Belgian World’s Team Selection Draws Controversy

With the World Championship road race slated for just 10 days from now, there’s trouble brewing in the Belgian camp. The course in Madrid is tailor-made for a sprint finish, with the Belgians placing their faith in Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) for the win. After a stellar season that featured his Flanders-Roubaix double and wins in Tour de France sprint stages, the 24-year-old has proven that he has what it takes to handle the distance and competition the World’s will throw at him. In Madrid, he’ll face stiff competition from Italian five-star favorite Alessandro Petacchi (Fasso Bortolo), but that’s not what’s ruffling feathers in the land of the spring classics.

Some of the controversy over the Belgian team selection finds its roots in the third contender for the rainbow jersey—Australia’s Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto). Having just taken the G.P. Fourmiers and Paris-Brussels, the feisty McEwen has proved that he’s on-form and ready for a showdown. McEwen has been quick this year to spread the credit for his victories to the assistance of his Davitamon-Lotto squad, and that’s the rub.

When Belgian team selector Jose DeCauwer announced his squad headed by Boonen, he selected only two other riders from Boonen’s Quick.Step squad—Nick Nuyens and Wilfried Cretskens. Also included in the squad are McEwen’s Davitamon-Lotto teammates Peter Van Petegem, Bjorn Leukemans, and Mario Aerts. That little detail, it seems, has inflamed Quick.Step director Patrick Lefevere, who was lobbying for five of his boys to make the cut.

Since nobody would dare question the great Van Petegem’s motivations or abilities, Lefevere’s criticism has centered on Aerts and Leukemans, who he feels should have been replaced with Boonen’s Quik.Step helpers Rik Verbrugge and Kevin Hulsmans. He’s also been critical of DeCauwer’s absence at the Vuelta to rate performances, as well as the fact that DeCauwer did not consult adequately with Boonen regarding the selection. According to , Boonen, unlike Lefevere, is fine with both the team selection and his lack of involvement in it.

Though Lefevere hasn’t said it publicly to my knowledge, he has to be a bit worried about where those Davitamon riders’ loyalties lie—with Boonen and the national team, or with their trade teammate McEwen? Such questions are nothing new, of course—just witness the debacle at the world cyclocross championships a few years back when the interests of the Belgian and Dutch federations crossed swords with those of the Rabobank trade team.

If Lefevere’s concerns aren’t merely about team chemistry and do indeed extend to the loyalty issue, SC believes that he needn’t lose any sleep over it. There are precisely two ProTour teams in cycling-mad Belgium, his Quick.Step squad and Davitamon-Lotto, and the Belgians love to ride for a home team. So, should Aerts or Leukemans make any moves that help McEwen at Boonen’s expense and irritate Lefevere, they’ll be halfing their job prospects at home by half when it comes time to look for a new contract.

Of course, there’s always the prospect that Davitamon-Lotto could offer Aerts and Leukemans a little incentive for putting McEwen in stripes next year, but that could make for a PR disaster for the team in its home country, so it seems unlikely. McEwen, however, isn’t doing anything to put Lefevere’s mind at ease, going so far as to encourage DeCauwer to select more of his Davitamon-Lotto team for the Belgian squad.

After his Paris-Brussels win, McEwen told “If the Belgian National coach watched the race today, he'll know he has to take more of our team to Madrid. They know better than anyone else how to guide a sprinter to the finish line. And the Belgians do want Tom Boonen to become World Champion, no?”

Of course, we didn’t think that Robbie would miss a chance to stir the pot, did we? And why not keep them guessing?

Sitting outside of the controversy, the Belgian road race team is rounded out with Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel), young Walloon Phillipe Gilbert (FDJ), and Rabobank’s veteran workhorse Mark Wauters. Leif Hoste (Discovery Channel) and Bert Roesems (Davitamon-Lotto) will ride the time trial.