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Van Petegem favorite for Flanders

Fresh from winning the Three Days of de Panne race, Lotto team rider Peter Van Petegem leads a Belgian cast of potential champions for Sunday's second leg of the World Cup, the Tour of Flanders. But pretenders beware -- the one-day race known affectionately by locals as the "Ronde" and described by French cycling legend Bernard Hinault as a "circus" -- is not for the faint-hearted. Lots of cobblestones, unpredictable windy conditions and 16 climbs spread over 264km of racing that begins in Bruges and ends in Meerbeke will separate the boys from the men. It's a "nightmare" of a race, as

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By VeloNews Interactive wire services, Copyright 2002 AFP

Fresh from winning the Three Days of de Panne race, Lotto team rider Peter Van Petegem leads a Belgian cast of potential champions for Sunday’s second leg of the World Cup, the Tour of Flanders. But pretenders beware — the one-day race known affectionately by locals as the “Ronde” and described by French cycling legend Bernard Hinault as a “circus” — is not for the faint-hearted.

Lots of cobblestones, unpredictable windy conditions and 16 climbs spread over 264km of racing that begins in Bruges and ends in Meerbeke will separate the boys from the men.

It’s a “nightmare” of a race, as 1946 winner Briek Schotte and five-time Tour de France winner Hinault admit.

“It was 330 of seemingly unending kilometers,” Schotte, now aged 82, told France’s Velo magazine, recalling the first “Ronde” held after World War II.

“In the Valenciennes region we rode over a track that had been totally ravaged by the tanks. We just stopped counting our punctures.”

The damage left by the tanks may be gone, but there’s a new challenge: the reintroduction, after its removal in 1987, of the short but nasty Koppenberg climb at the 206km mark – one which Hinault said made the race extremely tricky.

“With the climbs and the cobblestones, the race was already a nightmare. But with the Koppenberg added to the Grammont (climb), it’s becoming more like a circus than a cycle race,” said Hinault.

That will not stop favorites Van Petegem and his three-time winning compatriot Johan Museeuw – competing in his last and 13th Ronde – from relying on local knowledge, and their ability to anticipate tricky cross winds, to keep the “Lion of Flanders” flags fluttering.

Van Petegem, who won in 1999, is heading the Lotto team’s bid after the retirement from the race of Andrei Tchmil who suffered multiple injuries in a crash in La Panne midweek.

“Whether I’d won La Panne or not, I would still be stuck with the favorites’ tag,” admitted 32-year-old van Petegem, also the winner of the Het Volk race this season.

However, also showing strongly in the warm-up race last week was U.S. Postal Service’s George Hincapie, who finished third overall to Van Petegem at Three Days of de Panne.

Hincapie, who last year won Ghent-Wevelgem on the Wednesday in between Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, now has eyes on one of those two cobblestone classics. Helping his cause will be his three-time Tour de France winning teammate Lance Armstrong, who has said that he’ll be at Flanders solely to support Hincapie.

VeloNews.com’s complete coverage of the Tour of Flanders will begin later today with a full preview from John Wilcockson in Bruges.

On race day, Sunday, VeloNews.com will have live updates throughout the race, followed by Wilcockson’s in-depth race report and analysis.