By Gregor Brown
The Ronde van Vlaanderen is the world championships of Flemish cycling. The winner of the 260-kilometre Northern Classic, run April 5 in western Belgium, will be crowned king in a country known for its beer and frieten.
The cobbled sectors and climbs that form the Ronde van Vlaanderen ('Tour of Flanders') develop and make champions in the sport of cycling. And the Belgian fans, some of the most devoted in the world, remember all the names of the past winners: from Paul Deman to Stijn Devolder.
Riders like Rik Van Looy, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx and Johan Museeuw have gone on to tame the course, while others have died a thousand deaths, trying to make the top step of the podium. Riders like Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly and Leif Hoste came close, but - apart from the latter, who is still riding - never won the Ronde.
In recent years, the race has been the stomping ground of team Quick Step. Tom Boonen pulled off back to back wins in 2005 and 2006, the second win coming in the World Champion's jersey. Just as memorable was Stijn Devolder's win last year in the Belgian national champion black, yellow and red top. Alessandro Ballan, 2007 winner, is ruled out through sickness and will miss the opportunity to fly the world champion's colours in Flanders.
The course varies a bit each year, but there are some key climbs (or 'hellingen') that make up the race route: Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Varent, Muur - Kapelmuur and Bosberg. This year the organisers dropped out the first two climbs of the 2008 parcours - Kluisberg and Nokereberg - and added in the Eikenberg and Varent.
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