As Belgium comes to terms with the terrorist atrocities in Brussels on Tuesday that left 31 people dead, its cycling races continue to provide a semblance of normality. A small but valuable framework in a trying time.
While there was a return to some – but by no means all – of the fanfare that one expects at race starts in Flanders, there were many reminders of Tuesday’s tragedy. The peloton paused for a minute’s silence on the start line behind a banner that read, in Flemish and French: “A tragedy provides the opportunity to show your courage.”
FDJ’s riders, meanwhile, were wearing small Belgian flags on their sleeves as a mark of respect to the victims. “It’s a symbol of solidarity,” Milan-San Remo winner Arnaud Démare said after signing on. “I think it’s good to do these races at this time, to show that we’re not afraid and to bring some pleasure to the people here.”
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) provided some much needed levity when he arrived on the sign on podium, where speaker Michel Wuyts simply handed his microphone over to the world champion and allowed him to take on the duty of presenting his teammates to the crowds.
After returning the microphone to Wuyts, Sagan was asked to predict the podium, but he neatly side-stepped the question. “I am not Copperfield, eh,” Sagan said. “Or else maybe after I would go to Las Vegas to make some shows.”
Sagan was even less forthcoming when cornered by a small platoon of television crews beneath the rostrum. “It doesn’t depend on my legs, it depends on the results,” he said when asked about his condition. “We’ll see from the race.”
The most noteworthy news from the start, meanwhile, was the absence of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico winner was a non-starter due to illness, which will undoubtedly worry the home faithful with just nine days to go to the Tour of Flanders.
“For us it’s a big hit but I think, in the end, he was hoping not to compromise the whole Classics season so I think that it’s good that he didn’t start today,” BMC’s Manuel Quinziato told Cyclingnews. “It changes a lot for us. We want to show that we have a strong team and we have riders like Daniel Oss, who can get a good result.”
Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) drove to Belgium from his home in Switzerland on Wednesday due to the disruption at Brussels airport following the terrorist attacks. “On the day where it happened, normally the plan was to go on the bike but the motivation wasn’t there because I’m close with Belgium,” he said. “It affected me, but it’s good that the country stands together, and it’s a good message that we are racing.”
Cancellara’s 2015 Classics campaign ended prematurely when he fractured vertebrae in a crash early on at E3 Harelbeke last year. “Luckily we don’t do Haaghoek this time,” he smiled. “I think I’m mentally ready. What happened last year is behind. I think the form is good. I know where I need to work. This is a race I need.”
While Cancellara has underlined his form by winning four times already this season, Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) has yet to show anything approaching his best ahead of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. “The new course is an improvement,” Boonen said. “The team that takes control of the race will be rewarded. That should play in our favour.”
Boonen’s teammate Niki Terpstra wanted to pay tribute to the late, great Johan Cruyff by swapping his number 15 dossard for 14, to honour the Dutch footballer’s shirt number. With the final start list already submitted, however, Terpstra had to limit himself to writing “#14” on his race number instead.
Team Sky have a strong squad that includes Ian Stannard and Michal Kwiatkowski, but Luke Rowe felt the responsibility to control the peloton will fall upon others. “I think we’ll duck and dive a bit today. We’ve got a strong team but we don’t have one of the big favourites, a guy who’s won Flanders or Roubaix in the past, so it’s not going to be up to us to control the race,” Rowe said. “I expect QuickStep will be very strong.”
Rowe’s teammate Geraint Thomas is not in Harelbeke to defend his crown from last year – the Welshman abandoned the Volta a Catalunya on Friday morning – but he did provide a pre-recorded video message that was broadcast on the big screen after Team Sky had signed on.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is fine-tuning his Tour of Flanders preparation in Harelebeke. The Norwegian will also line out at Gent-Wevelgem and the Three Days of De Panne. “I expect a small group. I’ve never really performed here before, so we’ll see if I can follow on the climbs,” said Kristof. “I feel quite good but it’s hard to compare to last year.” From the numbers I’m the same as last year, but others can be better or worse.”