By Brecht Decaluwé in Koksijde
Quick Step director sportif Wilfried Peeters was on hand at the final stage of the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde to announce the squad's line-up for Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen. With Tom Boonen keen to join an elite list of riders who managed to win this cycling Monument three times, the Belgian squad's formulation is a bit of a departure from last year's two-pronged attack, which featured World Champion Paolo Bettini alongside Boonen.
Joining 'Tommeke' will be Belgian champion Stijn Devolder, as well as compatriots Wilfried Cretskens and Steven De Jongh, but some other names are a bit unexpected. "An important day is coming up on Sunday and that's why we've tried to set-up a team that is strong breadthways to support Tom Boonen," explained Peeters. "It's a selection where Tom will start as leader and Stijn Devolder will play the role of vice-leader."
One surprise in the selection is 25-year-old Maarten Wijnants, who placed 11th in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Belgian Gert Steegmans, who was plagued by back injuries after a crash during the Dwars door Vlaanderen, did manage to make the team after a satisfactory return in the E3-Prijs Vlaanderen. The team also decided to inject some Southern blood into the squad with Carlos Barredo and Matteo Tossato.
27-year-old Boonen opted to talk with the press instead of participating in the final stage time trial of the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, and the two-time winner of the Ronde expressed his faith in the squad. "There are some unexpected names, but I strongly believe in this team. They are all guys of which I believe they can ride a good race," said Boonen.
"Last year I was the sole leader with Paolo [Bettini] in support for a possible interplay. This year we didn't have to search that long to set up a strong team," Boonen explained.
The selection of men like Wijnants, Tosatto and Barredo wasn't really expected before the season got underway, but Boonen felt they deserved their selection. "Due to circumstances these guys are in the selection, mainly because they are in the form of their life. But some people don't know that Barredo has a past in Flanders. He doesn't know the course that well, but he's still young.
"Wijnants is a much underestimated rider who can do more than everybody thinks, I hope he'll show that on Sunday," the former World Champion continued. "Tosatto is always of golden value and he's been rising far above his normal level. Tosatto has had a great year and we've got to exploit that because you maybe have two or three years like that in your career, and he's currently in such a zone."
The Belgian helped a little to make the selection but he pointed out that often things fall into place by themselves. "There aren't a lot of difficulties until you reach the last name. There's a natural selection due to crashes and illness but again, I think these are the best possible names to start the Ronde van Vlaanderen for us," Boonen confirmed his belief in the squad.
Belgian domestiques like Kevin Van Impe, Kevin Hulsmans and Sebastien Rosseler are not on the kind of form needed for the demanding event, and did not make the cut.
Peeters continued to explain why some riders were dropped, and other weren't. "I shall not deny that it is two weeks too early for men like Kevin Van Impe and Sebastien Rosseler to start in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. We regret that, because with them we would've had a stronger team breadth-wise. That why we opted to bring over Carlos Barredo and organize a training ride on the course today to make sure that Tom has someone that can be aside him as long as possible."
Wilfried Peeters will be supporting his riders out of the team's first car. But since none of his riders grabbed ProTour points in the Tour Down Under the team isn't ranked in the top ten. As a result he will have to hope the lottery on Saturday grants him the best possible spot after the first ten cars.
Team manager Patrick Lefevere added, "There are some surprises but you should compare it with a football team. There's the selection on the pitch, but three men need to stay ready on the bench. Wijnants showed that he was in form while some others aren't as good as expected. For some it is a surprise, not for us."