Racing this week: Flanders week is here

For some cycling fans, and especially Belgian fans, this is the best week of the year.

For some cycling fans, and especially Belgian fans, this is the best week of the year.

Dubbed “Flanders week,” the cycling-crazed region of Flanders proudly celebrates its uncompromised love of racing. It started last weekend with E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem, continues with the Three Days of De Panne and is capped with the legendary Tour of Flanders on Sunday.

For the rabid fans of Flanders, this is their Super Bowl, World Cup and Sweet Sixteen all tied up in one glorious week of bike racing (and some beer drinking, too).

There is some other racing, too, with another stage race in Italy, the GP Miguel Indurain in Spain and the second round of the women’s World Cup, appropriately enough, in Flanders.

34th Three Days of De Panne (2.HC)
March 30-April 1 – Belgium

Packed in mid-week before Flanders, De Panne is a chance for riders to stretch their legs and test their form ahead of Sunday’s big challenge.

The three-day, four-stage race stays close to the mostly flat De Panne region of western Flanders, but it does hit some serious climbs, including the Kemmelberg in stage 2. The final day time trial – usually a technically challenging course with a lot of turns buffeted against strong winds – typically crowns the winner.

Most of the Flanders favorites will race, including two-time defending Flanders champ Stijn Devolder (Quick Step), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto).

Frederik Willems (Liquigas) was last year’s winner, while recent former winners include George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan (BMC), though Hincapie isn’t on preliminary start lists.

40th Settimana Ciclista Lombarda (2.1)
March 31-April 5 – Italy

Formerly known as the Bergamasco race, the “Lombardia Week” keeps stage racing going in Italy heading toward the season’s first grand tour with the Giro d’Italia in May.

Held over six days, the route starts with a 6.5km opening prologue and tracks through the hilly country of northern Italy. Smaller bunch sprints and breakaways usually help decide the overall.

Liquigas is the only ProTour team in a field stacked with Italian squads that also includes Riccardo Riccò (Flaminia) and Michele Scarponi (Androni), two former winners both on their respective comeback trails from bans.

Lance Armstrong, who raced over the weekend at the Critérium International, won this race back in 1991 in what was his first European stage race victory. Other recent former winners include Robert Gesink and Alexander Efimkin.

24th Route Adélie de Vitré (1.1)
April 2 – France

The 197.8km race around the Vitré region is held on two circuits. The larger loop is 21.1km and is covered six times before eight laps on an 8.9km circuit.

Last year’s winner Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) will be back to defend his title after his recent 10th overall at Paris-Nice. All the major French teams are there and the flowers typically go to one of their riders.

12th GP Miguel Indurain (1.HC)
April 3 – Spain

Named after Spanish Tour legend, the one-day race held over the steep hills of Big Mig’s native Navarra has grown into one of the most important one-day races south of the Pyrénées.

Starting and finishing in Estella, there are five rated climbs on the 180km course before a charge up the Cat. 3 climb to the Basilica de Puy. Viewed as a lead up to the Basque Country tour, the race draws a strong field. Garmin-Transitions will be part of a Spanish-heavy peloton.

David de la Fuente (now on Astana, which won’t be starting) won last year’s edition while Fabian Wegmann (Milram) won in 2006 and 2008.

The race opens what’s called “Basque week,” with the Vuelta al País Vasco starting Monday and the Urkiola one-day climber’s race the following weekend.

37th Het van het Mergelland (1.1)
April 3 – Holland

Theo Bos leads a strong Cervélo squad that also includes Ted King and Dominique Rollin in the 196km race across the hilly Limburg region of southern Holland.

JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank) and the expected comeback of Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia) will be the other top favorites against a field of smaller teams. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) is also lining up on a course that tackles some of the climbs the pack will see at the Amstel Gold Race next month.

7th Ronde de Vlaanderen (women’s World Cup)
April 4 – Belgium

The women’s 10-round World Cup season continues with the second leg of the series over the bumpy bergs of Flanders. The 119.3km course starts in Oudenaarde and loops east toward the finish in Ninove.

There are nine rated climbs and 12 rated cobblestone sections in what’s one of the more challenging courses on the World Cup circuit. Ina-Yoko Teutenberg will be back to defend her title while two-time winner Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel will be lining up with Cervélo.

There isn’t an official preliminary start list yet, but Marianne Vos is expected to start of the few major races she hasn’t won yet.

94th Ronde van Vlaanderen – Tour of Flanders (PT)
April 4 – Belgium

If you’re Belgian – and perhaps even if you’re not – this is the most important race of the year.

And if you are Belgian and win the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen in Flemish), you can bet you’ll never have to pay for a pint of beer as long as you live. Winning Flanders immediately earns god-like status for the lucky few.

Cobblestones, climbs and nasty weather are the calling cards for Flanders, a punishing, 259.7km event that is deservedly called one of cycling’s “monuments.”

Add the unrivaled passion of Flemish fans, with some estimates of nearly 1 million people lining the roads, accounting for one-quarter of the Flemish population, and Flanders is a race like no other. The race dates back to 1913 and quickly grew to become a symbol for the Flanders region.

Some of cycling’s biggest names have won over the steep bergs, but no one has won it more than three times. Four men share that title – Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman and Johan Museeuw. Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) will be back this year to try to win it three straight times and join that elite club while his teammate, Tom Boonen, also starts with two titles.

Quick Step has won four of the past five editions, but they will see plenty of challenges on their stranglehold of the race.

Among the major teams, fellow Belgians Omega Pharma-Lotto brings heavy-hitters with Leif Hoste and Philippe Gilbert. Rabobank comes with Nick Nuyens and Lars Boom; Saxo Bank with heavily favored Fabian Cancellara, Matti Breschel and Stuey O’Grady. BMC lines up with George Hincapie, Karsten Kroon and former winner Alessandro Ballan.

Team Sky is sure to be in the mix in its first Flanders, with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Michael Barry. Garmin-Transitions lines up with Martyn Maaskant, Tyler Farrar and Johan Van Summeren while HTC-Columbia is counting on Lars Bak and Ghent-Wevelgem winner Bernard Eisel.

RadioShack sees Lance Armstrong making a rare Flanders start while Cervélo will start with its A-team, with Thor Hushovd, last year’s runner-up Heinrich Haussler, Andreas Klier and Jeremy Hunt.

The list goes on, especially among some of the non-ProTour teams keen to make a strong showing.

The weather is always a factor and forecasters are calling for cool temperatures, with highs in the low 50s, with a 60-percent chance of rain.

Check back to VeloNews all this week for more Tour of Flanders news.