By Gregor Brown
Michele Bartoli favours the team of defending champion Philippe Gilbert, Silence-Lotto, for this Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Flanders, Belgium. The 2001 winner believes that the Belgian team may rely on its young charge Greg Van Avermaet for victory.
"I have heard that Silence-Lotto's Greg Van Avermaet is going very strong at this moment," Bartoli said to Cyclingnews. "Plus, with Leif Hoste and Philippe Gilbert the team has a lot of cards to play."
Saturday's race, formerly known as Het Volk, is 203 kilometres long and contains many cobbled climbs. It is a gauge of form for the upcoming Northern Classics of April.
Bartoli also noted that Belgium's biggest star, Tom Boonen (Quick Step), is always a factor. The race is one of the few one-day Belgian classics that Boonen has not won, but Bartoli counted him as a top favourite.
Bartoli took his win in the Italian national champion's jersey eight years ago. He ranked the win high despite haven already won the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 1996.
"It was one of my most beautiful victories. There were a lot of Italians, more than in the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At the arrival I saw how many of us there were and so I dedicated my win to them.
"You have to be a rider who wants to suffer. That course is tough, more so with it being so cold now. You have to be determined and physically adapted to win."
Bartoli, who retired in 2004, planned a comeback this season. He was training hard with professionals near his home in Pisa and he was impressed with his level of fitness.
"The time has passed on my return. It was linked to another sponsor entering the sport. They needed more time to decide, but I did not have the time."
Bartoli raced for 13 years as a professional. In addition to the 1996 Ronde van Vlaanderen and 2001 Het Volk, he won the 1997 and 1998 editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, plus the 2002 and 2003 editions of the Giro di Lombardia.