By Ben Atkins
The fifth running of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen will take place once again on the same day as the men's race, starting in the town of Oudenaarde. The race will be run over a 114km course that starts with a circuit based around Oudenaarde, then follows the same final section as the men to finish in Meerbeke.
The course features three long flat cobbled sections: Paddestraat (2400m), Mater-Kerkgate (3000m) and Haaghoek (2000m), and also 10 of the famous climbs - the hellingen - that pepper this area of Flanders. The women will tackle the Molenberg, Wolvenberg, Berg Te Stene, Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Tenbosse, Eikenmolen, Muur-Kapelmuur, Bosberg; the first one and last two of those being cobbled.
Just like the men's version, the Ronde for women's course suits powerful riders and those whose teams are able to control things on the twisting lanes and crosswinds of northern Belgium. It will be tough from start to finish, and if anyone's on a bad day there's no hiding in the bunch when the hammer goes down.
Ordinarily we should be looking forward to another chapter in the epic battle between last year's winner Nicole Cooke (Halfords Bikehut) and Marianne Vos (DSB Bank), but with both riders looking to preserve their form for this summer's Olympic road race in Beijing this looks unlikely. On top of this Vos is currently only listed as a reserve by her team, and so may not ride. Third last year, the 2006 world road race champion has been concentrating on the track for the early part of the season including a victory in the World Championship points race last week in Manchester, England.
Aside from these two, any number of riders could be the first to Meerbeke this year. 2005 and 2006 winner Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel (Team Flexpoint) returns after missing last year's race while recovering from injury, and the other former winner Zoufila Zabirova (Team Bigla) will be keen to better her second place behind Cooke last year. If Zabirova is not on top form - she had to miss the Alfredo Binda, the previous World Cup round due to an ear infection - she has any number of team-mates ready to step in, most notably Nicole Brandli and Noemi Cantele, who was in winning form in Italy last weekend.