The Three Days of De Panne was not originally on Filippo Pozzato’s schedule, but after illness forced him out of E3 Harelbeke and limited his mileage at Gent-Wevelgem, the Italian has elected to stay in Belgium for the week in a bid to get his preparation for the Tour of Flanders back on track.
"I was four days off the bike, so I need it – it’s important for me to get some race rhythm again," Pozzato told Cyclingnews at the start in De Panne’s Koningsplein on Tuesday morning. "I’m definitely better than I was but I’m still feeling a bit weak so we’ll see how I go. I already wanted to do the whole race on Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem but the doctor ordered me to stop early even if I felt good because I’d had a fever up until the day before and he didn’t want me to do too much too soon."
Without a win since the GP Ouest France in September 2013 and out of contract with Lampre-Merida at the end of the year, 2015 promises to be something of a make or break campaign for Pozzato. Tellingly, no WorldTour rider had racked up as many race days (30) as Pozzato ahead of Milan-San Remo, but his hopes of a second victory on the Via Roma were wiped out by a crash on the descent of the Poggio. Contracting a stomach virus on arrival in Belgium was, well, a case of adding illness to injury.
"I was going well at San Remo and then I crashed on the descent of the Poggio with four kilometres left right when I was in front, then I came here and I got sick just before Harelbeke," Pozzato said. "I haven’t had any luck so far, but hopefully things start to turn around soon…"
April, in cycling terms at least, is the cruellest month. During his career, Chris Boardman reckoned that it was near impossible to build form through racing at this particular point in the calendar but Pozzato remains hopeful that he can recover his condition in time for the Ronde.
"Well, let’s hope so – I’ll tell you for sure on Sunday evening," Pozzato laughed. "I want to get through De Panne first, but, yeah, I want to be up there on Sunday at Flanders fighting it out for the win."
As a cobbled Classics contender, Pozzato has had the misfortune to be a contemporary of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, and their injury-enforced absence from this year’s Tour of Flanders promises to alter the feel of the race significantly. The list of favourites, certainly, has a different look, with Pozzato pointing to Geraint Thomas, Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb in particular.
"I think Thomas is the one who is going best of all right now, along with Sagan actually. I know a lot of people are saying that he’s not going well but I reckon he’s strong right now," Pozzato said. "I mean, at San Remo if he’d started his sprint sooner, he could well have won."
In terms of tactics, Pozzato does not go along with the thesis that the lack of Cancellara and Boonen will lead to an anarchic day of racing, with no team willing take responsibility for bringing order to the peloton. "No, I think there are still teams who can control the race, especially Sky, since they have a guy like Geraint Thomas who is well capable of winning, as he’s already shown," he said. "It’s in their interest to keep control of things, and it’s the same at Katusha."
There was precious little controlling Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, where high winds swept several riders off the road and further underscored the need for the implementation of an extreme weather protocol to judge when it is safe to race and when it is not. Indeed, the question was raised once again on Tuesday morning, as winds again buffeted the route of the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne, but although the opening kilometres were neutralised, the racing continued thereafter.
"We’ve been talking for a while about doing things with the regulations for extreme racing. But things need to be decided upon before the race – you can’t sort anything out while you’re on the bike and racing, or even on the morning on a race. They need to get everyone sitting together at a table and sort out some rules that we can all agree on," said Pozzato, who was party to the discussion that led to the cancellation of the penultimate stage of the Tour of Oman due to extreme heat and sandstorms.
"Gent-Wevelgem was a great spectacle on television, and you didn’t really see any issues apart from Thomas’ crash. But behind that, you had guys being blown off the road and into rivers – we can’t wait around for something really terrible to happen before we come up with some firm rules. So let’s hope we can get it done as soon as possible."