It’s the 2007 Three Days of De Panne, stage one, hilly, windy and there are men dying out there.
But at the front a powerful figure attacks constantly into the wind which scythes in off the North Sea — and he doesn’t quit his huge ‘digs’ until the race defining break has formed around him.
Gent — Wevelgem 2006 and Alessandro Petacchi’s train is derailing; despite their best efforts, a giant of a man is away on his own and defying the desperate efforts of the best lead-out men in the business.
Bert Roesems is one of the last of the Flandrian hard men, no quarter asked or given; rain, hail, sleet, snow, wind, cobbles, bergs are all just a part of the game.
When Bert lines up at the start of the GP Etruschi in Tuscany on February 7th it will be the first race of his 13th pro season. Lotto let Bert go this year and now he’s with Nico Mattan’s Cinelli — OPD team; he may not be Pro Tour anymore, but he’s still as keen as ever.
Recently, he took time to answer our questions about his new team and Belgian cycling in general.
My research show 28 pro wins, which one gave most satisfaction, Bert?
“I think that sounds about right, I didn’t keep count. If you separate time trials and road races; the first time I won the Belgian Elite time trial championships in 2004 after being second three times and third once, that was very satisfying.
“On the road, it would be 2006, when I won the semi-classic Nokere-Koerse in a lone break; that would have to be my best road win.”
I make it that this is your 14th season about to start; you must have seen big changes in the sport?
“It depends which website you check, but my first year I was only pro for around one month at the end of the 1996 season; 1997 was actually my first full pro season, so this will be my 13th season about to start.
“The biggest change is the coming of the ‘mega teams,’ ten years ago most teams had 12 or 16 riders; then Mapei changed everything with their 30 man team. Now the Pro Tour teams all have that sort of number. The teams used to be like big families; now they are more like small companies.
“That’s fine if everything is going well; but if you have an economic crisis like we have now, then it becomes a huge struggle to get the budget together.
“It’s not just the riders, there are as many support staff as there are cyclists with a big team. Now there are really big teams and small teams with nothing in between, and that’s not a good situation.”
Are you happy with your fitness at the moment?
“Yes, I started training again on November 1rst and have done 4,000 kilometres since then. I’ve been training very regularly, two or three hours each day, plus some track work and time on the rollers.
“I had that bad fall in the Vuelta in 2007 and it took me until the end of 2008 to get back into my old shape; I didn’t want to let that fitness slip away, so I didn’t take much of a break.”
Do you have to do more training as you get older?
“I don’t do the same kind of training that I did ten years ago but I think that as you get older you must start a little earlier and do a little more than you used to when you were young.
“When you are young maybe you can skip some sessions without it affecting your build up, but as you get older you can’t get away with that — little things make the difference. I’m still holding my own with the young riders, and that’s what counts.”
Are you upset with Lotto for not renewing your contract?
“No, it’s just the way things go in sport, there are no hard feelings. I no longer have anything to prove to them — just to myself.”
How did the Cinelli contract come about?
“During the season, when it became apparent that Lotto was not going to renew my contract, I was talking to my old friend and team mate, Nico Mattan.
“When he began to put the team together he asked me to join to look after the young Belgian guys he has signed. That’s my role, I have the experience on the bike and I’m also the oldest guy in the team — tradition dictates that I become team captain. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t ride for myself!”
You’ll miss races like Het Volk and Flanders, will that hurt?
“Yes, I’ll miss them, but after 12 years as a pro, I can do without them; I can say to myself; “I did those races.
“Apart from the races you mentioned, we will be riding most of the races that count in Belgium; Kuurne, Dwars door, le Samyn, The Three Days of West Flanders — it’s a very good programme.
“There’s no point in taking young riders to races where maybe one guy will be left in the third group with 150 kilometres to go; you have to take them to races that are one level down from where QuickStep, Rabobank and Columbia are battling it out.
“We want to go where it’s possible to get results; it’s a sound programme for our guys, they are not out of their league. There’s an Italian part of the team and a Belgian part, although there will be cross-over. For example, we’ll be riding the GP Etruschi at the start of February.”
It’s confirmed that Jorg Jaksche is joining the team?
“Yes, apparently he’s in very good condition and highly motivated to get back to racing. I saw him when we had the team get together in Brussels from the 18th to 20th of December and he’s looking lean.
“He has nothing to prove, he just wants to get back to racing — and his slate is clean, now.
“Most of the guys were in Brussels, except for the South American guys — we have Juan Pablo Dotti from Argentina and Jesus Perez from Venezuela — they have still to travel to Europe.”
You have a couple of very good Belgian youngsters?
“Yes, and we’ve covered things nicely — we have Jerome Baugnies from Flanders and Fabio Polazzi from Wallonia. They were ranked 6th and 11th in the National espoirs ratings, so they have a lot of potential.
“They have the potential and they are young; now it’s up to them to learn as much as possible as fast as possible.”
And V de B?
“We will see. The first thing is just to get him to the races, there’s no stress for him, he doesn’t have to carry the team, he doesn’t have to be the V de B of 1999. If he’s half the rider he was back then, that’ll be fine.”
On a general note, Philippe Gilbert’s move to Lotto; good or bad?
“I don’t think that there will be a clash with Cadel Evans’s ambitions — they are all for the Tour. I don’t think that Gilbert will ride the Tour; he’ll do the Giro and then use the Vuelta to build form for the Worlds.
“But he’s put himself under an awful lot of pressure by coming back to Belgium, it would have been better to stay with Francaise or go to say, Columbia. There will be way more expectation on him now – apart from Boonen – he’ll now be the face of Belgian cycling.
“With La FranÃ§aise or Columbia, top five in a classic would be good, but now it’ll be; ‘he should have won!’ The public and media in Belgium aren’t easy to please!”
And Sylvain Chavanel’s move to QuickStep — with Devolder and Boonen; ‘too many chiefs?’
“If you listen to what Chavanel says, he wants to progress further in Belgian races; in 2008 he won Brabantse Pijl and Dwars door — QuickStep is the number one team in the world for theses type of races. He’s an aggressive rider and he’s thinking that with that team behind him, instead of chasing him down, he can get the results.
“Boonen is the fastest at the finish, so his tendency will always be to wait — so, Devolder and Chavanel will be competing to see who can get in the break first!”
And Bert’s goals for 2009?
“Every year since I turned pro, I won at least one race, but with my bad crash in the Vuelta in 2007, that sequence was broken — I want a win, I don’t care which race or country, but I want a win!
“I also want to enjoy my sport, it’s a great sport. It’s not until you have a crash and are unable to compete that you realise how great it is. If you have it, you don’t miss it; but if it’s taken away, suddenly you realise how much it means to you.”
With thanks to Bert. We’ll be catching up with him at Kuurne, until then we wish him, Nico, V de B and Cinelli all the best for 2009.