World champion Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) will be the number one favourite for Sunday's Belgian title in Antwerpen. But the 25 year-old sprinter also realises it will be one of the toughest races for him to win. Not because the parcours is particularly mountainous - even the bridges are flat - but because he will be marked by everyone.
"It remains for me one of the most difficult races to win, but I will chance it again," he told Sportwereld.be. "I would love to be Belgian champion in my own province." Boonen's only national road title was five years ago when he won the U23 championship in Tessenderlo in a bunch sprint. "I hope for a similar scenario, but which Belgian wants to go with Boonen to the finish now?"
Boonen reckoned that winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen was actually easier than the Belgian championship. Not only because of being marked, but also because of its position on the calendar. "On the day of the BK, I always come out of a period where I have done a lot of work with an eye on the Tour. I've never felt that good during one of these professional championships. Heavy legs."
Boonen said that he understood why Peter van Petegem still hasn't won a Belgian championship, as no-one wants to ride to the finish with someone of that calibre. And if he waits at the back of the peloton, then it's highly likely that a large group will get away, never to be seen again. "Maybe one day I'll be Belgian champion on a hard parcours, in a place where no-one expects me. Still, I will start hyper motivated, although this race is much more difficult to control than a classic. It's hard to pull for 250 kilometres until everyone is off my wheel."
Although there are several teams with large numbers of riders, the race isn't usually run as a standard pro team race. As one experienced competitor noted to Cyclingnews this week, in a team of 24, you can have 23 who fancy themselves as winners.
The Belgian championship - the ultimate kermis race - will be run over a 246.6 km course, consisting of a loop of 53 km followed by 16 laps of a 12.1 km circuit.