News Feature , March 1, 2008
Quick Step will undoubtedly be the team to watch in the 63rd Omloop Het Volk with mega-stars Tom Boonen and World Champion Paolo Bettini. The 199-kilometre semi-classic officially opens the season of spring one-day races for the powerful duo, both of whom returned to Europe last week after racing the Tour of California.
The team has won the race twice in recent years, but never with the Belgian nor Italian. In 2003, it was Johan Museeuw who took the win with Bettini playing good team-mate in third, while two more Quick Step riders, Franck Vandenbrouke and Boonen, rounded out the top five well ahead of the field. In 2005, Nick Nuyens made a name for himself by holding onto a courageous solo attack while Boonen won the sprint for second.
For Boonen, the semi-classic is an empty space on his trophy shelf. "It is the only race I have not won from the spring classics, all the other ones I have already won one time or more," noted 27 year-old Tom Boonen to Cyclingnews Friday evening, February 29, at the Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk.
"I don't know I am going to be good enough to make the race on my own, but we have other riders who are able to do it." - Boonen weighs his chances of getting the one trophy he hasn't yet won.
As rain started to fall outside, the rider form Mol rated the race as important, but noted that his peak is set for the end of March and early April. "It is a pretty important race; it is the first race of the season on Flemish soil. I am not really 100 percent condition-wise and I am also little bit jet lagged from the Tour of California; however, I think if everything goes well it is still possible to win the race. I don't know how my legs will feel tomorrow, it is possible they will be good."
The race returns to its roots with the arrival in Gent after a 13-year hiatus, adding an element of uncertainty for the riders. "It is a little bit harder – more nervous, and narrow roads between the climbs," explained Boonen. "It will be better for strong riders with a strong team. I don't know I am going to be good enough to make the race on my own, but we have other riders who are able to do it."
The Belgian ProTour team has Stijn Devolder, Gert Steegmans and Steven De Jongh if Boonen or Bettini should fail. "We have a lot a cards to play, it is not only me." Outside of his own team, he rates the favourites as Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady (both Team CSC).
Boonen – winner of two editions of Ronde van Vlaanderen and the 2005 Paris-Roubaix – will expect his best form will arrive later in March. "My peak form will be in the period from Sanremo to Roubaix, and everything I win in that period is great. If I win one [race] it is good, if I win two it is better, if I win three great!"
Even though he is racing Tirreno-Adriatico, Boonen clarified to Cyclingnews he is not racing the Monte Paschi Eroica, the new event which is trying to make a name for itself as a 'hard man's race' in Italy. "Are you making me do it?" he asked, laughing. "I heard some stories about it. It is on dirt roads? In Italy, [a hard-man's race]?! That is not possible?" he joked.
Bettini hopes to improve pavé skills
Paolo Bettini was joking with Boonen about the flight back from the Tour of California, but he turned serious when discussing the parcours Saturday's Omloop Het Volk. "It is better for me to have the difficult parts closer to the finish," he noted about the new arrival in Gent. The last time the race finished in Gent it was none other than Bettini's national directeur, Franco Ballerini, who won.
Bettini was happy to know that the Molenberg climb comes closer to the finish, because he has painful memories of trying to hang on to the race in the flat and pavé-filled finale. "I remember the year that Johan Museeuw won, 2002 or 2003 [2003 - ed.], I got dropped on the flat finale!"
Bettini is in Belgium to better himself on the pavé and pursue that missing win in his palmarès: Ronde van Vlaanderen. "Ronde would be good for the palmarès, but also for my head. It would be good to have one Flanders."
He then spoke of the biggest one-day race in Italy, La Classicissima, Milano-Sanremo. Race organiser RCS Sport recently announced the change to the final kilometre, and it is one that has Bettini worried. "It is an extra kilometre from the Poggio to the finish line," he continued to Cyclingnews. "For those who want to attack, this is great. It is already hard for the sprinters' teams, but with another kilometre it will give even more chances for attacks on those teams."
He then revealed that the Italian race may have another climb. "I have heard of another change just recently. Before Imperia, there is an extra climb – it is not yet official," he confided. "It will be like the Cipressa more or less, with a technical decent."
With their goals set, both Boonen and Bettini were ready to get some sleep and start the classics season tomorrow.