April is the month that traditionally gets Belgian cycling fans the most frenzied, but this year, July has them equallyâ€”if not moreâ€”excited about the Tour de France. And why not? With a healed, re-signed, and in-form Tom Boonen leading Quick-Step, a 2010 Tour de France top-5 finisher in Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Jurgen Van Den Broeck, and the most dominant one-day rider in the sport in Philippe Gilbert, thereâ€™s reason to believe 2011 will be the countryâ€™s best Tour de France in decades.
Letâ€™s begin with Boonen. A former green jersey and six-time stage winner, Tommeke hasnâ€™t enjoyed Tour success since his last stage win in 2007. Last year, Boonen missed the race entirely after a knee injury sustained at the Tour of California was aggravated at the Tour de Suisse. This year, after a spring considered mediocre by the Belgianâ€™s standards (he â€œonlyâ€ won Ghent-Wevelgem and failed to finish his first Paris-Roubaix in several years), Boonen seems back on track and ready to contend at the Tour de France.
But for what? As Boonen shifted his focus from field sprints to the classics several years ago, he lostâ€”in my opinionâ€”the physical skills and more importantly, the mentality required for success against men like Cavendish, Petacchi, Hushovd, and Farrar. Perhaps Boonen can parlay his classics skills to contend in one of the tougher sprints finishes, perhaps as early as Stage 1â€™s finish atop the Category 4 Mont des Alouettes. But in pure field sprints, heâ€™s clearly a rung below the fastest.
Boonen will certainly do his best throughout the rest of the first week, but I only see him taking a win in the event that some twist of fateâ€”a crash, split, or bad weather, for exampleâ€”eliminates at least some of his competition. Thereâ€™s no shame in taking wins in such fashionâ€”part of winning a race means being in a position to do soâ€”but itâ€™s far from the Boonen that lit-up the Tour earlier in his career.
In the end, Boonen would be better served by using this Tour de France for training. He wants to contend at Worlds and many have said that one needs at least one grand tour in his legs in order to contend in the Spring Classicsâ€”Boonenâ€™s completion of this yearâ€™s Tour will therefore go a long way toward his contention in those targeted races. And who knows, maybe he sneaks into a small group during week two or three and overwhelms his companions to take a breakaway stage win. Stanger things have happened.
But while all of Belgium would be thrilled to see Boonen take a stage win or two, the real star of Week 1 is most likely to be Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Philippe Gilbert. After a now-legendary April performance that saw him win the prestigious Amstel-Fleche-Liege triple, King Phil seems back to his winning ways, winning two minor stage races with dominating performances in their respective â€œqueenâ€ stages and taking Sundayâ€™s Belgian National Championship by attacking when everyone knew he would.Â Now Phil heads to the Tourâ€”his first since 2008â€”with his eyes set squarely on a stage win and the yellow jersey. Stages 1, 4, and 6 are those mentioned as most suited to his strengths, and I canâ€™t help but agree.
Thereâ€™s really not much to say about Phil anymoreâ€”heâ€™s just that dominant. One could say that his team is divided between himself, the German sprinter Andre Greipel, and top-5 contender Jurgen Van Den Broeck. But as we saw during the finale of the Amstel Gold Race, Gilbert has no problem doing his own workâ€”he doesnâ€™t need teammates in the way other riders might. One might also say that Gilbert is too favored to be given any latitude; other teams will mark him out of the race. But what about races such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege or the Belgian Championships, races in which everyone was waiting for the Belgian to attack and then was powerless once he did? In short, if these stagesâ€”especially 1 and 4â€”come together by the bottom of their finishing climbs, thereâ€™s nary a rider who can beat Gilbert in a head-to-head uphill battle.
In short, if he races as aggressively and confidently as he did this spring, anything less than a stage winâ€”or twoâ€”would be a tremendous disappointment. The Tour de France is a fickle race where many favorites suddenly find their luck to have changed, but Gilbertâ€™s as sure a bet as youâ€™ll ever see.
Last but not least, Belgium boasts last yearâ€™s GC-revelation, Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Jurgen Van Den Broeck. After a 15th-place finish in 2009, VDBke progressed a bit quicker than many expected, riding a consistent raceâ€”especially in the mountainsâ€”to finish higher than all but Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, Denis Menchov, and Samuel Sanchez. Perhaps a sign of his continued maturation, this year the Belgian seems to have moved his post-race aggression (reserved mainly for the press) to the races themselves, as evidenced by his Stage 1 win at the Criterium du DauphinÃ©.
That said, if heâ€™s to take the next step and contend for a spot on the podium, Van Den Broeck needs to do more than just follow wheels in the mountainsâ€”he needs to attack. Donâ€™t get me wrong, this is not yet a rider who can separate himself from the likes of Contador and Schleckâ€”not by any means. However, we are talking about a rider who has a third-place well within in his reach if heâ€™s able to capitalizeâ€”as Sanchez and Menchov did last yearâ€”on the bad days of those closest to him on GC. As men like Christian Vande Velde and Bradley Wiggins have shown in past editions, it is possible to follow wheels to a finish within the top-5â€”but podiums spots, they require an attack or two to come to fruition. If VDBke is able to do it, he could become the first Belgian on the podium since Lucien Van Impe in 1981.
Man of the Hour: The organizers have â€œgivenâ€ Gilbert three chances to shine in Week 1. Can he trade his Belgian drie-kleur for the maillot jaune?
On the Hot Seat: Tom Boonen seems to be on the hot seat in just about every race he enters. Heâ€™ll stay there until he bags a big win. A Tour stage would be a great place to start, and a valuable confidence boost for a rider who seems in need of one. Why else would he have signed a new contract before the Tour de France?
Up-and-Comer: Vacansoleilâ€™s Thomas De Gendt is quickly becoming the most exciting Belgian not named Philippe Gilbert. First he won a stage at Paris-Nice, then he took another at the Tour de Suisse. Does Tour glory beckon for the aggressive youngster from Sint-Niklaas? Riding for a team with no goals other than stage success, heâ€™ll certainly have his chances.