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March 10, 2003|
Racing in the extreme North, and South
By Frankie Andreu
Mini Tour of Flanders
In Italy they are called "tifosi." They are the thousands of Italian fans that support cycling. In Belgium there is no name for these folks except die-hard cycling fanatics.
There are the grandmas that stop you on the start line to tell you what race you won five years ago. There is the 12-year-old girl who asks you for your autograph as she huddles underneath her worn umbrella in the pouring rain.
These are the folks who turn up and bear the harshest conditions so that they can get a view of the riders on the some of the hardest climbs in Belgium, like the old Kwaremont. Finally, the Belgians can come outside after months of winter cycling detox.
I'm talking about Het Volk! This is Belgium's first road race of the season and along with it, egos are pumped, dreams are shaped, and hero's are made. No other race, up until now, has so many interested parties paying attention to every kilometer. Even the "tifosi" will be watching from home.
Oh, those cagey Belgians - they are a handful! Every year at one point or another before a big race, Johan Museeuw would always declare he is sick and not ready to race. Then, of course, he would show up and kill everyone. This year Johan didn't pull any punches claiming he was sick before Het Volk. He did just the opposite. He stayed quiet.
On the other hand, Frank Vandenbroucke spoke up claiming he was sick and would not be able to do Het Volk. Was this the young learning strategy from the old? Either way when race time came around it became very evident that neither was sick. Johan won the race convincingly and Frank Vandenbroucke placed 4th.
As James Starrt, a French-American journalist who watched the race told me, "Museeuw was incredible as was the entire Quick Step team, which just rode away from the field. Max was looking real good, but George is hurting."
The Quick-Step team put four riders in a winning break of seven. Even more incredible is that U.S. Postal Service rider Max VanHeeswijk managed to thwart the Belgian onslaught and powered to second place behind Museeuw. Even out numbered, Max proved he is a rider to reckoned with for the classics and is a perfect addition to the Postal Service classics team.
Last week, George was still suffering from his illness and the effect of antibiotics. In addition, he suffered a bad crash in Het Volk resulting in stitches to his chin. As George said about the start of the season, "Yeah it has been tough. I am trying to stay as positive as I can, but it has not been easy. I am racing here in Murcia, and after that I am going to try and do a good week of training. If I am not rid of this bug by then I am going to have to take some time off."
Luckily, the World Cup races still don't start for a few weeks and George's base of miles will help him recover and get ready for the next big challenges.
The day following Het Volk was Kuurne -Brussles-Kuurne - and true to Belgium's weather, the start turned horrendous. The riders met cold and wet conditions typical for the region at the start of March. It makes me wonder why the UCI heads north so early in the season. Just take a look at the number of finishers to prove the point - 26 riders finished out of nearly 190 starters.
Not letting Mother Nature take the upper hand was Tony Cruz who placed an amazing 11th place in this race. Bad weather always brings out the best in riders and sometimes the worst. As Tony puts it, "Today was ugly! There was absolutely no respect for one another out there."
Victor didn't leave anything on the table trying to defend his Murcia win from last year. The second-to-last day, Victor pulled out the stops showing his true intentions by winning the hardest stage. This is the second year in a row that Victor has given the Postal Service its first team win. There is always a tension on any team until you score that first mark.
Teams that fail early on only feel an increased pressure to perform and sometimes that pressure seems to backfire. Victor entered the last TT only 40 seconds down almost repeating the conditions when he came from behind and won the final TT for the overall win last year.
This year the leader of the race, Javier Pascal Llorente, felt the power of the leader's jersey and managed to win the final TT, securing his win in the 2003 Tour of Murcia.
Lance, riding his first race, went all out for the TT, placing an impressive second, only two seconds from the stage win. This only confirms to the team that Lance's fitness is heading in the right direction. Also showing good fitness is Steffen Kjaergaard and Roberto, who finished the final TT in 17th and 23rd respectively.
The next objective for the team that rode Murcia will be Setemana Catalana. Injuries and sickness may change the team, but scheduled to ride are Lance, Barry, Heras, Kjaergaard, Kluck, Pena, Rubiera, and VandeVelde. Because of injuries and sickness right, now the team is working with only 13 riders out of 18. This makes it very tough trying to schedule two programs.
The other races scheduled are Paris-Nice, happening right now, Milan-San-Remo on March 21, and at the end of the month Waregem and Harelbeke in Belgium.
Two weeks ago George Hincapie announced that he would miss the classics. This is the first time that George has had a large setback in his career. "I have to take 10 days off the bike, and rest. The classics are over for me."
George still suffers from a mystery illness and the doctor's don't seem to know why. "I've been to so many doctors by now that when I enter the room I know the questions they are going to ask me. I have some tell me that I have a sinus infection and then the next day with a different doctor I'm told I don't have an infection."
George is now recovering, trying to find the strength to resume full training, at his home in South Carolina. George's main objective now is to solely get ready for the Tour de France. "Johan told me to concentrate on getting better and getting ready for the Tour."
Even with George out of the classics, the team is still rolling ahead with big ambitions in the following weeks. Without a leader, a team can very easily lose direction.
In Paris-Nice, the U.S. Postal Service lost two of its leaders days before the race. George and Eki had to pull out because they fell ill. As Dirk, the team's second director noted, "As you know, it's typical on a team that if you are without a leader, you go nowhere. After the late forfeit from Eki, I tried to keep some motivation in the team, by telling them that they had to see it as a good preparation for the classics. They did their best and I hope that we have Eki back for the classics."
Dirk had to rally the troops because he knew that without George, the team would now have two leaders for the coming spring classics. "Because George is out for the classics I have to count on Max and Eki." Max Van Heeswijk has already had a stellar spring. With a co-leader like Eki and a strong support team, the races are far from over.
The other half of the team that is not concentrating on the cobbled classics competed in Semana Catalana. This is the first race back for Christian VandeVelde after discovering his back and leg problems.
"I've had this problem for the last two years and I've finally found out what the problem is. Now I'm diligently trying to correct it," Christian said. "The team, and especially Johan, has been very supportive in giving me the proper time to recover and fix it correctly. This is instead of training through it like I did for the last two years. It always helps to train with two legs."
Christian has started making improvements and the difference in leg strength is very noticeable to him. "My body is starting to get strong. At first, I made some huge improvements. I have muscle imbalance from my left and right leg, so the left leg is a few months behind the right, but catching up quickly. I'm always pushing to train as hard as I can that given day, so it's funny that my leg is always the same --tired. Although what makes it tired now compared to four weeks ago is about 30% more work. I've been training harder than I ever have trying to get this cured as fast as possible."
Michael Barry talks a little about the problems the team has endured this spring. "We have all had our ups and downs the last few weeks, but I think we are generally all on the mend now. Much of the peloton over here has fallen ill with either colds or the flu so we are not the only team struggling with illness."
Despite recovering from an ear infection, Michael says that his legs are coming around, " I have been slowly getting better. Last week, before Catalana, I was able to get in some longer more intense rides. That was a bonus." As Michael finished up Catalana he talked about his progress, not only in the race, but also over the last couple years.
"The racing is as hard as ever, although I do feel more comfortable in the peloton and also feel as though I am stronger overall as a result of the races last season."
This rule generally applies to everyone that is involved in cycling. Training and racing are building blocks. Every year you gain the benefit of all the racing and training you did from the previous year. Your strength, endurance, and fitness accumulate over time. Perhaps this is why some of the older guys in the peloton do so well in the longer classics.
David Zabriskie is also riding Semana Catalana and piecing his fitness back together after the problems he had during the start of the season. After crashing early in the season and hurting his knee, David has steadily been finding his form again.
"It took a lot of quality training to get back in shape, but I think it happened. It will be good to finish this race before coming back for Sea Otter." David is using the Semana Catalana race to push his fitness up another level before he heads back to America to try to meet some of his spring goals.
"Right now my form is pretty good and I'd like to do well at both of the US races." Those races are the Sea Otter and the Tour of Georgia.
There is always a transition going from normal road races to racing on the cobbles in Belgium. It takes time to adjust to the fighting, learning the roads and remembering how to ride in the gutter.
The Postal Service team has already made its way north to start racing on the cobbled Belgium roads as they prepare to tackle 3 Days DePanne Tour of Flanders, Ghent Wevelgem, and Roubaix. This year the team went to Belgium one week earlier than usual to race in Waregem and Harelbeke.
Max is still showing that he will lead the classics team with a third-place finish in Waregem and a top 10 in Harelbeke. Tony Cruz also rode strongly in support of Max's high finish. To improve on those results, when it's World Cup time, the team will play a monumental role in helping Max and Eki. The classics team is listed as Max, Eki, Joachim, Kluck, Mikhailov, Padrnos, White, and Cruz.
Next week, one half of the team will be battling at 3 Days de Panne and the other half will be at Circuit de La Sarth in France. This team will consist of Lance, Roberto, Rubiera, Kjaergaard, Pena, and VandeVelde.
Only six guys race La Sarth because the remaining six return to America to race Sea Otter. This will be Floyd Landis's first race with the team of 2003 after recovering from a broken hip.
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