A Belgium team might have been winning nearly everything this spring, but not Belgian riders, and that's causing some concern. A worried headline in Het Laatste Nieuws pointed out that none of the 12 one-day races so far this spring, from Classics opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen, has been won by Belgians, something that hasn't happened since the Second World War.
A 'home' victory at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday would see all that forgotten in the blink of an eye, but Belgium's hopes have taken further blows as two of its leading riders, Philippe Gilbert and Oliver Naesen, have come down with illness.
Both are set to line up in Antwerp to start De Ronde on Sunday morning but their chances of standing on the podium in Oudenaarde six hours later might be diminished.
Gilbert, who won Flanders in 2017, abandoned Dwars door Vlaanderen with just under 50 kilometres remaining, and it was revealed after the race that he was suffering stomach problems.
"He already felt tired last night and has a cold sore on his lip," Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere told the Belgian newspapers. "He felt himself getting worse during the race.
"It's not good timing, but we shouldn't panic. The main thing is to wait and see how he wakes up after a night's sleep, and see what Thursday, Friday and Saturday will bring."
Naesen, who has finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem in recent weeks, is suffering from bronchitis.
His team confirmed his condition today and, despite Naesen starting a course of antibiotics, they claim it’s "nothing serious" and he'll definitely race on Sunday.
Speaking to TV Oost Nieuws, Naesen identified the chief suspect for his illness as the champagne on the podium at Gent-Wevelgem. He and winner Alexander Kristoff both sprayed bubbly in each other's faces during the post-race ceremony and Naesen believes that has contributed to the respiratory problem.
Gilbert's and Naesen's setbacks pile on top of news that Sep Vanmarcke is a serious doubt for Flanders, following a crash at E3 BinckBank last Friday in which he suffered a large edema in the left knee. He had to skip Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and will make a call on Flanders when he tests his knee on a recon ride on Friday. "I don't want to think negatively, but it is very possible that my spring is over," he said.
Home hopes at De Ronde will be shouldered otherwise by Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), who has won Omloop, E3, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix but is still searching for that elusive win at Flanders, the race that means the most to him. Some, however, are questioning whether Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has surpassed the Olympic champion in the favourite stakes, having excelled this spring, with third at Strade Bianche, sixth at Milan-San Remo, second at E3, and an aggressive display at Gent-Wevelgem.
Yves Lampaert lines up in the Belgian champion's jersey in an ever-strong Deceuninck-QuickStep team where the limelight has thus far been occupied by Czech rider Zdenek Stybar and the Luxembourg champion Bob Jungels. Tiesj Benoot leads the line for Lotto Soudal after making the decisive selection at Dwars, while Jasper Stuyven forms part of a re-invigorated Trek-Segafredo team.
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