What's Cool In Road Cycling

DePanne07 St1: The PEZ Report

Nico Mattan and Eric Vanderaerden – cool guys; but maybe we should have headed for our hotel after we finished interviewing them? But the juke box in ‘Pour que non?’ – that’s the local gay bar – is just stacked with goodies, from Edith Piaff to Boys Town Gang and the owner is cool with straight guys who buy pils and spend fortunes on tunes, so it was 03.00 when we hit the sack.

PEZ is Live and in color at Three Days of DePanne – so keep it here for the best racing coverage this week.

The mighty PEZ-Mobile! … yeah, we wish…

Hotel Adoma, Ghent, 08.00 and the alarm in the BlackBerry blasts us back to reality; we still have our wallets and passports, we’re not in hospital, so all’s well. Time to head for Middelkerke and stage one.

Eric Dekker needs some mustard for that footlong.

So, why is De Panne such a big deal? Nine times out of ten, the winner in Flanders will ride the three days and four stages; he may not ‘show’ but riding here puts the final mental and physical polish on the form. For the last few years, Boonen has ridden the first couple of stages but going home before the end to start the taper into Flanders. It’s only Tuesday but there are already full-colour Tour of Flanders supplements in the daily newspapers.

Stage one: Parcours. The start is in in the seaside resort of Middelkerke, just up the coast from De Panne, on the Belgian “Riviera”, the golden sand is glorious and runs for mile after mile; but that’s the North Sea, not the Med and it’s anoraks all round with not a bikini in sight. The course heads north and east across flat polder to the famous ridges around Oudenaarde, home to Het Volk, Kuurne and Flanders. There are a couple of laps of a tough circuit up there, which involve three ascents of the steep Berendries climb. The finish is in Zottegem, 17 kilometres from the last climb of Berendries, so a bunch finish is unlikely. There’s a fresh wind off the North Sea and stinging drizzle is blowing through.

The Race: We take-up the story on Berendries, the second time; but doesn’t anyone have a job to go to in Flanders? It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the hill is swarming. The temperature is up a little, it’s windy and the clouds are threatening but it’s dry.

Jan Kuyckx (Landbou) leads on his own, a handful of seconds back is a group of 7, lead by Enrico Franzoi (Lampre); big Gert Steegmans is there too – do QuickStep ever let anything go? The bunch, still virtually intact, is around a minute back.

Bert Roesems, Hulsmans, Posthuma (left to right), lead the break.

By 43 K to go it’s all together again, largely due to he efforts of Bert Roesems (Lotto). With one lap to go – 36 K Frederick Willems and Sergei Matveyev (Panaria) have 16 seconds on a bunch which has now split in two. The lead group swells with 32 K to go. Joost Posthuma (Rabobank), Luca Paolini (Liquigas) & Big Bert Roesems drive hard in the lead group, now eleven-strong; Alesandro Ballan (Lampre) and Kevin Hulsmans (Quickstep) are there too – it’s a strong group. Behind, Niko Eeckhout comes down and folds his Merck double at the head and down tubes – but he’s back up and away on the spare.

Nico Eeckhout’s bike did not respond well to the cobbles.

Into the last half hour and the break can’t stretch it much more than 25 seconds; Milram and Disco lead the relentless pursuit. David Millar shows well in the chase too as Liquigas try to block for Paolini. Time to go roadside again folks, as they approach Berendries for the second time. There are seven left up-front and they have a 25 second gap; it could be the winner. It’s a rout behind now, there are riders everywhere.

The chase in the bunch is a blur.

With 10 K to go the gap is 45 seconds, Paolini must be favourite, but the rest know that and the jumping will start soon. Hulsmans is dumping his race food, will it be him to make the move? The leaders are at 8 K to go and we still have riders passing here on Berendries with 17 K to go. Another group is trying to bridge-up, Bennati (Lampre) is in it, if they get-on then they can write his name on the trophy now. Ballan attacks from the front group, nobody reacts, this could be the winner. Paolini has countered, and he’s motoring; he’s on to Ballan, rapid.

The morale has gone from the break survivors now as the two Italians co-operate well – as long as they don’t mess-around in the last kilometre. In the streets of Zottegem now, concrete section roads.

The Sprint: Ballan leads, Paolini responds and it’s too easy for the two-time Primavera podium-finisher, Ballan second and Hulsmans takes third 12 seconds back. Not much for the Belgians to write home about, today.

Interview of the day: We grabbed Lotto mehanic, Bart Laysen after the race.
• Pez: An easy day for mechanics, Bart?
• Bart: A normal day, it didn’t rain so that’s good but the big worry here is crashes. Riders who haven’t won anything this year yet take risks to try and get a victory so the first stage is always very dangerous; today we had Roy Sentjens in a crash.

• Pez: I notice that the team are riding three different Ridleys.
• Bart: Yes, the riders can choose between aluminium, standard carbon or the Noah, with integrated seat pillar up until Roubaix, but after that there is no more personal choice – they must all ride Noahs after Roubaix.

• Pez: Is there any special set-up to do for Flanders?
• Bart: We use De Panne as the final test for Flanders, so the bikes are all set-up, all we have to do is fit new clinchers for the race. There’s a lot of work to do for Roubaix though, we have 40 pairs of tubular wheels coming and they all have to have tyres stuck-on, we use 25 or 26 mm tubulars at Roubaix, not the standard 23 mm.

• Pez: Is there any extra work with the carbon frames?
• Bart: No, just that on the Noahs, you have to cut the integrated seat posts to set the exact position, but we did that for all the frames in January.

• Pez: How are the electric gears standing-up to racing?
• Bart: Yes, it’s Bert Roesems who is testing them and they have been very good up until now. The only thing is that you must remember to charge the battery every night!

• Pez: Your tips for Flanders?
• Bart: In the final, I hope it is Boonen, Cancellara and Hoste – and Hoste wins in the sprint!

Pez would like to thank Bart for his time on a cold and windy Ghent evening.

Early Results: DePanne Stage 1
1 Luca Paolini (Ita) Liquigas
2 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
3 Kevin Hulsmans (Bel) Quickstep-Innergetic
4. Sergiy Matveyev (Ukr-Pan)
5. Joost Posthuma (Ned-Rab)
6. Markus Eichler (Ger-Uni)
7. Bert Roesems (Bel-Prl)
8. Daniele Bennati (Ita-Lam)
9. Janek Tombak (Est-Jar)
10. Arnaud Coyot (Fra-Uni)

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