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Koppenberg ready for its Flanders return

The sun is shining in Belgium, although a wickedly cold east wind makes you remember that this is Tour of Flanders weekend. This annual spring classic, which celebrates its 86th edition Sunday, is a national institution here. There were even crowds out on the course Saturday, most of them visiting the Koppenberg, the legendary cobbled climb that hasn't been included in the 264km course since 1987. People here remember very clearly what happened that last time. You just have to look at two words painted in huge white letters on the road at the Koppenberg summit: "Remember Skibby." The

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By John Wilcockson

The sun is shining in Belgium, although a wickedly cold east wind makes you remember that this is Tour of Flanders weekend. This annual spring classic, which celebrates its 86th edition Sunday, is a national institution here. There were even crowds out on the course Saturday, most of them visiting the Koppenberg, the legendary cobbled climb that hasn’t been included in the 264km course since 1987.

People here remember very clearly what happened that last time. You just have to look at two words painted in huge white letters on the road at the Koppenberg summit: “Remember Skibby.” The now-retired Danish rider Jesper Skibby (he was only 23 back then) was on a solo break in ’87, but the pack was catching him as he climbed the 500-meter-long hill. He’d been off the front with another rider for some 100km and was feeling it in his legs when he reached the steepest pitch of 22 percent, halfway up. Skibby’s bike skidded sideways beneath him, and as he fell toward the grass bank to the right, his bike clattered onto the cobblestones. The referee’s car following him had no choice but to drive over the bike (with Skibby still clipped in the pedals); if the car had stopped, all the riders in the peloton would have had to dismount….

This weekend, the Koppenberg is back after being “widened” to 10 feet, and re-paved with new cobblestones — although dry weather has left loose, grey cement on the surface, which could cause problems if the leaders are still bunched together on Sunday. That’s unlikely because they will already have raced 205km, and climbed six hills in the previous 55km. But even a group of 25 could have problems on the Koppenberg. This also happens to be the 13th time that the Koppenberg has been on the Flanders route….

On Saturday, in the sunshine, preparations were well underway for the big show. Huge beer tents are already in place at the foot and summit of the Koppenberg, where perhaps 10,000 fans will congregate. Plus, of course, the four white geese that live in a small field at the start of the climb and the innumerable sheep that a farmer keeps on the other side of the road.

What they should all witness is a critical point of the race. Not only will the climb split things up, but as the riders hit the plateau summit, they will almost certainly be hit by the crosswind — one that will make it hard for dropped riders to get back. And something even more interesting, perhaps, comes 5km after the Koppenberg. The organizers have added here a new climb, the Steenbeekdries, which is cobbled all the way up its 1400-meter length, with a steepest stretch of 6.7 percent. Another eight climbs follow, including the second-to-last Mur de Grammont, 15km from the finish.

With all these changes on the course, most of the 194 starters have been scouting out the route in the past few days. One man, ironically, who hasn’t is Postal’s Lance Armstrong. He flew in from his Spanish base late Saturday, to support his on-form teammate George Hincapie. Asked whether he has made a mistake in not pre-riding the critical sections, Armstrong said he didn’t need to as he intends to be at the front. Well, if he is, then Hincapie has a great chance of winning.

But all of the expected 300,000 Belgian fans will be hoping one of their own Flemish riders will succeed. Peter Van Petegem is the hottest Belgian right now, along with Ludo Dierckxsens, although Johan Museeuw will be shooting for a record fourth victory in “his” race — which passes through his hometown of Gistel 35km out from the start in Bruges. If the Belgians fail, then the Italians Fabio Baldato, Paolo Bettini, Michele Bartoli and Stefano Zanini all have a chance. And look out for one of Skibby’s contemporaries, fellow Dane Rolf Sorensen, 37, who still has something to prove. He is one of the few to have raced in 1987, and still be racing. And as a former winner, he knows what it takes. He also has a motive. Sorensen was dropped last year from the CSC-Tiscali squad by team director Bjarne Riis, and could only get a ride this season with the Division 2 Belgian squad Landbouwkrediet-Colnago. “I want to prove Riis was wrong,” said an angry Sorensen. Maybe he will. Look out for him on the Koppenberg.

VeloNews.com will have complete coverage of the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, including live updates throughout the race.