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Tour of Flanders: All eyes on Fabian Cancellara

KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) – The most important race in Belgium, one of the hardest races on the WorldTour calendar and the second of cycling’s five monuments this season, De Ronde van Vlaanderen (The Tour of Flanders) takes place Sunday with all eyes on one man — defending champion Fabian Cancellara.

KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) – The most important race in Belgium, one of the hardest races on the WorldTour calendar and the second of cycling’s five monuments this season, De Ronde van Vlaanderen (The Tour of Flanders) takes place Sunday with all eyes on one man — defending champion Fabian Cancellara.

Fabian Cancellara won the Tour of Flanders in 2010. Can he do it again?

Two hundred riders from 25 teams will take the start in the market square in the medieval city square of Brugge Sunday morning, but Cancellara is the hands-down favorite.

In 2010, after winning the Flanders warm up, E3 Prijs Harelebeke, ahead of Tom Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha, the Leopard-Trek rider won his first Ronde, soloing into the finishing town of Ninove-Meerbeke 1:14 ahead of Boonen.

One week later the Swiss rider became only the tenth man to pull off the Flanders-Roubaix double, again winning alone, this time by more than two minutes.

In doing so, Cancellara established himself as a cobbled classics specialist in a league of his own — not even Boonen, a three-time Roubaix winner and two-time Flanders champion, could stand up to the rider nicknamed Spartacus.

Cancellara’s impressive demonstration of strength at last weekend’s E3 Harelbeke planted fresh seeds of dread into his rivals and showed that he is as strong as he was last year, if not stronger.

Having dealt with two punctures and a bike change, the three-time world time-trial champion attacked from the field on the cobbled Oude Kwaremont climb with 37km to go; he then leapfrogged from group to group, dragging those riders that could hold his wheel, until he launched his winning escape with 16km remaining.

Once again, Cancellara finished a cobbled classic in the best way known in pro cycling — alone, or, as the saying goes, “with no one else in the picture.”

“Maybe this win will make the others think that they can’t give me even a millimeter,” Cancellara said in Harelbeke Saturday. “Then again, sometimes even a millimeter can be too much.”

An elite club

Only four men have won De Ronde since 2005: Boonen, in 2005 & 2006, Alessandro Ballan, in 2007, Stijn Devolder, in 2008 & 2009, and Cancellara. All four will be at the start line in Brugge.

However nothing in last year’s cobbled classics, or thus far this year, has revealed that any rider will be able to keep pace with Cancellara. And his utter dominance has become a source of frustration for his rivals.

Boonen, who became a hero in his native country of Belgium in 2005 by pulling off the Flanders-Roubaix double, was left without words after Cancellara dropped him on the steep, cobbled slopes of the Kappelmuur in 2010, riding away still in the saddle while Boonen thrashed away on his pedals.

After fielding numerous questions about Cancellara’s winning move last year, the usually press-savvy Quick Step rider finally cracked, snapping, “I couldn’t match his attack. What was I supposed to do, throw a lasso around his seatpost and hang on?”

Following his Ghent-Wevelgem win on Sunday from a bunch sprint, Boonen downplayed Cancellara’s Harelbeke performance, saying it was unwise to read too much into it, as none of the Leopard rider’s top rivals were there, choosing to race the WorldTour race instead. Instead, Cancellara rode away from riders like Bram Tankink (Rabobank), Henirich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) and Devolder (Vacansoleil).

Whether anyone else is buying Boonen’s bravado is unclear. The current Belgian national champion, Devolder told the Belgian media that Cancellara’s acceleration over the Oude Kwaremont was “the most intense thing I’ve seen in my career.”

“It had nothing to do with the (quality of) opposition at the E3,” Devolder said. “He left me speechless. All the riders who were at the front rubbed their eyes. It took me a full day to get my head around it. Boonen and the others who weren’t there should be scared of when (Cancellara) will flex his muscles in the Ronde. It was even more overwhelming than at Roubaix and the Ronde (in 2010).”

The frustration Boonen feels trying to match Cancellara is likely only compounded at Garmin-Cervélo.

With Haussler, Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar, the team has riders who have reached the podium at Flanders and Roubaix and won on the cobbles at Ghent-Wevelgem, De Panne and Scheldeprijs. Add to that list Roger Hammond, Sep Vanmarcke and Andreas Klier, all podium finishers at Gent-Wevelgem, and Johan Van Summeren, a two-time Roubaix top-10 finisher, and, on paper, Garmin-Cervélo boasts the deepest classics team in the sport.

Peter Van Petegem, who pulled off the Flanders-Roubaix double in 2003, is working in a temporary team director role for Garmin for the cobbled classics. Belgian newspaper Gazet Van Antwerpen is referring to Van Petegem as the team’s “Head GPS.”

However, team manager Jonathan Vaughters admitted, all that may not be enough to topple Cancellara.

“We may have the strongest team, but we don’t have the strongest rider,” Vaughters said. “It’s tough, when Fabian is riding like he is. I don’t know, maybe I should hire a sniper.”

One rider many are considering an outside favorite is Omega Pharma’s Philippe Gilbert. The Belgian is the most consistent one-day racer in the sport, having won Montepaschi Strade Bianche and finished third at Milan-San Remo this year, in addition to stage wins at Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico. In 2010 Gilbert won the Amstel Gold Race and Tour of Lombardy, and finished on the podium at Ghent-Wevelgem, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Tour of Flanders.

With a roster featuring four riders who have finished in the top 10 at Flanders, the BMC Racing Team will rely on experience in Sunday’s Belgian classic. Alessandro Ballan, four times in the top 10 including his win in 2007, is pointing to strength in numbers. “We have more than one rider able to do well, so we have to use this strategy,” Ballan said. The squad’s other top 10 finishers at Flanders are American George Hincapie (five times), Karsten Kroon (two) and Greg Van Avermaet (one).

HTC-Highroad will bring a squad that includes 2010 Gent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel and this year’s Milano-San Remo winner Matt Goss.

The midweek stage race Three Days of De Panne took its toll on a pair of Belgian heavyweights. Katusha’s Leif Hoste crashed hard Tuesday, knocking out a tooth; two-time winner Stijn Devolder crashed heavily, bruising his left shoulder and elbow. Both are expected to take the start Sunday. RadioShack’s Robbie Hunter also crashed at De Panne and is suffering from back and rib pain. His participation at Flanders is uncertain. FDJ’s Yoann Offredo is unable to race; he sustained a heel injury following a crash with a cameraperson at the finish line of Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

Racing starts at 9:45 a.m. Sunday morning; the course covers 256km, heading inland and finishing approximately 6.5 hours later in the town of Ninove-Meerbeke.

For 2011 a revamped course includes four more climbs than the 2010 edition. After the start in Brugge the course heads inland; the traditional flat build-up of the race lasts 75 km before arriving in the Flemish Ardennes region.

In total riders will face 18 hellingen (hills). As always, crowds will be huge at the penultimate climb, which, is referred to as the Muur van Geraardsbergen (Dutch), Mur de Grammont (French), the Kapelmuur or simply the Muur. It’s on that steep, long, cobbled climb, which tops out with 15km remaining, where Cancellara opened his decisive gap on Boonen to take his first Tour of Flanders victory.

One thing the riders won’t likely have to contend with Sunday is the weather — the weather forecast, which has shifted daily, is calling for sunny conditions and temperatures in the low 70s. Race organizer Wim Van Herreweghe told Sporza he expects between 700,000 and 800,000 spectators along the course Sunday.

Race notes

•  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 race runs over a course that follows the last 55 km of the men’s race.
•  A cyclosportif is held annually the day before De Ronde, drawing nearly 20,000 participants who ride the famous hellingen of Flanders. Three lengths are available — 70km, 140km and the full 260km. This year’s edition will be televised live in Belgium, from 5-6 p.m.

The favorites
5-star favorite: Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek)
4-star favorites: Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
3-star favorites: Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo)
2-star favorites: Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing), Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil), George Hincapie (BMC Racing), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo)
1-star favorites: Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Bjorn Leukmans (Vacansoleil), Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo)

Americans in the race
George Hincapie (BMC Racing)
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo)
Ted King (Liquigas)