Tom Boonen (Quick Step) named Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) as the man to beat in this weekend's Tour of Flanders. The Belgian has won the race twice (2005, 2006) and again heads into the event with a nation's expectations riding on his shoulders.
After Cancellara beat Boonen in last week's E3 Prijs however, the Quick Step leader sees Cancellara as his biggest challenger.
"I am ok with being considered a favourite even though I know that in Harelbeke I didn't really make the big difference. I do think Cancellara is definitely as good as me," Boonen told the media at a press conference.
During last weekend's race, Boonen escaped with Cancellara and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) only to see Cancellara pull away in the final kilometre and take the win. "Cancellara put in a big performance last Saturday. If it happens again that I'm in such a position with him, I'll try to sit in his wheel at that moment. It was a moment of poor judgment, I miscalculated the turn, in a new finale. I will try not to get taken by surprise again. There will be some fast guys, but I shouldn't be afraid at all. If I'm good, there is no reason to be nervous, and I know I'm good."
Boonen and his teammates spent today riding reconnaissance on the route ahead of the race. The race has changed course slightly this year with organisers aiming to create a more aggressive race. Boonen believes that despite the reshuffle, the same climbs will determine the winner.
"The finale will start where it always starts: Kwaremont, Patersberg, Koppenberg. That's then immediately followed by Taaienberg, Eikenberg. Before you had a little stretch to recover in the lead up to the Berendries, a lot of groups came back before that, but [the course] has been altered by all the extra stones they have put in, so from there on you can consider the finale to start."
"I did the recon because I didn't know the parcours, it's that simple. It's been very useful to do, more than previous years. There's been a lot of important changes, and I really wanted to see those for myself. I think a lot of people will be surprised, it's so different."
As for his other rivals, Boonen named all the usual suspects, including Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) and Pippo Pozzato (Katusha). He also included teammate and winner of the past two editions, Stijn Devolder.
"Matti Breschel showed some good things but this is a long Classic. There are no secrets at this stage. The top riders will be top, but it's not like anyone is going to take the step in the following days from semi-favourite to favourite."
"Stijn Devolder has proven that he can prepare really well for this race. He's so relaxed and he has a powerful tool in being able to make himself unnoticed, I put him next to Philippe Gilbert for the weekend. I think he's waiting for Sunday to show his strength."
Boonen was also willing to disclose the ideal scenario in which he'd like to win the race. "For Sunday, I think the nicest would be to beat all the favourites in the sprint, in a small group. That would be fantastic, to beat riders like Pozatto, Cancellara, Flecha."
"But we'll have to wait and see how it goes. Last Saturday, I felt really good and I hope to feel even better next Sunday. I hope to stay healthy and hope to hold on to my good form until after Paris-Roubaix."