By Jeff Jones in Gent
As the snow began to fall outside Gent's Holiday Inn, Tom Boonen, the heir apparent to the cycling throne of Belgium, made a fashionably late appearance for his press conference. Earlier in the day, Boonen, together with the other members of the Quick.Step team had been out scouting the parcours of this Saturday's Omloop Het Volk, the opening race of the Belgian season. Braving freezing temperatures and the occasional snow storm, Boonen and the boys rode for five hours and covered 180 km of the most important parts of the route.
"It was cold and very windy," was Boonen's assessment. "But no other surprises. The parcours has been changed a little bit in the finale and looks to be a bit tougher than in other years. Especially in the Paddestraat zone, if there is a lot of wind that could be an important factor. As for the rest, the race has to be ridden first before we can talk about it."
Unlike other teams and riders who fear sickness from riding in the cold, Boonen was not afraid of braving the elements today. "You can also fall down the stairs if you're at home," he noted.
Boonen's plans for the next three days involve a lot of rest. "[Wednesday] is mainly rest and I will probably visit the chiropractor. I don't feel that I'm 100 percent right on the bike after my crash last week in Spain. It's not painful though. On Thursday I'll do one more training session, then on Friday, as much rest as possible."
Being the opening race of the Belgian season, the Omloop carries a lot of significance for local riders, but Boonen tries to deflect as much of this as possible. "I'm not really nervous for the weekend, but there is of course pressure from the Belgian side for a Belgian rider. People come out to look at the Belgian riders, so it's normal to be a bit nervous at the start. As a Belgian, the Omloop Het Volk remains the Omloop Het Volk."
The Quick.Step team is one never lacking in depth for these sorts of races, and Boonen believes that any one of four of five riders. "It's not just Tom Boonen," he said. "Nuyens is in the condition to win; Bettini, I don't know. Knaven and Hulsmans are good."
As for his rivals, Boonen has but one name. "Devolder [Discovery Channel] has been very good. He's the only one that stands out. I don't know about the rest, as I haven't seen them racing much."
Manager Patrick Lefevere was more expansive, naming Davitamon-Lotto, T-Mobile, CSC and Discovery Channel as the top teams to watch. "I hope the team does well," said Lefevere. "This is a really important race and I want the team to live up to its reputation. There was no competition last year but we dominated the race two years ago. Once again it will be important to be in on the action in the most crucial moments of the race."
Team for Het Volk: Paolo Bettini, Tom Boonen, Wilfried Cretskens, Kevin Hulsmans, Servais Knaven, Marc Lotz, Nick Nuyens, Stefano Zanini.
Team for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: Paolo Bettini, Tom Boonen, Dimitry De Fauw, Sebastian Rosseler, Bram Tankink, Kevin De Weert, Stefano Zanini.