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Preview: Boonen, Cancellara are five-star Flanders favorites

Five-star Favorites

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) A two-time winner born to ride the Flandrian cobblestones. Boonen is surfing the momentum after wins at Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem, and has the full support of his very stacked Omega Pharma squad. He’ll also have the full support of an adoring Belgian crowd that has gotten behind “Tommeke” during a resurgent sprint campaign.

Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) Cancellara’s win ahead of Boonen in 2010, as well as impressive solo wins at Harelbeke in 2010 and 2011, make him the most dangerous man in the race. He rode well at Milan-San Remo, and was able to chase back to the front group at Harelbeke after a nasty crash. Conventional thinking is that if you give Cancellara 10 meters, you’re racing for second place. However, in 2011 Cancellara opened up a large gap at De Ronde but cracked on the Kappelmuur and was caught by a select group; the big Swiss champion was still able to attack again inside the final 3km, making the final selection and finishing third. Cancellara’s strength is clear; what is not is how he can overcome the everyman-against-Fabian tactic that has dogged him since Harelbeke last year.

Four-star Favorites

Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) The winner, in a sprint, ahead of Boonen at February’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Vanmarcke is the revelation of the classics season even before Flanders and Roubaix, also having finished seventh at Dwars door Vlaanderen and fifth at Ghent-Wevelgem.  The young Belgian has emerged as a likely future Flanders winner; however, it’s a question mark whether the 23-year-old can contend with the sport’s best after 250km of hard racing.

Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) The Italian known as “The Shadow” for following wheels has had a rough go over the past few years, and even broke his collarbone in February at Qatar, but has returned looking lean and mean, with top-10 finishes at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem. Though he’s never been on the podium at De Ronde, he won Harelbeke in 2009, as well as Milan-San Remo, back in 2006, as Boonen’s Quick Step teammate. He could be there well into the second circuit, and possibly the third.

Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) The 22-year-old Slovakian champion claims he’s racing De Ronde as a learning experience, but if he’s there in the final kilometers, as he was when he finished fourth at Milan-San Remo, he’ll be racing for the experience of winning. At Ghent-Wevelgem he followed Cancellara’s late-race attack, and after the front group came back together, he finished second only to Boonen in the field sprint. A similar scenario on the run-in to Oudenaarde is not hard to imagine.

Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM) The surprise winner in 2008, Devolder repeated his feat in 2009, both times going clear prior to the Kappelmuur and staying away for the win. Those wins came through the fact that Devolder wore the same jersey as Boonen. His results since haven’t been inspiring, but you should never count out a two-time champion of the sport’s most demanding race.

Bjorn Leuekemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) Fourth in 2010 and seventh last year, the 34-year-old Belgian is always right there, but hasn’t yet reached the podium. With Devolder as a teammate, this could just be his year.

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) Boonen’s ace-in-the-hole, the French national champion is almost certain to go up the road in a breakaway, as he did at last year’s Ronde, and last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem, and this year’s Harelbeke, and so on. Chavanel finished second to Nuyens last year, and perhaps could have won if he hadn’t been paying attention to Boonen’s last-ditch effort to sprint from 600 meters out. Chavanel is not a race favorite — he repeatedly swears his allegiance as Boonen’s lieutenant — yet if this week’s De Panne overall winner were to win due to team tactics, as Devolder did few years ago, few would be surprised.

Three-star Favorites

Greg Van Amaraet (BMC Racing)
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing)
Sebastian Langeveld (GreenEdge)
Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing)
Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda)
Matti Breschel (Rabobank)
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky)
Oscar Freire (Katusha)
Leif Hoste (Accent Jobs-Willems Veranda’s)

Two-star Favorites

George Hincapie (BMC Racing)
Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing)
Lars Boom (Rabobank)
John Degenkolb (Project 1t4i)
Ian Stannard (Sky)
Svein Tuft (GreenEdge)

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