- Stephen Farrand
Cycling devotees to pray for a Belgian winner
Cycling is like a religion in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium and while many people may head to church to celebrate Easter on Sunday, many more will be along the roadside and in front of the television to worship the riders competing in the Tour of Flanders.
Following the reshuffle of the race calendar, the Tour of Flanders is now the very centre of the Spring Classics, coming a week after Gent-Wevelgem and a week before Paris-Roubaix. It will surely produce the big showdown of the spring with the weather again expected to play a part in who emerges as the winner in Meerbeke.
To the Flemish cycling fans, the Tour of Flanders is known simply as the 'Ronde'. It's full title is the Ronde van Vlaanderen because it covers virtually every part of Flemish speaking Belgium as it switches through the fields and villages looking for the climbs.
The route for this year's race has been changed slightly in the hope of creating a closer, more aggressive final part to the race. The precise race distance is 262km with 15, mostly cobbled, climbs or 'hellingen' along the way.
The start is still in the spectacular Grote Markt in Bruges, in the northern part of Flanders. The riders will again ride up onto a stage and get a cheer from the huge crowd that will be packed into the square and already drinking beer, despite the 9:45 start for the race.
The new route takes the race out to the Belgian coast near Oostende. The wind traditionally creates echelons in Gent-Wevelgem but it may be too early in the Tour of Flanders for anything major to happen. Expect the early break to gain time here before being caught on the climbs in the second half of the race.
The 15 climbs have been reshuffled, with the Den Ast after 131km now the first, and the Bosberg after 250km as usual, the last. In between the other climbs will gradually hurt the riders' legs one after another, with the fight for position at the front for the climbs causing high speeds and more pain than the actual climbs.
The Oude-Kwaremont, the fourth climb after 179km often sees the big name favourites go on the attack for the first time, while the Paterberg, Koppenberg, Taaienberg, Molenberg, Berendries and Tenbosse have all been the scene for spectacular attacks and memorable moments over the years.
The Muur-Kapelmuur, climber number 14 after 246km, usually sparks the final selection with the strongest riders able to get a gap as the road climbs up around the chapel and onto the false flat summit. Only the dead straight Bosberg climb and the final 12km of the race remain before the finish in Meerbeke.
Some teams will carefully plan their strategy of when to attack but anything can happen, and the Tour of Flanders is all about positioning on the climbs and like any bike race, having the strength and speed to beat your rivals.
Boonen the big favourite
The Belgian bookmakers always hope to make a killing at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and keep their fingers crossed that an outsider wins so they don't have to pay out a fortune if a big favourite comes out on top.
They study the form of the riders more than most and rarely get their odds wrong. This year they have Boonen as the favourite at odds of 4.00 for victory and as low as 1.50 for a top three placing. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) is second favourite at 4.50, Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) is at 9.00 and Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) is at 12.00 after his impressive win at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Team Sky's Juan Antonio Flecha is at 14.00, and surprisingly Gent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Columbia) is at 33.00 and George Hincapie is at 35.00.
So far this season, Boonen, Cancellara, Flecha and Pozzato seem to be better than most of the other Classics specialists and may fight it out on the Kapelmuur or perhaps in a sprint on Sunday.
Boonen has the experience of winning the Tour of Flanders in 2005 and 2006 and knows the route like the back of his hand. He seems to have put his personal problems behind him and is hungry for success after watching teammate Stijn Devolder ride away to victory in the past two years.
Boonen could win in a small group sprint, but Cancellara showed how to beat the sprinters last Saturday in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke. He snapped his chain last year but things could go his way this time. Pozzato admitted he messed up at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke but has the form to win, while Flecha has clearly raised his game to another level this year.
Both Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) and Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo TestTeam) will miss the Tour of Flanders due to injury and doubts remain about the form of Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Devolder. The latter won the last two editions of the Ronde with clever attacks, but is under pressure from Quick Step Team Manager Patrick Lefevere after a quiet early season.
Other possible contenders but more likely outsiders are Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions), Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Columbia), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam) and BMC's Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, Karsten Kroon and of course George Hincapie.
We will find out who has the best form and best tactics on Sunday afternoon.