Cancellara against the rest on the road to Meerbeke
1. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek)
The favourite to win. Last weekend he single-handedly sucked the life out of the peloton in the E3 with a devastating demonstration of outrageous power and confidence. The only doubts are whether he's peaked too soon and the workload his team will have to deal with on Sunday, but that's clutching at straws. Baring bad luck or poor strategy, Cancellara should romp away with the win.
2. Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
We said last week that Boonen's win in Gent-Wevelgem was arguably more impressive that Cancellara's in E3 and the Belgian enters the race with less to lose than his Swiss rival. Win and he'll be adored, lose and he'll be seen as the best of the rest who took the fight to the unstoppable machine that is Cancellara. One gets the sense that Boonen is a harder character after last year's tough lessons in Flanders and Roubaix, and in Gert Steegmans and Sylvain Chavanel he possesses the muscle to back him all the way. Quick Step seem to have finally woken up after their poor start to the season too.
3. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo)
We've not seen the best of Hushovd this season so it's perhaps odd to see him up so high in the list. But you don't win rainbow jerseys without talent and fight and the Norwegian holds both qualities in abundance. He's been steadily improving since his disappointment in Milan-San Remo and unlike most of the men on this list he has particular knowledge of winning uphill sprints - see exhibit A.
4. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Quite where Gilbert's form lies is bit of a mystery. Certainly going from his Gent-Wevelgem and San Remo performances he looks good but not quite good enough. Potentially stronger on the climbs than Cancellara but weaker in a sprint than Boonen, he'll have to use all of his craft and panache on Sunday. He's capable of winning.
5. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky)
Frankly it was toss up between him and Pozzato to make our top ten and the Spaniard edged it simply due to the fact that he'll race far more aggressively. We've said before that Pozzatto is a jack of all trades but master of none and while Flecha - to a certain extent - fits that billing too, you can envisage that he'll go on the offensive on Sunday while Pozzato will follow wheels.
6. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo)
After a season wiped out through injury in 2010 the Australian is finally looking back to somewhere near his best and having skipped Gent-Wevelgem he should arrive at the start line on Sunday as a potential candidate for the win. Whether he actually gets the better of Boonen and Cancellara is debatable, but at some stage he will win a big Classic. It could be Sunday.
7. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)
Whisper it quietly but the Frenchman is on the boil and the likes of Johan Museeuw are tipping him as a possible rider to pull off 'a Devolder'. He's never cracked the top ten in Flanders but in the last three editions of the race Chavanel has been on the attack - going with Devolder's initial move in 2009 - and his accelerations up and down the bunch at De Panne on Wednesday, while the rest of the bunch were struggling, suggests he could be a match for anyone. Will Leopard have the strength to chase both him and Boonen?
8. Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM)
No luck, no form, and some would say no hope, but unlike like Pozzato and Nuyens - both missing from this list - Devolder knows what it takes to win Flanders. He of course has that canny ability of peaking – in fact let's just call it racing – for just one weekend a year. This one.
9. Alessandro Ballan (BMC)
Another tough call but Ballan finally looks like a bike rider again after almost two forgettable seasons. Woeful as the world champion and pulled from the cobbles last year because of links to the Mantova doping investigation (he was later cleared) the Italian has quietly been going about his business in 2011. In the mix in San Remo, and there or thereabouts in the last few races, Ballan is BMC's best chance of victory.
10. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Common sense suggests that Sagan is a couple of years from competing for the win in Flanders but common sense and bike racing aren't always happy bedfellows. The Slovak is riding his first set of cobbled classics, has a team brimming with strong workhorses and isn't in bad nick himself. If he's allowed off the front like he was in Gent-Wevelgem, the bunch might not be so lucky in closing him down for a second time.
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