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Americans in Flanders
 
By Jaime Nichols
Date: 4/5/2002
Americans in Flanders
 

The American Contenders at the Springís most Prestigious Classic

This upcoming Sunday sees the 86th edition of the Tour of Flanders, Belgiumís biggest race, biggest sporting event of the year, and arguably the most prestigious monument in the spring racing season. The race is a long 264 Km, and features 16 short but steep climbs, including the newly re-cobbled and infamous Koppenberg, with its steepest sections at a 22% grade. Ouch!

A long, tough race, itís possible on a clear day for the strongest sprinters to come to the line, but in rainy years, with riders resorting to carrying their bikes through the mud over the slippery steepest hills, victory comes down to sheer iron-man endurance and bike-handling skill. Whatever the weather, the Tour of Flanders is a race where the last man standing at the end of the day has thoroughly earned his glory. With fair weather expected to hold, this Sundayís race is wide open, and will be contested by numerous worthy competitors, not the least of which will be some of Americaís finest on two wheels.

Proclaimed US Postalís leading one-day racer, George Hincapie has been racing the Spring Classics since 1994. He has finished in the top 6 in Paris-Roubaix (his favorite race) for the last three years running, and scored his first big spring win in last yearís Gent-Wevelgem, edging out Mercuryís Leon Van Bon and Telecomís Steffen Weseman at the line in a photo finish. Heís been in the top 25 at the Tour of Flanders every year since 1997. US Postal has declared a World Cup bid for Hincapie as a team goal, right behind a fourth consecutive Tour de France victory for Lance Armstrong, and he takes up the mantle as team co-leader with Armstrong this Sunday in Flanders to go for the win.

Word is that Hincapie is looking tougher than ever this year, training harder and with more purpose. Heís already posted some impressive results, not the least of which is his third place overall in the Three Days of De Panne, where he clinched his podium finish by coming in second in what he has since called the best time trial of his career. Hincapie held onto the best splits for the longest period until he was toppled finally by Peter Van Petergem, whose current strength is a formidable benchmark. Hincapie has also had podium finishes in the Volta ao Algarve and Classic Haribo earlier this season, and placed a respectable 16th in Milan San Remo after having the bad luck of being boxed in during the final sprint. By all accounts, Hincapie is on target to make his challenge felt on the spring campaign, and does so with the support of a team hand-picked to back him in his World Cup bid, including Lance Armstrong who will ride in his support.

Lance Armstrong needs no introduction, and I think we all have a passing knowledge of some of his palmares. Suffice it to say that in the epic battle between Lance and Godzilla that some of us are anticipating with almost as much enthusiasm as his next Tour de France bid, my moneyís on the Texan with the killer instinct.

Reportedly, Armstrong is riding Flanders and the other races on his spring schedule to help George Hincapie score a monument win, and as part of a concerted US Postal effort at the World Cup. Itís a heartwarming notion, but will Armstrong really put aside the winning form that took him to within one second of victory in last weekís Criterium International and sacrifice all to the Hincapie cause? How better to silence the throngs who accuse Armstrong of being too specialized, a one-trick pony, only interested in Le Tour and not a great Champion than to take home a win in Flanders? In a recent interview, Armstrong said that for him, Flanders is the biggest Classic, the most "complete race" in the spring season. With Hincapieís heart set on Paris-Roubaix, Iíd look for Lance to come out of the gate strong in Flanders this weekend, looking for the win should Hincapie falter. US Postal Director Sportif Deluxe Johan Brunyeel has said that "racing in" isnít really a relevant concept when it comes to Armstrong, so Iím looking to see the three time vanquisher of the Superbowl of bike racing put the hammer down on Sunday and go for the gusto. If he does, he certainly has the form and strength to rival anyone in the peloton.

Christian Vandevelde joins Armstrong and Hincapie at the start. Vandevelde has been racing with US Postal since 1998, and has never donned another professional jersey. He won the Redlands Classic in 1999, and has ridden the Spring Classics every year since his first as a pro. Vandevelde featured bravely in last yearís Tour of Flanders as part of the break that lasted, and finished 17th on a day of gutsy riding. Able to hang tough in the Grand Tours, not to be scoffed at in a Time Trial, and a valuable team player, Vandevelde is a strong, all around rider who will certainly provide support to the team effort, but canít be completely looked over as a contender for a strong placing.

Rounding up the American contenders is double US Pro Champion Fred Rodriguez riding for Domo. Rodriguez is coming off his best career result in this yearís Milan San Remo, of which there is a lively account on his website at http://www.fredrodriguez.com/journal.html, and hopes for a good result in Flanders. A strong and experienced rider with excellent instincts in the sprint, Rodriguez will be no slouch on the climbs, either. Heís likely to be less marked than Armstrong or Hincapie, looks to be in good form, and may be motivated to ride with special determination by his recent successes.

All in all, a good-looking American contingent!

 
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