Christmas Day in Flanders was how Fabian Cancellara coined it, and there certainly was festive feel to the city of Bruges as the Tour of Flanders got underway from the city’s picturesque Markt square on Sunday morning.
The threatened rain had held off at least for the start of the race and huge crowds gathered to cheer on their favourites for De Ronde. As ever, there were swarms of fans milling around the Omega Pharma-QuickStep bus, and Tom Boonen was raucously cheered all the way through the cobbled streets of Bruges as he rode to sign on.
The Belgian is flanked in his team by Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra, and the feeling is that the battle between the collective might of Omega Pharma-QuickStep and the individual force of Cancellara will dictate the way in which the race unfolds. Among those hoping to take advantage of any stalemate between those heavyweights are Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) and double champion Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM).
With a new finish town at Oudenaarde, and a challenge new course that includes three ascensions of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, the Tour of Flanders is a race pregnant with possibility. Fresh from victory at the Three Days of De Panne, Chavanel was insistent that Boonen was the real leader at Omega Pharma-QuickStep, and he was reluctant to give anything away when asked if he might try and go clear on the Kwaremont. “Why not?” he smiled.
As the riders departed Bruges, faint sunshine was slowly lifting the early morning chill. The first climb is the Taaienberg after 109km, and the riders must cross 15 more hellingen and potentially face some light showers before the winner is crowned in Oudenaarde.
Enormous and passionate support can be expected along each of the course’s 255km. No other race inspires quite the same fervour as the Tour of Flanders, as pre-race favourite Cancellara noted in Bruges before the off. “When you see the people here and on the road, you see that this is a place that lives for cycling.”