By Brecht Decaluwé in Gent
The Française des Jeux team has a strong line-up for both the Omloop Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the opening events of the Belgian road season. And while eventual Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert was the clear team leader, there were some other Belgians ready to step up if necessary.
Team manager Marc Madiot told Cyclingnews before the race on Saturday that his Belgians are doing great, referring to both Philippe Gilbert and Gianni Meersman but also to his other discoveries Tom Stubbe and Jelle Vanendert. "The Belgian crowd is discovering their compatriots only now, thanks to their French neighbours," Madiot laughed. "Tom is in good form already, although he caught a cold recently. Also Vanendert will be a surprise for the Belgian crowd: he's a good bloke and I expect him to go well this season," said Madiot of the talented young climber who recently turned 23.
Team leader Gilbert was a relaxed man at the start of the race he won in 2006. "I know the course well," he said. "The return to Gent is nice; however, today there is a lot of wind, and it is a real race. I am happy to be back in Belgium racing; I live here, and I know so many people in this area... I think I have a chance to make a good result." And that certainly wasn't a lie - Gilbert dominated the race with a blistering attack 50 kilometres from the finish line.
As the designated first lieutenant to Gilbert before the start, Gianni Meersman was expected to be there with his team leader when the big guns fired in the hills near Oudenaarde. Meersman surprisingly joined the French team after Discovery Channel folded last year. "Two months ago my French was still in bad shape, but now it is much better," the Flemish-speaking Belgian explained after an interview in French that went without a hitch.
"My job today is to support Philippe. I've got the same characteristics as him, and so I should be able to perform well in races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the future," said the 22 year-old. Meersman was expected to support Gilbert in the finale, but before that could expect support himself from compatriot Tom Stubbe.
Cyclingnews also talked with Stubbe who is another new signing to the French Pro Tour team. "I joined the team on request of Philippe [Gilbert] who wanted a good domestique in the team; my job is to work," the 26 year-old laughed. "In the Omloop I need to stick around Meersman as long as I can. Thanks to my course knowledge I can move up at the right moments, but nevertheless it will be hard to make it into the finale."
Stubbe didn't figure in the finale and eventually finished 79th. "I caught a cold in the Algarve, but that shouldn't bother me," he said. His next race will be Tirreno-Adriatico, a race that could suit him with the longer climbs in Italy. "That's true, but for now it doesn't matter much where I race; it's more important to actually race. Today I'm a domestique and road captain, but in another race I can have a go myself in the finale," said Stubbe. At Française des Jeux everybody gets a chance to enjoy a free role once in a while.