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Eyes on the prize: Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) can lay down a marker at E3 Harelbeke.
Boonen and Cancellara do battle on the cobbles
E3 Harelbeke has proved a most reliable indicator of form lines ahead of the Tour of Flanders in recent seasons, and all of the principal contenders for De Ronde were on the start line on Friday as the race makes its debut in the WorldTour.
Winner for the past two years, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) is the favourite to triumph once again this time around, particularly given his recent exploits in Italy. However, in spite of his undoubted power, the Swiss rider found himself pipped at the line at Milan-San Remo, and there is no shortage of willing challengers in a high-class field in Harelbeke.
Leading the line is the Omega Pharma-QuickStep team of Tom Boonen. The Belgian has been a remarkably consistent performer on the cobbles for the past two seasons, and flanked by Dwars Door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel, Boonen seems well-placed to renew his enduring rivalry with Cancellara.
Philippe Gilbert and his BMC squad are still chasing their first victory of the season, but with Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan and Greg Van Avermaet in their ranks, they should have a significant say in the finale here. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) are some of the other danger men.
There were raucous cheers too for the young Belgian talent Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) as he went to sign on. Cancellara may be the man to beat, but home hopes are certainly not lacking at Harelbeke.