By Brecht Decaluwé in Zottegem, Belgium
The Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde is the Belgian stage race where Italian Alessandro Ballan's career really got going. In 2005 Ballan won his first race as a professional rider there. Ever since he has been in the spotlight with wins in the Tour of Flanders and the Vattenfall Cyclassics, including his remarkable teamwork for team-mate Damiano Cunego or even Paolo Bettini at the world championships.
These days the likeable Italian is no longer coming to the Driedaagse to win the race. Instead Ballan is preparing for the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which traditionally follows on the Sunday after the three day stage race in West-Flanders.
The 28 year-old hopes to repeat last year's win in the Tour of Flanders, thus stepping closer to the accomplishments of legendary compatriot Fiorenzo Magni. Magni is still the only rider ever who managed to win 'Vlaanderens mooiste' three times in a row.
Magni, who won from 1949 to 1951, received the nickname 'Toscan of Flanders' for his great accomplishment. Although Ballan is able to perform well in Paris-Roubaix as well, finishing third in 2006, he prefers the cobbled hills of Flanders over the pavé in the North of France.
"I'd prefer to win in Meerbeke [finish town of the Tour of Flanders] once again, rather than taking a first victory in Paris-Roubaix," Ballan said. "The amount of candidates for the win is impossible to sum up, maybe I'll have to surprise them all in the final kilometres."
For now Ballan is focusing on the Driedaagse De Panne, where the Italian is attempting to defended his title. The tall rider was battling along on the front during yesterday's opening stage. Ballan's efforts were contrasted by other favourites for the Tour of Flanders like Stijn Devolder and Leif Hoste.
"I was going well and I wanted to test my condition [in the big group]; it was a test for Sunday in the Ronde," he explained. "I saw that my legs are there, so it was great trial run but too bad I only got ninth place."
The Italian will decide after today's stage whether to push in search of a second victory at the Belgian event or conserve his form for Flanders. "Tomorrow will also be for training," he added. "I hope that it is a calm stage with a sprint finish, and afterwards, I will see if there's a reason to do the time trial at full speed for the classification.
"However, if it is only for seventh or eighth place there is not a reason to go all out, instead I'll save myself for Sunday," he added.
Expect the Italian to be right there in the finale when the peloton hits the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen, one of the ultimate cobbled climbs before the finish in Meerbeke.
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