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The BMC Racing Team heads into the 96th Tour of Flanders with a classics squad that, on paper, at least, should be the envy of the peloton.
With Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan, and Greg Van Avermaet all lining up for the start in Bruges, the team has a potent set of leaders, each of whom could reasonably contend for Sunday’s win.
The team also brings veteran George Hincapie, strongman Marcus Burghardt and 2007 Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan, who carries the burden of potential indictments in a revitalized Italian doping investigation as well as the passing last week of his father-in-law.
But the classics aren’t won on paper and the newly fortified team has failed in many ways to live up to its much-hyped “super team” status this spring. BMC’s high-profile signings, Gilbert and Hushovd, have both struggled to find form amid illness, and Van Avermaet saw his Ghent-Wevelgem chances dashed after getting tangled in a nasty crash near the finish.
BMC sport director John Lelangue admits that it’s been a difficult couple of weeks for his all-star classics squad, but hopes Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix the following Sunday, will mark the beginning of a turnaround.
“Injuries and illness are a part of the game,” Lelangue noted during the team’s Friday press conference in Kortrijk, Belgium. “But we’re in good shape for these two monuments of cycling, and what I’ve seen the last few weekends makes me really confident.”
Gilbert, who topped the 2011 UCI WorldTour rankings, brushed off recent media scrutiny of his fitness and assured the crowd of 50 journalists that, despite recent setbacks such as a tooth infection, his motivation is strong.
“[The past weeks were] not a normal situation for me, with these little problems, but I never lost the confidence of the team or of my teammates, and that’s what’s most important,” he said. “What they say in the press is not a big problem, for me. I never lose my motivation, every day I work to be ready.”
Hushovd, who contracted a stomach virus in early March, admitted that his form is yet to return to peak.
“I did my job this winter,” explained the Norwegian. “I did everything I had to do and started good at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Then I got sick at Paris-Nice and missed Milan–San Remo. Last weekend I was not ready. Having been one week sick, I was missing form and also the racing in my legs. I’m back up there now, maybe a seven or eight out of 10, and if everything is fine on Sunday I can be higher.”
Even if form continues to elude the team, it can also count on experience. Hincapie will set a new record for Flanders participation Sunday when he makes his 17th finish at the cobbled classic.
“There’s nothing harder than the Tour of Flanders. My first time I was super excited, and I still get goose bumps at start line. It’s just an honor to be in the war, part of the battle,” noted Hincapie. “At the start of the Tour of Flanders I get a little better, a little more motivated. I expect to be up in the front on Sunday.”
Asked whether changes to the route will influence Sunday’s outcome, both Gilbert and Hincapie speculated that they might.