By Jeff Jones in Melle
At a press conference at Team CSC's hotel in Melle on Saturday afternoon, a purple-clad Bjarne Riis presented his team for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Despite its successes in the early season stage races, CSC has yet to make a big impression in the classics, and will be hoping for some success on Sunday. But Riis knows that the competition is very strong, naming Boonen, Van Petegem, Wesemann, Dekker and Hincapie as some of the favourites. The team will therefore apply "invisible tactics", which involve staying out of trouble, avoiding crashes, and not doing too much at the front until it's necessary.
It's easy to say that the day before the race, but only time will tell if the CSC boys manage to make their stealth stratagem work. The Ronde is a constant battle to stay up the front on the narrow roads and cobbled climbs, which pepper the last 100 kilometres with painful regularity. The team trained over the last 12 climbs of the race on Thursday, so they certainly know what to expect.
36 year-old Lars Michaelsen is the most experienced rider in the team, that includes Jakob Piil, Allan Johansen, Vladimir Gussev, Lars Bak, Matti Breschel, Luke Roberts and Thomas Bruun Eriksen. The Dane won the Tour of Qatar earlier this year but has been struggling to find top form since then. "I haven't been sick that much," Michaelsen explained to Cyclingnews. "We've been on another training camp since Qatar. I was sick during Het Volk and I couldn't ride the day after in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. So there's a little lack of competition. I would have liked to do some of the Spanish races before Het Volk and Kuurne, but the team didn't do it, and also I didn't do the last stage and a half of Tirreno. I crashed there. They are just small things and a little bit more racing would have been nice, but who knows? Perhaps in four or five days, suddenly it's there."
Michaelsen has done the Tour of Flanders almost every year since 1995, and we asked him whether it was one of his favourite classics. "In a dream world yes. I would be and it will always have a place in my heart. It's such a beautiful race, it's the queen of the Flanders classics. When you see the crowd; when you've done all the similar races, that's the one you want to win the most. But of course the competition is so high and for some reason I haven't been able to peak for it for any of the years."
Like most riders, Michaelsen is hoping to reach the final 30 km in the front group. "After Tenbosse, in Brakel, if you have it there, it's a new race. It's open. One year I was 10th in '99. In that part I was too occupied. I was in a team with [Max] Sciandri in Francaise des Jeux, and he was screaming for sugar. Since we were teammates, I made a lot of effort to get our car up, to get drinks and sugar gels and whatever. And that was when they went away. Just another experience I had. In the end he didn't get a place because he was dead, and I had to fight for 10th place. So if you can make it to that point and still have reserves, suddenly, things can change."
Michaelsen is tipping his 22 year old Russian teammate Vladimir Gussev to be one of CSC's best riders tomorrow. "He is the man in form. If he can get through a clean race, then he can be in the finale." What's Gussev like as a sprinter? "I think he's not loving it enough. He should have the ability to be a good sprinter. I don't know."
Gussev knows he's in good condition. "I must admit my form is almost at 100 percent, and I'm feeling really good. In the last few races I've been very strong."
Last year, the Russian finished 8th in Gent-Wevelgem and 20th in Paris-Roubaix, and this spring he has made the top 10 in GP Marseillaise, Paris-Camembert and Brabantse Pijl. "Tour of Flanders is a very special race, but I'm quite familiar with the route. After Waregem we examined the most important stretches, and yesterday I once again looked at the course.
"I'm not aiming at a specific result, but of course I hope to do well. You really have to use your elbows to stay up front, but at the end of the day it's also about being fresh. If you have that extra strength in the last 30 kilometres, you never know what's going to happen."
Allan Johansen, Lars Bak and Matti Breschel are the other CSC riders to watch, according to Lars Michaelsen. We asked Johansen's opinion of the Koppenberg, which is "only" the fifth of 17 climbs this year. "It comes after 180 kilometres so it's still late in the race. The race really starts there," said Johansen.
Finally, CSC's new Aussie recruit Luke Roberts is very much looking forward to his first Ronde. "I haven't ridden the Ronde before, but I've done a lot of racing in Belgium so I know all the climbs," said Roberts. "I'm looking forward to it, it should be a lot of fun and a nice day. It's another step up when you're riding a race as big as the Tour of Flanders, but I've been training pretty hard for this; doing races such as Waregem and extra training after it to be ready for the distance. It shouldn't be a problem."
So what is the problem? "Whether I can go fast enough," was Luke's quick-witted reply.