By Brecht Decaluwé
Frederik Willems was the first Belgian to get underway in London, the Liquigas rider clocking a respectable but not spectacular 9'45 for 84th position. "It's a nice course although I didn't see much of the buildings, there was no time for that," Willems told Sporza. "There were many people along the course. I spotted fans from my hometown, that's great."
Willems is making his debut in the biggest race in the world, and like many domestiques, is hoping to reach the Champs-Élysées in three week's time. "I want to make it to Paris. I'll have to work a lot for my team leader Manuel Beltrán. We take turns within the team to support him," Willems explained. "We've got a team full of attackers and everybody can have a go. Filippo Pozzato has most experience, he has already won a stage in the Tour."
Last year Wim Vansevenant (Predictor - Lotto) finished as the lanterne rouge in the Tour de France, and his ambitions in this Tour haven't changed much. "The GC doesn't interest me, I'm here to work for the team," Vansevenant said to Sporza.
Axel Merckx (T-Mobile), riding his 16th and last Tour de France, had high praise for the London prologue. "This is the most beautiful prologue I have ever ridden in my career," Merckx said to Sporza. "London is a very beautiful city and the course is fast. You can keep riding, you never need to brake."
"I really want to win a stage in my last Tour de France," he added. "It doesn't matter where but probably I have better opportunities in the second or third week, then I'll try to join a breakaway." T-Mobile is aiming on a stage win during the first week with young Mark Cavendish. "He can save himself during the prologue," Merckx noted.
Mario Aerts was happy with his performance in London's prologue. The Belgian went to sleep the night before knowing he would be chased down by prologue specialist David Zabriskie (CSC). "I didn't sleep well but in the end I succeeded in my goal, I didn't want to be overtaken by Zabriskie," Aerts told Sporza when cooling down on the rollers. "It's a great course and there were many people along it, something I didn't expect; it's fun for a Tour start."
The Predictor-Lotto veteran who aimed for stage wins during previous years is no longer chasing glory himself but working for the team's Aussie pairing of Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen. "I'm doing that without a problem but I have no longer ambition for stage wins because it's too hard. In the mountains I'm going to try to stay with Evans as long as I can."
Aerts has already ridden the Giro d'Italia this year and the former winner of Flèche Wallonne is thinking about making it a Grand Tour triple by riding the Vuelta a España too. "Otherwise the season is too short for me and I want to take part in the world championships in Stuttgart as well," Aerts explained. "I heard that the course in Stuttgart is difficult and that suits me. When Boonen became world champion, I was in the team as well."
With a time of 9'30" Rik Verbrugghe didn't ride a bad prologue. "I'm already happy to be here after last year's crash in the Tour," the Cofidis rider told Sporza. "I'm proud of myself although I'm still missing some explosive power in my legs. I'll have to train hard for that during the coming winter because for a really good prologue I'm not good enough yet."
"There are still days that I feel the pain of my knee but it's going better and better," continued Verbrugghe, who is celebrating his 33rd birthday on July 23. "There's a nice stage scheduled on that day but first we have to see if I make it to that day."
Verbrugghe's teammate and compatriot Staf Scheirlinckx made his debut in the Tour but was unhappy with his performance. "I gave all I had but it was a tough course. I was also too nervous for my first Tour," Scheirlinckx admitted. "London is a great city but the prologue was disappointing. I didn't use my biggest gear that often, that's something which only the best riders can do."