Friday, September 16, 2005


Belgian World’s Team Selection Draws Controversy

With the World Championship road race slated for just 10 days from now, there’s trouble brewing in the Belgian camp. The course in Madrid is tailor-made for a sprint finish, with the Belgians placing their faith in Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) for the win. After a stellar season that featured his Flanders-Roubaix double and wins in Tour de France sprint stages, the 24-year-old has proven that he has what it takes to handle the distance and competition the World’s will throw at him. In Madrid, he’ll face stiff competition from Italian five-star favorite Alessandro Petacchi (Fasso Bortolo), but that’s not what’s ruffling feathers in the land of the spring classics.

Some of the controversy over the Belgian team selection finds its roots in the third contender for the rainbow jersey—Australia’s Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto). Having just taken the G.P. Fourmiers and Paris-Brussels, the feisty McEwen has proved that he’s on-form and ready for a showdown. McEwen has been quick this year to spread the credit for his victories to the assistance of his Davitamon-Lotto squad, and that’s the rub.

When Belgian team selector Jose DeCauwer announced his squad headed by Boonen, he selected only two other riders from Boonen’s Quick.Step squad—Nick Nuyens and Wilfried Cretskens. Also included in the squad are McEwen’s Davitamon-Lotto teammates Peter Van Petegem, Bjorn Leukemans, and Mario Aerts. That little detail, it seems, has inflamed Quick.Step director Patrick Lefevere, who was lobbying for five of his boys to make the cut.

Since nobody would dare question the great Van Petegem’s motivations or abilities, Lefevere’s criticism has centered on Aerts and Leukemans, who he feels should have been replaced with Boonen’s Quik.Step helpers Rik Verbrugge and Kevin Hulsmans. He’s also been critical of DeCauwer’s absence at the Vuelta to rate performances, as well as the fact that DeCauwer did not consult adequately with Boonen regarding the selection. According to , Boonen, unlike Lefevere, is fine with both the team selection and his lack of involvement in it.

Though Lefevere hasn’t said it publicly to my knowledge, he has to be a bit worried about where those Davitamon riders’ loyalties lie—with Boonen and the national team, or with their trade teammate McEwen? Such questions are nothing new, of course—just witness the debacle at the world cyclocross championships a few years back when the interests of the Belgian and Dutch federations crossed swords with those of the Rabobank trade team.

If Lefevere’s concerns aren’t merely about team chemistry and do indeed extend to the loyalty issue, SC believes that he needn’t lose any sleep over it. There are precisely two ProTour teams in cycling-mad Belgium, his Quick.Step squad and Davitamon-Lotto, and the Belgians love to ride for a home team. So, should Aerts or Leukemans make any moves that help McEwen at Boonen’s expense and irritate Lefevere, they’ll be halfing their job prospects at home by half when it comes time to look for a new contract.

Of course, there’s always the prospect that Davitamon-Lotto could offer Aerts and Leukemans a little incentive for putting McEwen in stripes next year, but that could make for a PR disaster for the team in its home country, so it seems unlikely. McEwen, however, isn’t doing anything to put Lefevere’s mind at ease, going so far as to encourage DeCauwer to select more of his Davitamon-Lotto team for the Belgian squad.

After his Paris-Brussels win, McEwen told “If the Belgian National coach watched the race today, he'll know he has to take more of our team to Madrid. They know better than anyone else how to guide a sprinter to the finish line. And the Belgians do want Tom Boonen to become World Champion, no?”

Of course, we didn’t think that Robbie would miss a chance to stir the pot, did we? And why not keep them guessing?

Sitting outside of the controversy, the Belgian road race team is rounded out with Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel), young Walloon Phillipe Gilbert (FDJ), and Rabobank’s veteran workhorse Mark Wauters. Leif Hoste (Discovery Channel) and Bert Roesems (Davitamon-Lotto) will ride the time trial.

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Nuyens, Leukemans Prove Their Worth in GP Wallonie

In the midst of all the Belgian team controversy (see above), two of De Cauwer’s charges proved that he’s pretty handy at picking on-form riders for the squad.

At the GP Wallonie on September 14, controversial World’s selection Bjorn Leukemans (Davitamon-Lotto) had a great chance to prove his worth with a win in Namur. But with a clear view of the line and the victory, he made an age-old mistake that seems to be becoming more frequent these days—raising his arms a bit early. This is a note to all riders: if it can happen to a solid veteran like Zabel in a race as big as Milan-San Remo, it can happen to you. The premature celebration allowed fellow World’s team member Nick Nuyens to justify his selection by charging through on the right for the win.

In an interview with , Nuyens recognized that, despite going wheel to wheel in the final against Leukemans, in Madrid, they’d all be riding together in the name of the homeland.

“Underway, Leukemans picked up bottles for his team. I asked one from him as well. ‘Then you can practice for next Sunday in Madrid,’ I said to him. He who goes to the World Championships must be sure that they can carry the national jersey. Gilbert, Leukemans and I are the men who must go with the attacks in the final. Tom (Boonen) has proven that he deserves the absolute leadership.”

Boonen rode a fine race in support of Nuyens to finish 10th, and Philippe Gilbert (FDJ) was 11th, showing that the Belgian squad is hitting on all cylinders for their respective trade teams. Now we’ll see what happens when they’re all thrown in a common pot.

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No Questions in Italian World’s Team

World championships team controversy, treachery, and intrigue used to be Italian territory, but Italian national team coach Franco Ballerini seems to have miraculously put an end to all of that. As it was in 2002, when Mario Cipollini was the odds-on favorite for the jersey on the sprinter’s course at Zolder, Belgium, the Italian squad seems 100 percent united behind Alessandro Petacchi. And why not? He’s the top dog sprinter in Italy and the world now, and as the boys on Discovery will tell you, personal ambition is fruitless when you’re working for a teammate whose skills suit the course far better than yours.

But with such a dominant leaders on courses tailor-made for their skills, Ballerini’s job in building team unity alive has been rendered much easier than in the past, when an embarrassment of riches—Bartoli, Bettini, Rebellin, Tafi, and Ballerini himself—almost guaranteed infighting on more traditional World Championship courses.

Ballerini is enough of a professional to realize that a world’s win isn’t a done deal though, citing what he calls a “McEwen corner” just a few hundred yards from the line in Madrid. That little detail has the potential to derail Petacchi’s azurri train, and tip the scales in favor of McEwen’s bob-and-weave sprinting style. Time will tell.

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Gonzalez Fails Internal Team Test at Vuelta

In a somewhat strange move, the Swiss Phonak squad pulled its Spaniard Santos Gonzalez from the Vuelta a Espana on Thursday. The Spaniard was sitting 8th on GC in his home tour, and is understandably upset by the decision.

Apparently, Gonzalez failed one of the team’s internal medical controls, an increasingly common tactic undertaken by teams to spare them official positive tests performed by WADA for the race organizations. Phonak hasn’t been forthcoming what kind of test Gonzalez failed, only saying that tests showed irregularities with his blood, but the most likely candidate seems to be a hematocrit test. UCI doping rules suspend riders that hit a 50% hematocrit level, but Phonak sources indicate that their organization sets a more conservative level.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem quite fair to old Santos, but who can blame Phonak for playing it safe? In the space of a couple of years, they’ve had four riders pinched—Tyler Hamilton and Santiago Perez for blood transfusions, former world champ Oscar Camenzind for EPO, and more recently, Italian sprinter Fabrizio Guidi for an undisclosed substance. If Gonzalez was nearing the 50% figure, the decision to pull him rather than risk putting him into a post-race test in a dehydrated state (which increases hematocrit levels) seems like a sound one.

Of course, to get at the ugly underlying issue of whether he’s doped or not, we’ll have to wait for Phonak’s promised analysis of his season-long blood test history. In the meantime, Gonzalez, who has never failed a blood test, is taking a forced rest from racing. Things may not be so bleak though—on the day he was excluded, he promptly set out to have an analyis conducted at a UCI-accredited lab—which doesn’t seem like the move of a man with something to hide.

Given its recent history with regard to dopage, SC wouldn’t be surprised if Phonak was filling their boys with enough saline to keep them running at a nice, lean 35%, regardless of whether they’re doped or not.

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