Omloop Het Volk: Belgian opener with strong field

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29.02.2008/ With the traditional Belgian opener 'Omloop Het Volk' the cobble stone season will start tomorrow. Its one of the very few cobble stone races that Tom Boonen did not win yet and the Belgian Quickstep rider is highly motivated to add 'Het Volk' to his already impressive palmares. Philippe Gilbert (Francaise de Jeux) will start with special tubeless tyres at the prestigious Belgian race.

© Cyclingheroes
Philippe Gilbert won 'Het Volk' in 2006 ( Cyclingheroes)

After 12 years the Belgian opener will start and finish in Gent again, like it did from 1945 until 1995. In the last 12 years the race finished in Lokeren. The route was designed by the new race director Peter van Petegem. Van Petegem skipped the famous wall in Geraardsbergen and the legendary Oude Kwaremont but that does not mean the race is easier. The 2008 route of 'Het Volk' is tougher than in previous years.

This years edition of 'Het Volk' is 199 kilometres long and after about 70 kilometres long and after about 70 kilometres the first of 11 hills is on the menu: the Grotenberge.After that follows the Leberg (91 km), Berendries (96 km), Valkenberg (101 km), Ten Bosse (106 km), Pottelberg (123 km), Kruisberg (134 km), Taaienberg (143 km), Eikenberg (149 km), Wolvenberg (152 km) and Molenberg (160 km). After the last hill the riders have to ride over one more cobble stone section with a lenght  of 2600 meters: 'De Lange Munt'. The bunch will start at the E. Claus square in Gent and finish at the Charles de Kerckhovelaan.

Last year Quickstep's Gert Steegemans won a Tour de France stage in the same street in Gent. Steegmans told "We won't see a bunch sprint on Saturday." Steegmans continued by saying: "The route of the Omloop is much more difficult then I had expected. Johan van Summeren [Silence - Lotto, editor] sended me an sms in which he told me that he thinks its very tough." Steegmans does not know where he stands at the moment: "I don't know what I can expect from myself. After my crash at the Ruta Del Sol [Vuelta a Andalucia, editor] I panicked. I would have liked to have a few more racing kilometres in my legs, but I did a lot of training. I have build a few race simulations in, in which I did 235 kilometres in six hours."

The Quickstep team starts with a strong squad. Steegmans is riding with Paolo Bettini and Tom Boonen. 'Het Volk' is one of the only important Belgian races that Boonen never has won. Another teammate would like to win tomorrow as well. Belgian National Road Champion Stijn Devolder told "I will start to win on Saturday. But who doesn't?" Devolder continued by saying: "With Steegmans and Boonen among us we can put our money on different horses. I want to show my champions jersey. That jersey gives me extra motivation."

"I still have a little bit of trouble after my crash in the Algarve [Devolder was the overall winner of last weeks Tour of Algarve, editor], but my condition is fine," Devolder said. "If its up to me we can have bad weather because that will make the race only harder. The rain will be my accomplice."

Devolder concluded by saying: "If I have to name a possible winner for the Omloop then this will be Gilbert. But Vaitkus is strong as well. Cancellara, Flecha and O'Grady are the outsiders."

Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) won the race in 2006. Gilbert will start with special tubeless tyres. Its almost impossible to get a puncture with these tyres as a special liquid has small crystals which repair holes in the tyre immediately. Gilbert told Belgian daily newspaper 'Het Laatste Nieuws': "Its the first time that we will race with this kind of tyres." Gilbert continued by saying: "We have examined and tested them extensively. They are a bit harder than normal tyres." Gilbert concluded with: "The adavantage is that I won't lose the Omloop because of a flat tyre."

The new Danish sports director at Team CSC, Lars Michaelsen will be getting his debut this weekend in the first two Belgian cobble stone races of the season: Omloop Het Volk and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne.

The debut is slightly earlier than expected, because Australian sports director Scott Sunderland has been taken ill and has to stay in bed.

Michaelsen, who ended his career as a pro rider with a brilliant performance in last year's Paris-Roubaix, was one of the major cobble stone specialists in the peloton and he has taken part in Het Volk several times. You might think the Danish sports director would be a bit nervous ahead of his debut, but that is not the case however.

"Nah, I'm pretty calm about the whole thing, I think. Today's been a bit stressed traveling from Denmark to here, but these races are not all that important to us – compared to for instance the Dutch and the Belgian teams, who's sponsors have high expectations for the spring races down here," says Michaelsen and continues:

"We need to focus on using these two races as preparation for later ones like Paris-Roubaix and Ronde van Vlaanderen. I don't mean that we wouldn't like to win here, because we would always attempt to do so of course, but the main focus is definitely on getting started on the cobble stones," says Michaelsen.

Defending champ Filippo Pozzato will not start at tomorrows edition. The 'Omloop Het Volk' will start tomorrow, March 1, at 11:30 hrs local time. Cyclingheroes will publish a race report and picture gallery.

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