By Bjorn Haake in Gent
Diana Ziliute is contesting the La Grande Boucle féminine for one final time before retiring at the end of this year and started the event with a sprint victory on the 73.2 kilometre Stage 1. The Lithuanian has been a part of the professional women's peloton since the late 1990's and scored one of her biggest successes winning the race's 1999 edition.
The race was different then. "We did 15 stages and lots of climbing," she said. "It was more like the last couple of stages this year. It was a lot harder!"
Ziliute thought the race started changing in 2003 or 2004, but she has no idea what the reason was. "I am just thinking about pedaling, not why the Tour de France changed."
Ziliute admitted, however, that she didn't agree with the change. "For the men, it is still the same course as before," she said. "To me, the Tour de France signifies the top, the toughest there is."
The event's stature certainly has changed for the women, with La Grande Boucle féminine only a 2.2 race on the UCI calendar these days. The race has been shortened to just six days, and the first few stages are considerably flatter than years gone by, with the biggest obstacles being the infamous Belgian cobble stones.
Further cuts in the event's budget have ensured that the treacherous pavé sections weren't even mentioned in the road book. "I don't know how many kilometres of pavés there are or where they are," said Ziliute. "I don't know anything. It will be a surprise!"
Despite the fall in the event's status and budget in recent years, Ziliute thinks the women's cycling is lucky just to have the event. "It is good that the Grande Boucle is returning," she emphasised. "In the past, it wasn't always held [the race was canceled in 2004 - ed.]. I hope that things are improving and that next year it will be even better."
Even if the event does progress in years to come, Ziliute won't be able to profit from it as a professional rider. Ziliute will retire from the sport at the end of 2008. "This is my last year as a racer," she confirmed. "I hope to finish it well."
The Lithuanian would like to win a few stages in her final Grande Boucle and started in fine form with a victory on yesterday's opening stage. While she lamented the loss of more challenging stages, the rider hasn't targeted the last couple of stages of this year's event, which are rather hilly.
"I am not in the same shape as I was in 1999," she smiled.