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PEZ In The Mix: Belgian Nats 2006
The Tour over-shadowed everything this year, especially with speculation about how it would be ‘pas de Lance’ and then the ‘Operacion Puerto’ scandal before the race had even started. Lost in the hype were the results of the various National Championships, held the weekend prior to ‘le depart.’ One of the fresh new champion’s jerseys missing from Strasbourg was that of Belgium – how come?

Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux), Het Volk winner and Dauphine yellow jersey-holder stands on the championship podium alongside the patron saint of Belgium – Tom Boonen (Quickstep). So who was third?

Boonen actually, with Gilbert second, both relegated to the places of honour by a man who has long knocked on the door of the big-time and who has been mentioned in dispatches many times by PEZ.

To say that Belgium is Boonen-Crazy is like saying that the Beatles were some random band.

The Belgian media should have been ecstatic; Boonen as Flanders’ top rider and Gilbert as Wallonie’s top rider sharing the podium of the 2006 Belgian elite championships. But the Pro Tour riders had to make-do with those lower rungs – out-foxed by a small, ruddy-faced, stocky man, whose nick-name of ‘Rambo’ is wholly appropriate.

Eeckhout basks in the biggest success of his career with a Coke and his wife and child in tow.

Nico Eeckhout rides for low-budget outfit, Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen. He’s a man that’s always there when the going is tough – wind, rain, cobbles – but despite his 61 professional wins he’s never landed a really big one until today. When Tom Boonen made the final selection of ten, which became six on the final lap – as the monsoon conditions, speed and endless dangerous corners took their toll, it looked like there could be a major out-break of Boonen-mania. If you were an aficionado however, you knew that with thunder and lightning flashing and booming all around and Rambo ‘in the mix’ it would be no formality for ‘Tornado Tom’.

Talk about an investment – over 3000 euros for those wheels…and Lightweight doesn’t give them away – ever.

As the six dropped into the tunnel which emerged at the end of the long, flat, tree-lined finishing straight it was Boonen’s Quickstep team mate, Kevin Van Impe keeping the speed up for the boss. But the effect of the distance, rain and sheer hard graft that Van Impe had put-in were betrayed by his rocking shoulders and gritted-teeth – white against the road grime on his face. As the road exited the tunnel and began to climb on to the straight, Lotto’s giant, Johan Van Summeren attacked hard on the left.

Van Impe was finished and Boonen himself responded to close-down the tallest man in the peloton. Just as Boonen caught and drew-level with the big guy they bumped shoulders, nothing that would cause a crash but bad enough to break Boonen’s stride. At that exact moment Eeckhout jumped, going from way-out with Gilbert glued to his rear wheel.

Cross Stars Bart Wellen (top) and Erwin Vervecken showed up for the Belgian Nats.

It was a straight drag-race to the line, Boonen’s counter got him to Gilbert’s rear wheel, but he couldn’t gain ground. Eeckhout was well clear, fists clenched in the air as he inherited a crown that all the Belgian kings have worn – Merckx, Van Looy, de Vlaeminck, and Museeuw amongst them.

Gilbert rode a solid race, but Eeckhout made the perfect move at the perfect time.

Pros are realists and Gilbert knew he couldn’t get-round the bull dog-built Eeckhout but second for him wasn’t a bad day’s work. Boonen glanced behind, made sure the bronze was safe then slumped his head between his shoulders – there’s only one placing any good to him nowadays.

Sweet victory for Rambo.

Whilst Nico was a deserving winner, it wasn’t a great race. The rain, which fell for most of the race varied from light drizzle to apocalyptic torrent with all stages in between. This put a damper on the carnival atmosphere which draws people like us to the championship; it’s also first time I haven’t basked in the sun at a Belgian title race.

The fans for Tom Boonen get younger and younger. By the way…where can one find an XXXS World Champion jersey?

The course was virtually a huge criterium around the streets of Antwerp, taking-in some very run-down suburbs as well as industrial wastelands.

Well, they didn’t show up in droves, but the fans and their die-hard extremes were still in effect. That’s a fair bus for a fan club!

There were no mobile frite stands to be seen within a couple of kilometres of the finish and the eccentric fan club members and huge gangs of cyclo-tourists who add so much to the atmosphere seemed to have opted to remain in their heartland bars in front of the TV rather than travel to the big city.

Only a couple of the local bars had a TV tuned-in to the race and there just wasn’t the atmosphere that the championship usually generates.

Uninspiring the course might have been, but it was still plenty enough to bring the early demise of many riders, including Jartazi rider, Jan Soetens.

Because of the flat course, lack of wind and a lot of tempo-riding by Boonen’s Quicksteps, Eeckhout’s Vlaanderen boys and Landbouwkrediet the main break of the day, comprising Olivier Kaisens (Davitamon-Lotto), Bart Vanheule (Vlaanderen) and Dutchman turned Belgian, Roy Sentjens (Rabobank) never gained more than 1-45 before being reeled-in after five laps of freedom.

Watching a 5 hour crit in the rain isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Next year the race will be back ‘in the sticks’ at Ronse, where Steve Bauer and Claude Criquelion had their infamous collision at the climax of the 1988 Worlds.

Let’s hope for a proper race – and some sunshine.


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