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The Sleeping Lions

Surely the story of the Cobbles Season so far has been the rather mediocre -- if not utterly disastrous -- results Flemish riders have achieved on the home turf. Yes, I am aware Tom Boonen has three home wins to his name, but IMHO none of them are enough to prevent the locals from crying into their most excellent glasses of beer... and nobody else -- not Boonen's teammates, nor his countrymen on other teams -- has done bubkis at home all season. With Paris-Roubaix the last major objective, the entire Flemish Cycling year is hanging on one last chance for redemption.

The problem is rooted in Flemish Cycling's culture, which I can't say I know much about but all the evidence points to Flemish riders training primarily to win in Flanders. I don't blame most of these guys, most riders make a top priority of their hometown race, especially where that race is one of the world's best. But Quick Step pack it in after the Scheldeprijs (next week); Lotto rely primarily on Australians starting at Amstel Gold, and if the Belgian national federation has been developing secondary priorities (stage racing anyone?), it's been a catastrophe.

So it's all-in for Vlaamse Wieler Week in Flanders. Well, AFAIK the priority goes something like this:

  1. De Ronde
  2. Paris-Roubaix (longtime honorary Flemish race)
  3. Gent-Wevelgem
10-20: Het Volk, E3 Prijs, Dreidaagse de Panne, Scheldeprijs, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and so forth.

The latter group are merely appetizers, though Het Volk has a special place as the first morsel for the starving fans. Gent-Wevelgem is a mixed priority: however much they wish to see Boonen or Hoste shine, they understand the need to focus on the Monuments which bookend G-W. For the most part, success is measured by De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.

Well, this year's Ronde was a minor disaster: Hoste's stunning loss could be seen as a valiant effort... but ask any Red Sox fan if they're mollified by how close the Sox came to winning the 1986 World Series. Sometimes near misses are more painful than not showing up to begin with. Nick Nuyens quietly took 7th, King Tommeke a dismal 12th, and five Belgians in the top 20 make a paltry total. Before this year Belgians had averaged two podium places every year since 2002, winning three of the last four and six of the last nine editions. But in 2007 Italians, for example, took two podium spots and six of the top 21.

It gets worse... Gent-Wevelgem may be secondary in most Flemings' hearts, at least in years when the Ronde trophy stays home. With this year's disappointment, Gent might be more crucial, and yet Flanders' mooiste was Nuyens, at 23rd! No Belgian finished until individuals from eleven other countries had crossed the line, including five Spaniards, three Aussies, three Germans, three anonymous Frenchmen, and guys from Belarus, Austria and England. Now, the homeboys don't defend G-W like they do Flanders, but 18 of the last 45 podium places were occupied by Belgians.

In the lesser events, the home crowd has watched Italians take Het Volk (Pozzato) and Dreidaagse de Panne (Ballan overall, Paolini and Bennati stage wins), with only Boonen's trio of wins and stage wins by Gert Steegmans and Stijn Devolder at De Panne as consolation.

Paris-Roubaix is more of an international affair, and only comes within a few miles of even touching Belgian soil, but Flemish Cycling's imprint on the race is well-known (can't find the link I want at the moment). More to the point, Flemings have won three of last five editions (and four of seven), while taking 10 of the last 24 podium places. Last year three Flemings graced the top 10, and that's after purging Hoste and Van Petegem from the rolls.

It's not too late to salvage the season with a good performance Sunday by some combination of contenders Hoste, Boonen, Nuyens, Van Petegem, Gilbert, Steegmans, Devolder, etc. But the same problems that made De Ronde such a dud still exist: Boonen has been slowed by crashes, and the rest of the field can't match the power of Ballan and Cancellara, to name a few.

In all likelihood this is merely a single down year, particularly where the big names of Flemish Cycling are still just hitting their prime (minus de Peet). But Flemish fans might also be learning the same lesson French fans have absorbed over the years, especially lately: great athletes from everywhere will find the great races. And if Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, the US and others are breeding their own new generation of strongmen, you can bet they'll be on the start lines in Flanders for the world's most beautiful one-day races.