By Agence France Presse
The absence of one the Tour of Flanders’ crucial climbs in Sunday’s second one-day classic of the season is unlikely to reduce the threat of a possible hat-trick for Tom Boonen.
Boonen has won the Belgian epic for the past two years, but even he might be applauding the organizer’s decision to bypass the mythical, and strategically significant Koppenberg.
At only 600 meters long, it can hardly be labeled a climb – at least to those more used to watching the big stage racer. But climbing at an average gradient of 11.6 percent on the cobbles makes the Koppenberg a challenge you cannot ignore.
It took only one rider to fall on the Koppenberg last year, and while Boonen had the foresight to be at the front of the bunch the victory hopes of much of the peloton behind him went up in smoke.
This year organizers have taken note, and left it off the menu. Yet, that is unlikely to make the race from Bruges to Meerebeke that much easier.
Despite being held over ‘only’ 259km – compared to the 294km long Milan-San Remo two weeks ago – the Tour of Flanders more than makes up for its comparative lack of distance.
The succession of 18 steep and tight climbs, around half of which are cobbled and known by the locals as ‘Hellingen’, are made even more difficult by the changes in direction which prompt another challenge – the changing wind conditions.
If successful Boonen will equal the as yet unequalled feat of Italian Fiorenzo Magni, who after three consecutive victories in the early 1950’s was crowned the ‘Lion of Flanders’.
Despite the race missing American George Hincapie, a regular podium placer, and Spanish ace Alejandro Valverde, Boonen isn’t short of challengers.
But ‘Tornado Tom’ is taking all the pre-race pressure in his stride.
“I know I can win it for a third time, but it’s not keeping me awake at night,” said Boonen, who last week won the GP E3 one-day race.
Italian Alessandro Ballan, of Lampre, comes into the race with realistic hopes having won the Three Days of La Panne race in midweek.
Swiss all rounder Fabian Cancellara won last year’s Paris-Roubaix, and will be looking to test his form ahead of the ‘Hell of the North’ – held next weekend – along with CSC team-mate Stuart O’Grady, who has been on fine form all season.
Rabobank’s star one-day rider Oscar Freire is having the best start to the season in a long time, having won his second Milan-San Remo a fortnight ago with a majestic sprint and won the one-day Brabantse Pijl race a few days ago.
Filippo Pozatto, once of Boonen’s Quick Step team but now at Liquigas, is a contender as is the Francaise des Jeux’s Belgian upstart Philippe Gilbert.
Boonen, however, remains the man to beat. And even if he is not in the running, one of his Quick Step team-mates could be ready to fill in.
Belgian Peter Van Petegem has won the Tour of Flanders twice.
But he claims that both he and reigning world champion Paolo Bettini will be working for Boonen.
“Our leader is Tom Boonen,” said the Belgian.