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Close encounters on the Koppenberg

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There's no doubting where you are...

There's no doubting where you are...
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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A relaxed Lance Armstrong gets ready at the Team RadioShack bus ahead of riding the Flanders course.

A relaxed Lance Armstrong gets ready at the Team RadioShack bus ahead of riding the Flanders course.
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Former Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong rides the Koppenberg with his team-mates.

Former Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong rides the Koppenberg with his team-mates.
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Lance Armstrong rides with his Team RadioShack team-mates the day before Flanders.

Lance Armstrong rides with his Team RadioShack team-mates the day before Flanders.
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Team RadioShack's Lance Armstrong on the Patesberg.

Team RadioShack's Lance Armstrong on the Patesberg.
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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The signs and barriers await placement for the big day on Sunday.

The signs and barriers await placement for the big day on Sunday.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Lampre's Danilo Hondo passes a cyclotourist.

Lampre's Danilo Hondo passes a cyclotourist.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The Francaise des Jeux team tests out a variety of lines across the cobbles.

The Francaise des Jeux team tests out a variety of lines across the cobbles.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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George Hincapie leads his BMC teammate Alessandro Ballan up the Koppenberg.

George Hincapie leads his BMC teammate Alessandro Ballan up the Koppenberg.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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George Hincapie (BMC) leads his team up the climb.

George Hincapie (BMC) leads his team up the climb.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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There's no shame in walking your bike up the 22% grade.

There's no shame in walking your bike up the 22% grade.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Amateur riders test themselves on the Koppenberg

Amateur riders test themselves on the Koppenberg
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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It's a long way to the top.

It's a long way to the top.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The Astana team arrives to preview the Koppenberg

The Astana team arrives to preview the Koppenberg
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Astana and Katusha approach the base of the Koppenberg

Astana and Katusha approach the base of the Koppenberg
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Spring is in the air and the cyclists are on the Koppenberg

Spring is in the air and the cyclists are on the Koppenberg
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Workers begin placing the barriers on the sides of the Koppenberg climb.

Workers begin placing the barriers on the sides of the Koppenberg climb.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Sunrise on the Koppenberg.

Sunrise on the Koppenberg.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The grade kicks up to 22% toward the top.

The grade kicks up to 22% toward the top.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Danilo Hondo (Lampre) on the Koppenberg

Danilo Hondo (Lampre) on the Koppenberg
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Francaise des Jeux previews the course for Sunday.

Francaise des Jeux previews the course for Sunday.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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George Hincapie is always a threat on the cobbles.

George Hincapie is always a threat on the cobbles.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Alessandro Ballan (BMC) will look for his second Ronde title.

Alessandro Ballan (BMC) will look for his second Ronde title.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Liquigas will ride for Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato on Sunday.

Liquigas will ride for Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato on Sunday.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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It's a daunting view from the bottom of the climb.

It's a daunting view from the bottom of the climb.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Anyone can test himself against the rough cobbles and steep grades of this classic climb.

Anyone can test himself against the rough cobbles and steep grades of this classic climb.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The steepness is apparent from this angle.

The steepness is apparent from this angle.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Here comes the Eastern bloc!

Here comes the Eastern bloc!
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)

The most appealing aspect of the sport of cycling is the ability for fans to get close to both the riders and the challenges they face in competition, and there is no better example of this than the Koppenberg in the days before the Tour of Flanders.

Cyclo-tourists and amateur racers monopolize the course of the Ronde van Vlaanderen on the day prior to the professional event when the organisation hosts the tourists' Ronde, but on Friday before the big events, the two groups mingle on the Belgian cobbles.

Imagine the thrill of struggling up the Koppenberg - a behemoth of a climb, rife with slippery 'kasseien' and grades of up to 22%, perhaps even walking your bike - only to have 2007 winner Alessandro Ballan come flying past with US champion George Hincapie on his wheel. A few lucky enthusiasts experienced just that on Friday.

Enjoy this photo gallery from Sirotti and imagine you were there.