Viatcheslav Ekimov, and Max Van Heeswijk. Though he wasn’t exactly correct, Boonen’s estimate of Devolder’s strength was dead-on. Devolder was easily the most active rider throughout the race, putting in brutal attacks at every turn, chasing when it needed to be done, and singlehandedly stringing out the pack and various breakaway groups at every turn. Then he did it all again on Sunday at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, almost singlehandedly neutralizing Boonen in the latter stages of the race.

One man who wouldn’t be surprised is Dirk Demol, Discovery’s classics director. According to Demol, Devolder has always had the legs, it was only his head that needed to be put in order. At the Discovery team launch in January, he told me this about his relatively unheralded rider:

“He was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. Even when you talk about the debutantes, the juniors and the espoirs, when he was in good shape he was as strong as Tom Boonen was. He's a strong athlete, but mentally he's nowhere. When something goes a little bit wrong, he loses his morale and he goes nowhere.

When he came in the team I believed in him because before I came to the team I was working with young riders and he was one of my young riders, so I know him a little bit from that time. I saw him again doing big things in 2003, in a few races in the end of the season. That was for me the moment that showed me that I still believed in Stijn Devolder and his talents. Years ago, he was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. For a few years, it's been pretty quiet for him, but I'm sure he has the talent and he has the legs, he can do something. Let's give him a chance and let him work with us. He showed last year that he improved a lot, not with amazing results, but I can say I'm sure this guy is capable of winning races. When I talk about winning races I'm talking about races like the E3 Prijs Harelbeke. This guy in my eyes is capable of anything. He can win on his own, and as a teammate he's doing everything you tell him, if you tell him to pull, he just pulls, if you tell him to protect somebody, he protects, he does everything we want.”

Wise predictions, and Demol deserves to have people know how right he had it. In the space of two days, Devolder proved just about every sentence true. Now we just have to wait for Harelbeke.

Still another young Flemish rider, 23-year-old Kevin Van Impe of Chocolade Jacques (and cousin of the last Belgian Tour winner, Lucien Van Impe) also made a big impact over the weekend, initiating the winning break in the heated waning kilometers of K-B-K. Unfortunately for him, he was joined by Hincapie, who simply blew him away in a 200 meter dash to the line. But that’s OK—even with the famously harsh Belgian press, always on the lookout for the next Merckx, the next Museeuw. Because together with Boonen, Nuyens, Coenen, and Devolder, Van Impe stands a chance at reinvigorating the legacy of a region and a group of riders that know there’s more to life than the Tour de France. And the cycling world needs that. Badly.

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