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Preview: Boonen, Cancellara are five-star Flanders favorites

With a controversial new parcours, De Ronde guarantees surprises

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — The course for Sunday’s 96th running of the Ronde van Vlaanderen is dramatically different, but the two big favorites for the 255km race, one of cycling’s five monuments, remain the same.

With each man referring to the other as the pre-race favorite, Belgian Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Swiss national champion Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) will take the start in Bruges as the race’s main protagonists.

Boonen has won the race twice, in 2005 and 2006, was second in 2010 and finished fourth last year, just two seconds behind the winning move. Cancellara has won the race once, the victor of an epic 2010 head-to-head duel with Boonen; the Swiss star finished third last year.

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Course Map and Profile >>

Previous Winners >>

Full Tour of Flanders Coverage >>

Other former Tour of Flanders winners competing are BMC Racing’s Alessandro Ballan, winner in 2007, and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM), a somewhat anomalous two-time winner in 2008 and 2009, who benefitted largely as Boonen’s teammate.

Last year’s surprise winner, Nick Nuyens of Saxo Bank, is not competing due to a hip fracture suffered at Paris-Nice.

The list of four-star and three-star favorites is long (see “The Favorites”), but the title of five-star favorite belongs only to Boonen and Cancellara.

After a frustrating 2011 season, Boonen is riding the momentum of sprint-finish wins at the cobbled Belgian semi-classics E3 Harlebeke and Ghent-Whevelgem last weekend. On Wednesday, following a recon ride of the new-for-2012 route, Boonen told reporters he’d broken his previous power-output record over the Taaienberg, his favorite Flandrian climb. (The Taaienberg comes first among 16 ascents and will not play a role in the finale.)

Cancellara’s spring classics campaign has been less charmed. Though he won Strade Bianche with a trademark solo attack, he was unable to do the same at Milan-San Remo, finishing second. He was the victim of a crash with Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo at E3 Harelbeke, and has spent the last week nursing a swollen knee and bruised back that has required daily chiropractic adjustments. Cancellara this week pointed to Boonen has the rider who must bear the weight of the race, much like he did in 2011.

“[Boonen] will clearly be the five-star favorite,” he said. “I talked to Philippe [Gilbert] during the [Ghent-Wevelgem], and whether he’s at 90 percent or 100 percent, the favorite remains the same. Tom and his team will have to bear the weight of the race. But it is a bicycle race, there are other racers, other teams, a new course and it is a particular race. We’ll see Sunday if he is the strongest, and who wins. This is a classic 260 kilometers, a long, hard and difficult race. I will do everything possible to achieve what I have done in 2010. However, I’m not going to focus on Tom alone.”

As is always the case with Boonen and Cancellara, the race will be a battle between a superior sprinter (Boonen) and a stronger rouleur (Cancellara); Boonen will desperately try to remain glued to Cancellara’s wheel, and Cancellara will powerfully attempt to go to the finish line alone.

“I don’t think [winning Ghent-Wevelgem] changes anything,” Boonen said this week. “I already showed my condition [at Harelbeke]. Fabian is still number one, I think I am one or two percent behind him. Last year, Cancellara was also the super favorite, but he was too excited. He was the strongest guy in the race, but he started out too early. I don’t have the intention to do 50km solo. I don’t have the possibility or the engine that he has. The Tour of Flanders has changed. The new parcours is different, it’s harder, and I think everyone will wait until the final two or three climbs.”

Boonen comes to the start with a stronger team, running high on morale, that includes last year’s runner-up Sylvain Chavanel, who won Three Days of De Panne on Thursday, as well as recent Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra and strongman Gert Steegmans. Cancellara will be supported by Gregory Rast, Daniele Bennati, Tony Gallopin, Yaroslav Popovych and Hayden Roulston.

On paper, BMC Racing boasts the most stacked squad in the race, with classics stars Ballan, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet, George Hincapie, Manuel Quinziato and Marcus Burghardt. However, Gilbert has not yet shown top form this season, Hushovd continues to recover from an illness that kept him out of Milan-San Remo, Quinziato is also recovering from illness, and Van Avermaet is recovering from bunch-sprint crashes in the final 300 meters at both San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem.

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.

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)

Notable Absentees

Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank): fractured hip
David Millar (Garmin-Barracuda): fractured collarbone
André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol): not selected
Mark Cavendish (Sky): not selected
Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing): not selected

North Americans

George Hincapie (USA), BMC Racing
Tyler Farrar (USA), Garmin-Barracuda
Jacob Rathe (USA), Garmin-Barracuda
Ted King (USA), Liquigas-Cannondale
Svein Tuft (Can), GreenEdge
David Veilleux (Can), Europcar

Race Notes

Weather forecast: Cloudy, with a high of 49 degrees Fahrenheit and a 20-percent chain of precipitation.

Television: For the first time in the U.S., the final two hours of the race will be televised live, on NBC Sports Network.

Women’s race: As part of the women’s UCI World Cup, a women’s Tour of Flanders has been held every year since 2004 on the same day as the men’s race. The 127km women’s race starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and includes nine climbs, with the Kwaremont, Paterberg and Hoogberg all in the final 30km. North American trade teams Specialized-lululemon and Tibco-To the Top are fielding squads, as well as national teams from the United States and Canada.

Pre-race favorites include Marianne Vos (Stichting Rabo Women), Nicole Cooke (Faren Honda), Ina Teutenberg (Specialized-lululemon), Lizzie Armitstead (AA, Kristin Armstrong (U.S. National), Judith Arndt (GreenEdge) and Belgian national champion Evelyn Arys (Kleo).
Preliminary Startlist >>
Course Map and Profile >>
Previous Winners >>

Record-setting American: If he crosses the finish line in Oudenaarde on Sunday, American George Hincapie will claim the record of most finishes at the Tour of Flanders, with 17. The BMC Racing rider is currently tied at 16 finishes with Belgian rider Briek Schotte.

Belgium-based photojournalist Jered Gruber contributed to this race preview.