World Championships feature, September 27, 2008
Amongst the nations contending for the rainbow jersey of the World Championships road race on Sunday, Italy, Spain and Belgium stand out as the strongest teams on paper, with the Northern European nation rated third in line behind the two others. Belgium has nine riders on the start list for Sunday, of which five, according to the team, could be contenders for victory: Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Nick Nuyens and Stijn Devolder. As much as this may be an asset, it could also prove fatal for the squad if team tactics remain unclear.
All eyes on Boonen?
Boonen, the designated leader of the Belgian squad, played down his role in the light of his teammates' fitness.
"I don't see myself as the big chief this year - I think we have a really strong team with a few riders who are able to do a really good result as well," he said to Cyclingnews. "The others worked hard for this race as well, not only me. These four, five riders are also here for a result, and we just have to keep our heads clear and try to get into the final with as many riders possible. Once we are at that point, we have to take the right decisions and not get in each other's way. But I think we are all experienced riders who know how to ride the finals of big races, so I don't expect any problems within the team - there are more problems with the other teams!"
"The most important thing is to make it into the group ... which is why you constantly need to keep your eyes open.." -Tom Boonen knows he can win from a sprint or a small group, but he needs to make the decisive split.
The 2005 World Champion did not think that the Varese course - 15 laps for a total of 260 kilometres - would be too hilly for him as a sprinter. "The course is hard, but it's not as difficult as everybody says. I don't think there will be five guys at the finish line; I think it's going to be more. It all depends on the way the race is ridden," he commented.
Boonen thinks a sprint is not his only option to win. "I'm a sprinter, but the important thing is that I don't need a sprint to win," he continued. "I can also sprint in a small group. I'm not a rider that tries to mess up a race, I'm a rider that tries to follow and get into a good position in the final lap."
He knows the other teams will mark him, making his task more difficult in the final laps.
"I have the possibility to do the sprint if a big group gets to the finish line together. But I can also get into a small group - even if that makes it more difficult for me to win because everybody will be looking at me to win! But at that stage, when a break goes in the finale, then I have to try to be there with a teammate and control it from there.
"The most important thing is to make it into the group. In Madrid [where Boonen became world champion - ed.], I was always looking at Alejandro Valverde because I knew that if he jumped in a break, the Spanish team would stop pulling. These are all things you have to take into account, which is why you constantly need to keep your eyes open..."
The Belgian team's tactics will vary depending on the other big teams, such as the squadra azzurra, the team of Boonen's trade teammate and defending champion, Paolo Bettini.
"These last few years the worlds were always a little bit predictable, but I don't expect it to be predictable this year. I know that Paolo [Bettini] will try to make it really, hard. The Italian team is good and strong, so they have a few more possibilities. I think they will try for some different tactics than what everybody is used to."
A special year
Boonen has had a difficult year, with his positive out-of-competition test for cocaine before the Tour de France taking him out of the race and exposing him to a lot of public critique. He explained he learnt a lot from that period - that he made a mistake, paid dearly for it and now moved on with the Worlds being almost a target for redemption. Winning the rainbow jersey this year would surely mean a lot to him.
Asked if the affair still affected his mental preparation for this race, he said, "In the beginning it really hard. I was confused, didn't know what to do, I didn't want to ride anymore, etcetera. But then I started racing immediately afterwards, and from then on, the only way was up. I was motivated, concentrated, and I had a big objective, which were the World Championships and Paris-Tours. I ate well, I slept well, I trained well. When I came to the start of the Vuelta I really had good legs. I recovered well after Spain, and I was calm mentally. I'm sure I'm ready."
Boonen said that winning too many races, too many times, had played a role in his problems in spring. "Motivation became a problem at one point. I already won everything I had to win, three or four times almost. I still found motivation prior to the races, but in between, I got a little more relaxed and that wasn't right. Everybody was thinking that [me winning] was normal - for example, I won the GP Harelbeke four times. And the fourth time, it didn't mean anything anymore, even if the work that you put into it is the same every time."
In the end, the Belgian learned a lesson, which added to personal experience and allowed him grow in character. "For me personally, it was good to see how different people reacted to the affair. Now I have a clear vision of the people who were there for me, and the ones that weren't. Of course, the circumstances weren't right, but the result was good."
Boonen isn't the only rider who has focused his season on the World Championships. Nick Nuyens will be looking to put in an attack or two on Sunday in hopes of reviving a season which began strong with a second in Het Volk and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but stopped abruptly in May. "After my crash in the Giro, where I broke my collarbone, I was just focusing on one race - this one," said Nuyens, who races during the season for Cofidis.
"I used the Vuelta as a preparation for the Worlds, where I tested my condition. I realised I was really strong there. I'm very confident for Sunday, even though I know I'm not a Bettini or a Valverde, but it's a course I really like."
Nuyens knows that the team will have to decide where to put its muscle. Boonen and Van Avermaet will be present in case of a sprint and Nuyens will have to share responsibilities of attacking with Gilbert.
"We have a really strong team with five riders who can win - so we need to do it, no matter who of us does it. It just has to be a Belgian. With Boonen, of course, one guy ranks a little bit higher than the rest. But as always, anything can happen - it's the riders who make the race unfold.
"We also have Gilbert, Van Avermaet and Devolder who can be in a break, as well as myself. This would also change the situation."
Nuyens' form proved to be excellent in the Vuelta, where he escaped together with Gilbert in a group of 17 riders on a mountain stage (stage 15 to Pontferrada). He ended up second at the finish, but showed outstanding climbing for a Flemish Classics specialist. Gilbert, on the other hand, had to let go of the group on the last hill before the finish - but his teammate said this had just been a question of day-to-day form and was not significant as to Gilbert's strength heading into the road race on Sunday.
"I was surprised he got dropped on that climb, as I know he has good legs at the moment. But it was probably due to a bad day he had, quite simply."
Gilbert, the Trojan horse
Philippe Gilbert is one of Belgium's attacking riders who will be utilised in the closing three circuits of the Worlds. Pundits recognise the Ardennes Classics specialist's habit to hide out a bit prior to the races he really targets - he was rather discreet at the Vuelta even though he passed the mountains well. He could be a strong finish contender, too. If there is division in the Belgian team between the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking riders, Gilbert knows he can count on one rider for support - fellow Walloon Maxime Monfort.
"I have Maxime Monfort to help me," Gilbert said. "It is no problem for him to help me. He called me the other day and said that he would work all for me."
He seemed as confused as most pundits as to what the team will do when it is time to work for one of its riders. "Leader? It is very difficult to say. We have a strong team. We have Tom Boonen for the sprint, Greg Van Avermaet, Nuyens, me; it is a very strong team."
Ready to attack: Devolder
The time trial effort on Thursday may have weakened Stijn Devolder slightly. He put in a 53:17 time to finish sixth behind winner Bert Grabsch. Leif Hoste also did the time trial and has since gone home.
"I did the best I could after the Tour; I was tired and it was hard for me to get into good shape again for the Worlds. I came here in best possible condition," said Devolder of his time trial.
He acknowledged it would be Spain and Italy's race to control and Belgium would act as of a bit of a wild card. "You play the game; you are here with four or five of us who can eventually win the race. You have to watch the favourite teams, Spain and Italy. They have to defend the title and the best thing for us to do is to attack.
"If it comes to the sprint we have Tom Boonen; he is the fastest man in the team. He has been World Champion before. Boonen for the sprint and the rest of us have to attack."
Devolder enjoys the national atmosphere in Varese despite any concerns over team leaders and team tactics. The team's hotel takes in views of Lago di Varese and provides serenity before Sunday's warfare.
"It is only one week in the year you can ride for you country. It is something special and it is always nice to be here at the worlds - I am enjoying it."