By Jean-François Quénet
Translated from their native language, Norwegians mean "the men from the North," so it's no surprise to see the four Norwegian ProTour riders racing in the north of France at the 4 Jours de Dunkerque. The most famous of them, Thor Hushovd, met on the start line CSC's Kurt-Asle Arvesen who won the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen on the other side of the Belgian border, young prodigy Edvald Boasson Hagen from High Road won claimed a major win at the GP of Denain also in the north of France and his team-mate at Crédit Agricole Gabriel Rasch who got an encouraging result when he finished 5th in the Tro Bro Leon, the "Breton Paris-Roubaix."
The real Paris-Roubaix is Hushovd's worse memory this year. He had a great start of the season with a stage win in the Tour Méditerranéen in February, and he was flying in Paris-Nice where he won the prologue and wore the yellow jersey until the race hit the mountains. A frustrated ninth in Milan-Sanremo, he was seen on the attack in the finale of the Tour of Flanders. All his physical preparation was set for the race of his dreams, Paris-Roubaix only to have disaster strike the week of the event.
"I felt sick three days before and I shouldn't even have started," he recalled. "It went worse every day. In the morning of Paris-Roubaix I was coughing and spewing but I still tried to convince myself that I'd be OK. I wasn't."
It took him one week to recover and be healthy again. "As usual I went to the Norwegian mountains to find a unique fresh air," Hushovd said. Last year after his usual break following the classics, he resumed racing at the Tour of Italy because he wanted to face a stronger opposition than in the one-week races. He came second to Alessandro Petacchi one day and wonders if he's now a Giro stage winner after the disqualification of the Italian sprinter ace's 2007 Giro results.
This year, Hushovd is back on his usual pre-Tour de France program: the 4 Jours de Dunkerque, Volta a Catalunya, Dauphiné Libéré – all races where he has won stages and the points competition in the past. "I want to start the Tour in Brest in my best shape," he added. "I know that the first stages suit me, although with no prologue and no time bonus." Two years ago, he won the prologue in Strasbourg.
One week before the Tour, the magic quartet of Norwegian cycling formed of Hushovd, Arvesen, Boasson Hagen and Rasch will race together again at the national championship organized on a difficult course in the middle of the seven hills of Bergen, Norway's second largest town. The top pros will try to honor their reputation against defending champion Alexander Kristoff from continental team Joker Bianchi whose next big Norwegian cyclist, Frederik Willman, just won the last stage of the Tour de Bretagne last week.