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John Wilcockson assesses the favorites’ chances at Flanders.

Hincapie is coming on form

By John Wilcockson

Hincapie leads Bettini on the Mur de Grammont in the 2006 edition of Flanders.

Hincapie leads Bettini on the Mur de Grammont in the 2006 edition of Flanders.

Photo: Graham Watson

A few glimpses of sunshine were interrupting the rain showers Saturday evening in Belgium, partially drying out the 24 sections of cobblestones and 17 hellingen included in the 92nd Tour of Flanders. It could prove to be the toughest edition yet of the venerable Belgian classic because, besides the return of the ultra-steep Koppenberg, the temperatures are going to be in the mid-30s to low-40s, with a cold northwest wind and rain starting about two hours into the race.

The 17 climbs in Sunday’s 264km Tour of Flanders, and their distances from the start:

Kluisberg – 99km
Nokereberg – 118km
Molenberg – 157km
Wolvenberg – 167km
Oude Kwaremont – 185km
Paterberg – 189km
Koppenberg – 195km
Steenbeekdries – 200km
Taaienberg – 203km
Berg Ter Stene – 213km
Leberg – 216km
Berendries – 222km
Valkenberg – 227
Tenbosse – 233km
Eikenmolen – 239km
Muur – Kapelmuur – 249km
Bosberg – 252km

The Koppenberg is the seventh climb on the 264km course that zigzags up, down and around the green hills known as the Flemish Ardennes, to the south of Ghent and west of Brussels. More importantly, the riders hit the cobblestone Koppenberg — which is 600 meters long with a steepest pitch of 22 percent — just inside 70km to go. On a wet day, the greasy Belgian bricks could cause all sorts of problems, and perhaps encourage the strongest guys to split from the pack.

It comes too soon for a solo move, but the men on form will be eager to cut the numbers in contention well before the other crucial climb, the Mur de Grammont, also known as the Kappelmuur, which comes 15km from the finish. The cobbled part of the Mur is less than 500 meters long, but Alessandro Ballan proved last year that a strong attack on the steepest 20-percent section can be the move that counts.

Defending champion Ballan (Lampre) is less likely to shine on a cold, wet day — the Italian performs much better in warm sunshine — so we should look elsewhere for a winner.

Two-time winner Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic) is on rising form, as he showed last Saturday in a darting attack on the cobblestones with Milan-San Remo winner Fabian Cancellara (CSC) in the GP E3 that used some of the same climbs featured this Sunday. The French are hoping that Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), who won two 200km Belgian semi-classics last week, will be able to continue his winning streak — but the extra distance will likely prove a handicap. Furthermore, this is Chavanel’s first taste of the Tour of Flanders, and no first-timer has won here since the great Rik Van Steenbergen in 1944.

Chavanel’s teammate Nick Nuyens is more likely to be in the final mix, while two other Belgians, three-time runner-up Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto) and Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) could pull off a surprise win.

Should the conditions be as bad as the weather service predicts, then America’s George Hincapie (High Road) could well improve on the third place he scored on his last Flanders outing two years ago. Hincapie has ridden a stealth campaign this spring, but his fourth place in the final stage time trial of this week’s Three Days of De Panne proved that his form is coming to a peak at the right time.

Hincapie in the stage 3 time trial at De Panne this week.

Hincapie in the stage 3 time trial at De Panne this week.

Photo: Graham Watson

A hard race with key attacks as early as the Koppenberg should really suit Hincapie, who can no longer rely on his sprint to get a result. Hincapie can rely on his teammates though to help him get in position, particularly the German rider Andreas Klier, who lives near the Flanders course, the on-form Austrian Bernhard Eisel, and the former British champ Roger Hammond.

The other U.S. team, Slipstream-Chipotle, makes its Flanders debut, and we can expect some brave rides from Tyler Farrar, Michael Friedman, Magnus Bäckstedt and last-minute addition Ryder Hesjedal — who replaces the injured Steve Cozza.

Dark horses for the victory also include Rabobank’s Spanish stars Oscar Freire and Juan Antonio Flecha, CSC’s Karsten Kroon and Stuart O’Grady (should Cancellara have problems), and the Astana men Vladimir Gusev and Tomas Vaitkus — especially as Astana is getting one of its few starts in a ProTour classic having been dissed by the organizers of Milan-San Remo and the upcoming Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liege

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