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Preview: Boonen, Cancellara are five-star Flanders favorites

A New Route

Regardless of the winner — or perhaps because of who ends up winning — the modified course for 2012 will be highly scrutinized. With the route change, organizers have taken an already extremely difficult course and made it even more demanding. Instead of its traditional, serpentine point-to-point route, the new course delivers three finishing circuits of decreasing length, each circuit containing trips over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs.

Many experts are predicting that the course change should favor Cancellara, who seems to have been born to power across the flat upper section of the Kwaremont, more than it will favor Boonen, Belgium’s resurgent prodigal son who previously benefited from a longer run-in to Meerbeke, allowing him more time to recover for a finishing sprint.

Course Map and Profile >>

Images of the New Finale >>

Following a 95km approach to the Vlaamse Ardennen between Bruges and Oudenaarde, the race will head toward Brakel for a 70km loop that will include the first hellingen of the day, as well as the first flat cobbled sectors. It’s a tough section, but the mostly flat 20km run to Berchem will likely negate any differences made there.

When the riders turn off the N8 highway onto the tiny road that leads to the Oude Kwaremont, the race will begin in earnest, on the first of three finishing circuits. The first trip over the Kwaremont is the seventh of 16 climbs, with 83 of Flanders’ hardest kilometers to be negotiated before riders cross the finish line in Oudenaarde about two hours later.

The first 45km lap contains a more or less traditional route of Flanders — the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Mariaborrestraat and Steenbeekdries. The steep slopes of the Koppenberg will strike at 190km into the race and will certainly be a crucial early moment in the selection process. After the painful cobbled descent of the Steenbeekdries, the race heads right, toward Ronse. Riders will take on the cobbles of the Donderij as well as a stiff climb before enjoying the fast descent into Ronse.

At just 15km, the second lap is intriguing, and where the race will begin to take shape. Recovery will be at a premium, as the distances between the Kwaremont, Paterberg, and Hoogberg are insignificant. On paper, the Hoogberg doesn’t look like much, gaining about 60 meters over one kilometer — but the climb hits hard, late in the day, and could be the launch pad for a small group to move clear heading into what will undoubtedly be a firework-laden final lap of the Kwaremont and Paterberg.

Following the final ascent of the Paterberg — a brutally steep, but short, beast of a climb — riders face 13.3 flat kilometers into Oudenaarde for the finish. It doesn’t sound like much, but imagine a scenario where Fabian Cancellara is able to leave Boonen behind as he did in 2010. And what if Boonen should have Terpstra and/or Chavanel with him?

“He who comes up with 20 seconds on top of the Paterberg wins the Tour of Flanders,” predicted two-time Flanders champion Peter Van Petegem.

There has been some trepidation that the new, extremely difficult finale will prompt riders to wait as long as possible before lighting the fireworks — akin to the current incarnation of the Amstel Gold Race. It’s a distinct possibility, but the cobbles of the Kwaremont and Paterberg will make the race selective, no matter how they’re ridden.

The new circuit is untested for everyone  — riders, teams and fans. Will it result in a more aggressive race, or a more conservative one? With so many doubts, the team with multiple aces to play will win, because those aces can play in any hand that’s dealt.

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