Tales from the peloton, May 5, 2004
The next wave of Belgians: Who will succeed Museeuw?
Belgium's under-30 club
With the retirement of cycling superstar Johan Museeuw last month, and no Belgian victories in any of the World Cup races thus far, questions have to be asked: Will there ever be another Museeuw? And what does the future hold for Belgian cycling? The good news is there are a handful of talented young Belgians who, united, could fill the void. Anthony Tan reports on the rise of Belgium's under-30 club.
For the boyish-faced, 1.92 metre-tall Tom Boonen (Quick.Step-Davitamon), it must feel that the weight of the cycling world rests on his solid but youthful shoulders - at least for races like the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, anyway. Though fair enough - who can forget boom-boom Boonen's first Roubaix as a neo-pro in 2002, mixing it up with his idol Museeuw and eventual runner up Stefen Wesemann? As his then team-mate George Hincapie fell into a ditch, Boonen effortlessly took over as US Postal's main man as if he had ridden this race 10 times before (he had ridden it three times as an U23), finishing on the podium and joining three-time winner Museeuw less than a year later at Quick.Step-Davitamon.
Fast forward two years on: Boonen is close to meeting the lofty expectations Belgium has demanded of this precociously talented individual, with victories in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem and Museeuw's send-off race, the Grote Scheldeprijs - but is not quite there just yet. While he may have been riding for Museeuw first and foremost in Flanders, neither Museeuw, Paolo Bettini or Boonen had the horsepower when required on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the winning trio of Wesemann, Dave Bruylandts and Leif Hoste freeing themselves from the Quick.Step stranglehold on the infamous climb. One week later at Roubaix, Boonen was again at the disposal of Museeuw, but the youngster found himself unable to go with the Lion's series of ferocious accelerations on the key Carrefour de l'Arbe section of pavé that forced the race-winning move with 16 kilometres remaining.
Nonetheless, in both of the Belgian World Cups, Boonen was a contender, but must now find his feet without the comfort of maestro Museeuw by his side. Expect to see the boyish blonde going en bloc for his first pro win in Roubaix in 2005, some of the flatter one-week stage races like the Ronde van Nederland, and should his directeur Patrick Lefèvere choose to lead him down this path, a stage win or two in the opening week of the Tour de France.
Leif Hoste (Lotto-Domo), a relative unknown until April 4 this year, the date of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, is another rider who may carry the expectations of Belgium's cycling fans well into the future. Hoste, however, has not shown quite the same exponential acceleration to brilliance as Boonen in his formative years, winning a stage of the Tour de L'Avenir as a neo-pro at Vlaanderen 2002 before signing up with Mapei-Quick.Step and Domo-Farm Frites for two years apiece, his best results being a stage of the Tour de la Region Wallonne and the Belgian time trial championship.
Though in Hoste's last two seasons with Lotto-Domo, directeurs sportifs Christophe Sercu, Marc Sergeant, Claude Criquielion and Hendrik Redant have managed to extract a little more out of the 26 year-old. In 2003, he came close to winning an early-season opener, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, and later that year, Hoste partnered with Peter van Petegem to finish on the podium in the GP Eddy Merckx.
But it was at this year's Ronde van Vlaanderen where Hoste really shone. Ordered to go in the early break, he duly did so to pave the way for his leader Van Petegem - and after more than 200 kilometres in front, he miraculously found the energy to ultimately take his own chance when PVP was left wanting as Wesemann and Bruylandts sparked the winning escape. A fine twelfth in Roubaix, finishing in the company of Hincapie, Boonen and Dierckxsens, confirmed his emergence as a potential winner in spring, and when the time comes for Van Petegem to retire, expect to see Hoste emerge as Lotto-Domo's main man for the RVV and Roubaix. Whether Hoste could handle the extra pressure, however, is unknown.
The French speaking part of Belgium (Wallonia) has only a handful of professionals in the peloton compared to Flanders, and of those one young rider stands out in particular. 21 year old Philippe Gilbert is in his second year as a pro with FDJeux.com and has already shown great promise. After winning a stage and the points classification in the Tour de l'Avenir last year, Gilbert opened his account in 2004 with a stage win and the U23 classification in the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under in Australia. He followed that up with a 14th place in Milan-San Remo, and acquitted himself well in the rest of the classics. More recently he finished second behind Christophe Moreau in the Trophée des Grimpeurs. Gilbert is one of the more promising climbers to come out of Belgium in recent years and could turn into a Tour contender one day.
Quick.Step-Davitamon's Kevin Hulsmans may only 25, but is already in his fifth year as a professional. Hulsmans got off to a solid start with his first three years at Mapei-Quick.Step, taking wins at the Niedersachsen Rundfahrt, Circuit Franco-Belge and the young riders' competition at the Tour Méditerranéen, but his last two seasons at Q.S-D have been quiet to say the least. However, his depth of experience for one so young should bode well for Hulsmans, and has no excuse not to come good sooner rather than later. Victory in shorter tours such as the Tour Méditerranéen, Circuit Franco-Belge and Tour de Belgique are all within reach of this man, not just the Spring Classics - so Kevin, if you can hear us, we are waiting...
As for Jan Kuyckx (Vlaanderen-T Interim), recent points classification and double-stage winner of the UCI 2.3 Vuelta Ciclista a la Rioja, well, maybe not just yet if we're talking about a World Cup in spring, but give the 24 year-old another two or three years' more racing to toughen him up a little more, and then be the judge. Don't be surprised if directeurs sportifs Lefèvere (Quick.Step-Davitamon) or Sercu and Sergeant (Lotto-Domo) poach Kuyckx and turn him into a domestique-deluxe.
A former Vlaanderen-T Interim rider for three years before joining Belgium's second biggest Division I squad, Landbouwkrediet-Colnago is quietly confident that Nico Sijmens is a star in the making, their belief supported by the 26 year-old's four stage wins at the Österreich Rundfahrt (two stages), Tour de China and Circuito Montanes last year. Team managers Gérard Bulens, Adriano Baffi, Claude Vancoille, Willy Geukens, Marco Saligari and Jef De Bilde could well be right - Sijmens took an excellent victory at the GP Pino Cerami early last month, becoming the first Belgian winner since Paul Haghedooren's victory in 1985. And less than a fortnight before, he was one of the protagonists in a hard-fought Brabantse Pijl, eventually finishing third behind Luca Paolini (Quick.Step-Davitamon) and Michael Boogerd.
Out of the 20 or so Van-something-or-others, Jurgen Van De Walle, Jurgen van den Broeck, Jurgen van Goolen, Wim van Huffel, Kevin van Impe, Wouter van Mechelen, Wesley van Speybroeck, Johan van Summeren, and Sven Vanthourenhout are all worth keeping an eye on in years to come.
Last year, Jurgen Van De Walle (Chocolade Jacques-Wincor Nixdorf, 27 years old) rode a solid Etoile des Besseges, finishing sixth overall, while another Jurgen, van Goolen (Quick.Step-Davitamon, 23), made himself known after finishing second to Geert Omloop in the Belgian road championship, and backed up some exciting performances at the Centenary Tour de France with second place overall at the Tour of Denmark behind Gerolsteiner's Sebastian Lang. Van den Broeck (US Postal Service/Berry Floor, and yes, another Jurgen), has not done anything of significance to date, but knowing Dirk Demol and Johan Bruyneel, who seem to have a knack of spotting and grooming local talent (only to lose them shortly thereafter), expect to see a lot more from this fresh-faced 21 year-old.
Out of the Vlaanderen-T Interim trio of Wim van Huffel (Vlaanderen-T Interim, 24), Wouter van Mechelen (Vlaanderen-T Interim, 23) and Wesley van Speybroeck (Vlaanderen-T Interim, 25), it is the latter who has had greatest success so far, van Speybroeck's biggest victory coming two years ago at the UCI 1.3 Rudy Dhaenens, adding to his 2001 wins at the Nationale Sluitingprijs and the second stage of Paris-Correze. But with no result of note last year, Van Huffel is the one to watch after his exciting Hel van het Mergelland win of 2003, where the then 23 year-old launched an audacious last-minute attack against his more experienced breakaway companions including Nico Sijmens and Jens Heppner for a solo win.
Kevin van Impe (Lotto-Domo, 23), having completed his 'undergraduate' studies as a stagiaire with Lotto-Domo's Div III feeder team before joining the Division I ranks, showed signs of promise late last year with a solo victory on the third stage of the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt. Evergreen 22 year-old Johan van Summeren (Relax-Bodysol) may only be in his first year as a professional with Relax-Bodysol, but Lefèvere (yes, the same Lefèvere at Quick.Step-Davitamon) was quick to grab him after he finished second behind Uzbekistan's Sergey Lagutin at the espoir world road championships in Hamilton. Sven Vanthourenhout (Quick.Step-Davitamon) is another of Lefèvere's hand-pickings; the 23 year-old's best result so far is his third-place finish at last year's Belgian road championship, and is no doubt being groomed for greatness in years to come.
True, in this lot there is no real Giro, Tour or Vuelta contender - the last winner of that race around France was Lucien Van Impe in 1976, and it is probably something the country should try to address. But to the cycling-mad people of Belgium, there are only a handful of races that matter, and for most, the Tour isn't one of them.