By Bjorn Haake in De Panne
Belgian Leif Hoste has finished second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen an agonising three times in his career, but on Sunday he finally wants to reach the top step. The Silence-Lotto captain told Cyclingnews that despite a recent illness and a few minor crashes, he is right where he needs to be to win.
Hoste will be competing in the Ronde for the sixth time, and from the beginning of his career he showed that the race suits him. Most people point to experience as a key factor in winning the race, but Hoste took a more pragmatic view. "Sure, it's good to have a little experience, but it's better to have good legs than a lot of experience and bad legs."
Hoste added that knowing the roads doesn't make up for one important factor. "The biggest thing is motivation. You either like these races or you don't," he smiled. "Yes, I like these races in Flanders and I am very motivated!"
In 2004, Hoste debuted in the race and took second to Steffen Wesemann. In 2006, he made the decisive attack on the Valkenberg only to be out-sprinted by Tom Boonen, and then the next year had a frustratingly similar experience with Alessandro Ballan.
After three years in the runner-up spot, Hoste knows that luck is an important factor to the race, and not just on race day. A rider's preparation needs to be perfect, and while he has had some setbacks, he's not panicking. "I was sick two weeks ago in Tirreno. It's bad luck, there is nothing you can do about it."
He took it easy, rested for three days, then resumed his training. "Now everything is like I want it to be." Indeed, his increasing form was quite noticeable in De Panne. On the most difficult day he made the 29-man front group.
More bad luck struck this week, but was fortunately of minor consequence. "I crashed on Saturday [in the E3 Prijs] and on Wednesday [stage two of De Panne]. But it is nothing special, just a few scratches. A typical bike racer injury."
Sizing up the competition
Despite getting harsh criticism in the Belgian press for a lack of early-season results, the Silence-Lotto seems to be coming together just in time for the Ronde. The team placed four riders in the lead group on the first stage of De Panne, with sprinter Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Hoste and Roy Sentjens.
"We will see who is number one in our team on Sunday. We start with Philippe, Van Avermaet and me. Then we will see in the race who is the strongest."
The team's Belgian rivals Quick Step also have a strong squad, and will be the clear favourites, but Hoste also tipped Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam) as one to watch. "The most important thing is that the condition is good and for him that's not a problem right now."
Filippo Pozzato, winner of the first stage in De Panne as well as the E3 Prijs also has strong legs right now, but it is unclear if the Katusha team will be strong enough to support him. "I don't know if the lack of a team will affect him. I saw him this week and he is good enough. He can also look at other guys and play it like this."
The ability to read a race is important and Pozzato doesn't lack in that area. "He is smart enough to do it without a strong team," said Hoste.
Hoste didn't want to predict the key section where a winning move could be made, but is happy to see the Koppenberg back in the race because it helps whittle down the competition. "It's difficult to say now as the weather forecast looks quite good. The better the weather the more tactical it'll be."