The Belgian National Championship in Saint-Hubert next Sunday is promising to be a fantastic race. With five laps of an 8.8 km circuit in Libin, 16 km to Saint-Hubert, and then 14 laps of 12.3 km in the Vallée de Poix, the stage for an exciting fight for the national jersey is set. According to some, the parcours is very hard, while others don't rate it as too difficult.
Who are the favourites on this parcours?
Lotto-Davitamon manager Marc Sergeant has got quite a few men ready: Wim Vanhuffel, Björn Leukemans, Christophe Brandt, Mario Aerts, Serge Baguet, Johan Vansummeren. Axel Merckx may not be present because of the birth of his second child, but has proven in the Dauphiné that he would be a worthy champion. And of course there's a certain Peter Van Petegem. As always, Peter doesn't give anyone a look at his cards.
"Everyone wants to become Champion, but remember these are only the Belgian Championships," Van Petegem told the VUM newspapers. "More than likely, it will be a bizarre, open race again. It's one big kermesse, with a lot of kilometres in which the team play is very important. I never got closer than bronze in '98. Often this race has been a sprinter's race, Nelissen won it twice and Steels four times. In fact, I'm longing for a rainbow jersey. I still have three chances to get both of them, because I want to add another two seasons after this year.
"Marc Coucke, our sponsor, wants to win every race. And we have ten candidates. Everything will depend on the race itself. In Halle we could forget about it after 10 km. Sometimes it's over quickly. The only benefit is that with fifteen guys, you can still straighten a crooked situation. I'm the type of rider who is at his best the last two hours of a race. On this type of parcours, that might be too late. I heard it is a nice circuit, not too hard. You can't tell beforehand. In Verona and Lisboa the parcours was supposed to be super hard, but both times Freire won a mass sprint.
"Boonen is top favourite according to me. He is young, strong and smart. He should be able to handle this parcours. Nuyens will be his lightening rod."
"Most of our riders can become champion on this parcours," said Davitamon-Lotto's Marc Sergeant. "There won't be any lack of motivation. It will be important not to get too eager. Even though we have got a long list of favourites, our team will have to ride like a team, because it will be the most fun for others to beat our team in the Nationals."
One of those other team is surely Quick Step. Tom Boonen won't be an unlikely winner on this type of parcours. But Patrick Lefevere also has Nick Nuyens and Rik Verbrugghe, who are ready for the challenge. Verbrugghe is slightly irritated after being left out of the Tour de France team, while for Tom Boonen, being the man to beat for the National Jersey isn't something which gives him sleepless nights. "Everywhere I start I'm tipped for the win; I'm getting used to that," Tom told Het Nieuwsblad.
"That jersey is a dream, but I won't be sad if I don't win. I still have time, don't I? Let me put it this way: the Belgian Championships are a goal, but no obsession. On top of things, I'll have to win stages in the Tour and compete for a full three weeks to get the Green Jersey. I'm not going to ride à bloc on Sunday to finish third or fourth. But if the opportunity arises...
"Our team surely isn't going to carry the race. It's up to the big squads like Davitamon-Lotto to take their responsibility. They are the favourites. I'll see how I finish up. This race is definitely at the right moment; a week after Switzerland and a week before the start of the Tour. It won't be depending on good form"
Landbouwkrediet-Colnago has Bert De Waele, Maxime Monfort, Nico Sijmens and Geert Verheyen.
MrBookmaker-Sportstech will see Johan Coenen, Erwin Thijs and Kurt Van de Wouwer at the start. And Chocolade Jacques-T Interim has Pieter Mertens, Jef Peeters and Frederik Veuchelen. With also Philippe Gilbert, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Stijn Devolder, Thierry Marichal added to this list, it becomes clear that the Belgian National Championships are wide open.