Expect a wide-open Tour of Flanders

Easter Sunday’s 70-percent chance of rain and forecast temperatures in the upper-40s won’t likely dampen what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested and wide-open editions of the Tour of Flanders in years.

Easter Sunday’s 70-percent chance of rain and forecast temperatures in the upper-40s won’t likely dampen what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested and wide-open editions of the Tour of Flanders in years.

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The peloton rolls out of Brugge at the start of the `09 Tour of Flanders | AFP photo

The emergence of several top new teams, including the Anglophone squads BMC, Sky and RadioShack, has broadened the spectrum of contenders for the Ronde van Vlaanderen, a circuitous 262km route through cobbled hills of Western Belgium’s Flanders region that dates back to 1913 and serves as the most hallowed event in the cycling-mad nation.

In all 25 teams of eight riders will line up, but once again the Belgian Quick Step team is the hot favorite, having won four of the last five editions — twice with Tom Boonen, in 2005 and 2006, and twice with Stijn Devolder, winner of the past two.

The only rider to break that streak is Italian Alessandro Ballan, winner in 2007, who now rides for the American BMC Racing team alongside American George Hincapie, who finished third in Flanders in 2006 and has four other top-10 finishes in the race.

Led by Philippe Gilbert and Leif Hoste, Omega Pharma-Lotto is the other Belgian ProTour team looking to win the most important race of its season. Hoste finished as runner-up to Ballan in 2007, his third time finishing second at Flanders, and Gilbert won the bunch sprint to finish third at Flanders last year.

Hincapie’s former U.S. Postal Service teammate Lance Armstrong is also racing Flanders, his first time since 2005, when he rode in a support role to motivate his loyal Tour de France lieutenant. At that race Armstrong came to the front on the Berendries and Tenbosse climbs to bring back the race together in the final 30km. But “The Boss” ultimately cracked on the Tenbosse and finished 28th, 2:04 back.

Sunday will be the 38-year-old Armstrong’s first participation in a one-day classic this season after he pulled out on the eve of Milan-San Remo two weeks ago with a stomach bug. He’ll be racing alongside RadioShack’s Markel Irizar, Geoffroy Lequatre, Dmitriy Muravyev, Yaroslav Popovych, Gregory Rast, Sébastien Rosseler and Tomas Vaitkus.

“My guess is that (Armstrong is riding) just to get the feel for racing on these roads, and in these types of conditions, since we have to do it in the first week of the Tour de France,” Hincapie told VeloNews. “You know, you can race anywhere in the world, any hard race you want to do, but nothing compares to racing in Belgium and Northern France during the classics. You cannot simulate this sort of racing anywhere in the world. I think it’s important for him to do it as a reminder of what he’ll face in the first week of the Tour de France.”

The riders
A look at the last week of racing also contested in the Flanders region — the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and Three Days of De Panne — reinforces that Boonen and Hincapie are big favorites along with Gilbert and Hoste, Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) and Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara and Matti Breschel.

At E3 Prijs Cancellara sprung ahead of Boonen and Flecha in the final kilometer in what has become the Swiss rider’s patented late-race attack. Boonen gave chase after Flecha lost Cancellara’s wheel before finishing second; the Belgian star matched his runner-up result at Milan-San Remo. Flecha, who won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, finished third. Pozzato, who finished second to Boonen at Paris-Roubaix last year, won the bunch sprint at E3 for fourth.

At Ghent-Wevelgem Boonen and Cancellara were caught up behind a crash and didn’t make it back to the front, instead abandoning at the feed zone. Instead, a late-race group formed containing Hincapie, Gilbert, Breschel, Sep Vanmarke (Topsport-Vlaanderen) and eventual winner Bernard Eisel (HTC-Columbia). An on-form Breschel flatted out of the lead group, while Hincapie, who led the sprint from 400m to go, finished fourth. American Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) took second in the field sprint to finish ninth, 1:01 behind Eisel.

Racing was erratic at the mid-week Three Days of De Panne, the traditional Flanders warm-up. Wednesday’s brutal stage was marked by cold rain and strong wind, forcing Katusha’s Filippo Pozzato, runner-up at Roubaix last year, to withdraw due abandon fever. Favorites such as Boonen, Cancellara and Hincapie sat out De Panne, while Farrar scored a stage win Thursday morning and his Garmin teammate David Millar took both a TT stage win and the overall that afternoon. Defending Flanders champion Stijn Devolder finished ninth at Thursday’s time trial at De Panne, and 23rd overall.

“The last couple of days I’ve tried to fine tune my fitness as much as possible,” Devolder said following the time trial. “These past few weeks I’ve been working so I can be 100-percent on Sunday. I’m fine physically, and mentally I feel fresh and calm. In my opinion the race favorites are the three riders who made it to the podium in Harelbeke — Cancellara, Boonen and Flecha. But as always there will be other riders to watch for. Both Tom and I have a chance at winning this race for the third time. But I don’t want think about it; I just want to have a great race.”

Garmin team director Matt White told VeloNews that Martijn Maaskant, fourth at Flanders last year, and Johan Vansummeren, a top-10 finisher at Roubaix in 2008 and 2009, are the team’s leaders for Flanders. White added that he’s not ruling out a surprise result from either Millar, should he escape off the front, or Farrar, should the race finish with a large group.

“De Panne is one of those races where, if you get through it unscathed, it’s the best way to prepare for the Tour of Flanders,” White said. “We’re not going in as favorites, that would be Boonen and Cancellara, but we have a good group of guys. For the first time on this team we have multiple guys who can help Martijn in the final. For the last two years he was on his own since the Koppenberg. This year we hope to have three or four guys around him after that. We’ll be using Millar, but maybe not sending him up the road on the crucial stages. And for Farrar, I think it’s important to remember that last year, besides Haussler attacking at the end, it would have been 50 guys sprinting for second at Flanders. I think we will have all our bases covered.”

Following De Panne Pozzato is questionable to start Flanders; his Katusha teammate Serguei Ivanov is also sick and doubtful to start Sunday.

The Cervélo TestTeam is another squad that may have watched its classics hopes evaporate over recent weeks. Both Heinrich Haussler and Andreas Klier have been forced to sit out Flanders and Paris-Roubaix due to injuries; Haussler has been battling a knee injury since a crash at the Volta ao Algarve, and Klier suffered a concussion in a crash at the E3 Prijs last Saturday. Instead the team will pin its hopes on Thor Hushovd, who abandoned E3 and did not start Ghent-Wevelgem, a race he won in 2006.

“Thor is our leader for the race,” said Cervélo’s sports director Jean-Paul van Poppel. “We will support him 100 percent.”

HTC-Columbia comes to Flanders on the heels of Eisel’s big win at Ghent-Wevelgem; Eisel will again be the team’s leader at Flanders on Sunday.

“Of all the team, he has the most realistic chance of winning in Flanders,” said HTC-Columbia sports director Tristan Hoffman. “He’s really focused, he’s shown he’s got great form, and we will try and bring him to the crucial final kilometers in the best position possible. For him, winning Ghent-Wevelgem was a big step up. He’s always been very generous when it comes to working for the team, but now he can smell those wins for himself, too. Flanders is a very tough race, but there’s no doubt HTC-Columbia has a very motivated squad.”

This Tour of Flanders 2010 will also see HTC’s star sprinter Mark Cavendish take part in the Belgian classic for the first time in his career. “He’ll have a free role within the team’s bigger game plan,” Hoffman said. “He’ll be working for Bernie and be learning about Flanders as well.”

But perhaps the team most likely to challenge Quick Step is Cancellara’s Saxo Bank squad. For years Cancellara has been vocal about his desire to win Flanders, to add to his 2006 Roubaix triumph, and the big Swiss rider proved at E3 last weekend that he’s on top form. With the assistance of 2007 Roubaix winner Stuart O’Grady and Matti Breschel – the rider several said was strongest at Ghent-Wevelgem – Saxo Bank won’t be satisfied with anything less than a Flanders victory.

It gets harder near the finish

The course
As always, the Ronde kicks off in the historic medieval city of Bruges, and after 263km of racing, the race will end in the city of Meerbeke, near Ninove. And per usual, the expected rains will slicken the slippery surface of the cobblestones, particularly on steep climbs such as the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont and the penultimate Muur-Kappelmuur. In all the course includes 15 categorized climbs all spread over the second half of the course, including nine on cobblestones.

This year’s route, however, differs from years past. The tough Molenberg climb, which averages 7-percent with a maximum gradient of 14-percent, now comes later in the race, after the narrow and selective climb of the 600-meter Koppenberg, which averages 11.6-percent with grades topping out over 20-percent. Now coming late in the race, the fight to enter the narrow cobble track of the Molenberg will be a crux moment.

This year’s course also bypasses both the Valkenberg and the Eikenmolen, climbs that Devolder had used to his advantage en route to victory in 2008 and 2009. The final of the 2010 course instead emphasizes the final three climbs — the 450-meter paved Tenbosse, the 1100-meter Muur-Kappelmuur, the steep and cobbled penultimate climb which twists upwards at an average grade of 9.3 percent, and the final pitch, the 1km cobbled ascent of the Bosberg, before the final flat 10km into Meerbeke.

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“The changes will affect the aspect of the race somewhat,” Boonen said. “Now there are new stretches in cobblestone with very narrow streets, after which you face the Molenberg, which has been moved from 1st to 10th challenge of the day to make the race even harder and more selective. It’s going to be a discriminating race where the best are going to have to stay ahead.”

Favored teams and their marquee riders

Five-star favorites
Quick Step: Stijn Devolder (Belgium), Tom Boonen (Belgium), Sylvain Chavanel (France), Maarten Wynants (Belgium)
Saxo Bank: Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Stuart O’Grady (Australia), Matti Breschel (Denmark), Baden Cooke (Australia)

Four-star favorites
BMC Racing: George Hincapie (USA), Marcus Burghardt (Germany), Alessandro Ballan (Italy), Karsten Kroon (Netherlands)
Team Sky: Juan Antonio Flecha (Spain), Michael Barry (Canada), Greg Henderson (New Zealand)
Omega Pharma-Lotto: Phillipe Gilbert (Belgium), Leif Hoste (Belgium), Jurgen Roelandts (Belgium)

Three-star favorites
Rabobank: Lars Boom (Netherlands), Sebastian Langeveld (Netherlands), Nick Nuyens (Belgium)
Garmin-Transitions: Martijn Maaskant (Netherlands), Johan Van Summeren (Belgium), Tyler Farrar (USA)
Cervélo TestTeam: Thor Hushovd (Norway), Roger Hammond (Great Britain), Dominique Rollin (Canada)
HTC-Columbia: Bernhard Eisel (Austria), Mark Cavendish (Great Britain), Hayden Roulston (New Zealand)

Katusha: Filippo Pozatto (Italy), Serguei Ivanov (Russia)
Cervélo: Heinrich Haussler (Germany), Andreas Klier (Germany)
Team Sky: Edvald Boassan Hagen (Norway)