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Flanders Friday: Rough Roads...

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Tragedy, near-misses and hope for better days

Action in Nokere Koerse
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The Belgian spring cobbled classics season resumed this week and it was an emotional experience from start to finish. The most important news of note was the tragic death of 19-year-old Stef Loos, who was taking part in the Alfred Gadenne Grand Prix last weekend when the peloton departed from the race course, eventually onto open roads. Loos was killed, and several others injured, when a van struck the riders. The race itself, held in Dottignies near the linguistic border just south of Ronse, is dedicated to the memory of a local mayor who was murdered two years ago. The tragic death of Loos deepens the sadness surrounding the event.

Loos rode for the Acrog-Pauwels Sauzen-Balen team and had no top ten finishes to his credit, suggesting he was a team rider rather than a budding star. The accident is under investigation, but it appears as though the race entered an intersection and just chose the wrong route to continue, despite signs. However it occurred, Belgian cycling is mourning another youthful athlete.

This news hung heavy over Wednesday’s Nokere Koerse, where Remco Evenepoel made his classics debut with his late friend’s memory on his mind. Evenepoel, having graduated to Deceunink Quick Step, got his nose in the wind late in the race, but ended up finishing a minute back, safely behind the crashes that marred the conclusion of that race. He lines up Friday (possibly while you are reading this) in the Handzame Classic, out to help either Alvaro Hodeg (the defending winner) or Fabio Jakobsen take the prize. Former winner Kristoffer Halvorsen and Italian Matteo Moschetti are among the young guns taking the line Friday.

Absent will be Cyclocross World Champion Mathieu van der Poel, but not for long. The Dutch hope, as you surely know by now, survived a horrible crash in the Nokere Koerse approaching the finish line, escaping with a few bumps and bruises. Van der Poel was looking threatening, but plenty of others were too, so it’s probably a good time to not jump to conclusions. But you can see MvdP Sunday at the GP de Denain, and then more dramatically at Gent-Wevelgem the following Sunday.

The crash overshadowed a great day for winner Cees Bol of Sunweb, who scored his first win of the year and first career victory at the 1.HC level, having previously taken sprints in the Olympia’s Tour, Fleche Ardennaise and Tour de Bretagne. The grinding uphill sprint makes for a challenge these days, and for the 23-year-old Dutch rider to take the win from a pretty strong field, crash or no, is impressive.

Continuing the unpleasant theme of this week’s column, Andrea Tafi’s Paris-Roubaix hopes also crashed out of reality this past weekend, when he broke a collarbone in a pileup at a local race in Tuscany. Il Gladiatore had been hunting in vain for a team who would take him on so he could ride in the Hell of the North one more time, having won the race in 1999 and a dozen other appearances there. Nobody was anxious to give away a World Tour start to a long-retired rider, no matter how glittering his career, so this injury just settled the matter in the minds of the few people still hoping he could get back.

Last weekend in Tirreno-Adriatico, Sep Vanmarcke had his own brush with terror as he skidded nearly out of control just as he was crossing a bridge on the race’s final road stage. Vanmarcke went down on the road instead of flipping over the rail and falling lord knows how far, but we are all, especially Vanmarcke, grateful we didn’t find out.

Lastly, it’s been a week of sponsor and kit changes, and one you might not have paid attention to is that of Direct Energie, set to become Total now that the rights have been acquired. Look for the new team kits on Paris-Roubaix weekend. Just a few short weeks away...

That’s enough of the downers. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. And we know what we will be waking up to next week...