I could write a big preview for Het Nieuwsblad but the guys over at Pavé will probably do a better job. The opening race of the Belgian classics season is always interesting given the manic racing, the cobbles and yes, the foul weather that is expected.
The 2011 edition is 203km long and is by general consensus harder than usual thanks to more hills… and more cobbles. As ever, expect frantic riding as riders hop on cycle lanes and use every space possible. Gone are the empty roads of Qatar, now there are kerbs, parked cars and traffic islands. As FDJ’s manager Martial Gayant put it, “it’ll be war. To be in the right place you’ll have to kill your mother and father“.
Some riders are skipping this traditional event, for example Heinrich Haussler has his eye on later races. Tom Boonen will be present but says it’s too early; the same for Stijn Devolder. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? Rabobank look strong with Boom but unusually they don’t have a sprinter. Personally I’ve looked at the time trial stages from Oman and the Algarve to see who is already in form and Edwald Boasson-Hagen and Sylvain Chavanel stand out. Both enjoy hard weather and seem to cope well with races of around 200km. But Philippe Gilbert stands out as the favourite given he’s just won in Portugal. Take your pick as many others are in form.
The biggest test
I’ve detailed the test of handling skill and legs already… but the biggest test is actually for the cycling as a viable sport. There is talk of a rider and team “strike” to block the race because of the ongoing dispute over race radios. To summarise: the UCI has banned their use in many races and many teams and riders don’t like this. There were talks in Oman between UCI President Pat McQuaid and several big name riders but clearly nothing substantial changed. The stand-off continues and several teams are talking about a strike on Saturday in order to force the UCI into change, with a decision expected on Saturday morning.
As I’ve written before, it’s about a lot more than radios, safety and tactics. Instead it’s about whether the teams get a say in the sport. As such, the stand-off means there’s a lot at stake. Team bosses stand to get a foot in the door when it comes to running the sport. But no matter what is at stake, putting a race in jeopardy is a step too far.
After a winter where the sport saw more doping scandals, imploding teams and other negative stories many have been waiting for the season to start so we can focus on the sport. Riccardo Riccò’s already hampered things but more negative coverage is just going to make sections of the media and the public think the sport is unreformable.
Let them watch tennis
There will always be fans willing to stand on wet roadsides and even write blogs but that’s not the point. The sport needs to reach out to the average TV viewer or the wider public if it is to attract new sponsors, to keep TV channels and newspaper editors interested. Politicians need to know closing the roads is in a good cause. This should be the moment when the sport finally shows what it is capable of in terms of action, excitement and legend. Any strike tomorrow is a self-defeating measure that will once again show the sport as irredeemable, incapable of keeping bad news out of the spotlight. At a time when cycling keeps getting the wrong headline, holding up a race is surely an additional act of economic and salary suicide?
Those calling for a strike would respond with arguments of safety and that the UCI didn’t consult. It’s a fair call and I’m very sympathetic. But everyone needs to get together and decide if more bad publicity is worth it, and if other methods of protest would work better. Blocking a race probably won’t change the UCI’s mind but it risks changing the public’s mind for the worse.