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Preview '06: Intra-Belgian Warfare

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First, a disclaimer: the authors of this site are in love with Belgian Cycling.  Drew has gone so far as to cash in all his 40th birthday chits to fly to Brussels for Flanders-Roubaix week. [I spent mine on new campy parts.]  Pete and I grew up in an Italian family, but even our native snobbery wasn't enough to distract us.  Watch for our homage to the Classics in another six weeks or so.

Anyway, even to objective observers the battle between Davitamon-Lotto and Quick Step-Innergetic is shaping up as one of the year's great substories.  The rise of Tom Boonen has made Davitamon's task at winning the hearts and minds of the homeland a tall order... but if you look at the results, they were up to it last year and will be again in 2006.

Highlights

For Quick Step, the plan is to ride out that Boonen magic for all it's worth, or so you'd think.

Boonen's Flanders-Roubaix double put him in elite company, with Peter Van Petegem (2003), Roger De Vlaeminck (1977) and Rik Van Looy (1962) -- a list just as notable for who isn't on it. Add in a rainbow jersey and, well, you can understand why Boonen found it necessary to move to Monaco for a while.

Still, the plan at Quick Step is to dominate all the Classics, and with a stable that includes a decorated vet in Paolo Bettini plus two major comers in Filippo Pozzatto and Nick Nuyens, there is hardly a single-day event they can't win. They've added some top support riders in Serge Baguet and Cedric Vasseur to help them stay focused. And focused, they surely are.

Davitamon, by contrast, is in it for more than just the month of April. As much as they would love to win on their home turf, Van Petegem at this point is nothing more than a sentimental favorite if Boonen is on his game.  That said, the old Vet will be heard from, and if not, look for Nico Mattan and maybe Chris Horner to try to get involved. Not too shabby.

But if Davitamon isn't a sure bet in April, their strength is that they figure to be in the mix every week, from the departure at Milan, through the grand tours, and until the leaves are falling in Lombardy. Robbie McEwen is the man who beat both Boonen and Petacchi straight up in grand tour stage sprints last year, and is a green jersey favorite at this year's vanilla Tour. Cadel Evans began his Tour career with an 8th place that announced his maturity into a serious grand tour threat.  Add rising stars Wim Van Huffel (11th in the Giro) and Mauricio Ardila (9th in the Vuelta), and in 2005 Davitamon boasted a three-headed threat for GC podium spots (now reduced to two with Ardila's move to Rabobank).  Sure, in every race we can name at least one person who is better than what Davitamon have, but these guys are seriously well-staffed for everything.

Dark Clouds
The contrast here is obvious: Quick Step have no GC riders. Well, not none, but their signing of Jose Rujano to replace Michael Rogers doesn't take effect until after the Giro, and with Rujano in a spat with his half-year employers he's not likely to have many race days in his legs on June 1. Boonen will compete for points, and this year is a great opportunity for non-mountain goats to have fun all the way to Paris. But he better score some stage wins, if the fans are to remember Quick Step is even there.

For Davitamon, the challenge is to remember who they are. Axel Merckx, on his way out the door, depicted management as kind of heartless and insatiable -- even pointing out that one of the head guys was (gasp) not a cyclist.  Now, if the tension got too high last year, it's understandable, given that they had to see Boonen's face on the front of the local paper throughout April, something no amount of Davitamon success short of a grand tour win could overcome. And that pressure figures to get worse if Boonen repeats with the rainbow jersey on his back. But like their rivals, Davitamon have a great plan and a solid core of riders to execute it, if they can ignore the Boonen coronation going on back home and be themselves.