By Gregor Brown in Kortrijk
Quick Step will undoubtedly be the team to watch in the 63rd Omloop Het Volk with mega-stars Tom Boonen and World Champion Paolo Bettini. The 199-kilometre semi-classic officially opens the season of spring one-day races for the powerful duo, both of whom returned to Europe last week after racing the Tour of California.
The team has won the race twice in recent years, but never with the Belgian nor the Italian. In 2003, it was Johan Museeuw who took the win with Bettini playing good team-mate in third, while two more Quick Step riders, Franck Vandenbrouke and Boonen, rounded out the top five well ahead of the field. In 2005, Nick Nuyens made a name for himself by holding onto a courageous solo attack while Boonen won the sprint for second.
For Boonen, the semi-classic is an empty space on his trophy shelf. "It is the only race I have not won from the spring classics, all the other ones I have already won one time or more," noted 27 year-old Tom Boonen to Cyclingnews Friday evening, February 29, at the Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk.
As rain started to fall outside, the rider from Mol rated the race as important, but noted that his peak is set for the end of March and early April. "It is a pretty important race; it is the first race of the season on Flemish soil. I am not really 100 percent condition-wise and I am also little bit jet lagged from the Tour of California; however, I think if everything goes well it is still possible to win the race. I don't know how my legs will feel tomorrow; it is possible they will be good."
The race returns to its roots with the arrival in Gent after a 13-year hiatus, adding an element of uncertainty for the riders. "It is a little bit harder – more nervous, and narrow roads between the climbs," explained Boonen. "It will be better for strong riders with a strong team. I don't know I am going to be good enough to make the race on my own, but we have other riders who are able to do it."
The Belgian ProTour team has Stijn Devolder, Gert Steegmans and Steven De Jongh if Boonen or Bettini should fail. "We have a lot of cards to play, it is not only me." Outside of his own team, he rates the favourites as Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady (both Team CSC).
Boonen – winner of two editions of Ronde van Vlaanderen and the 2005 Paris-Roubaix – will expect his best form will arrive later in March. "My peak form will be in the period from Sanremo to Roubaix, and everything I win in that period is great. If I win one [race] it is good, if I win two it is better, if I win three great!"
Even though he is racing Tirreno-Adriatico, Boonen clarified to Cyclingnews he is not racing the Monte Paschi Eroica, the new event which is trying to make a name for itself as a 'hard man's race' in Italy. "Are you making me do it?" he asked, laughing. "I heard some stories about it. It is on dirt roads? In Italy, [a hard-man's race]?! That is not possible?" he joked.
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