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Startline gallery: Tour of Flanders

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Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) came agonisingly close to victory last year.

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) came agonisingly close to victory last year.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Ted King (Liquigas-Cannondale) ready to attack the cobbles at the Tour of Flanders.

Ted King (Liquigas-Cannondale) ready to attack the cobbles at the Tour of Flanders.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Matt Hayman (Sky) before the start of the Tour of Flanders.

Matt Hayman (Sky) before the start of the Tour of Flanders.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Manuel Quinziato (BMC) rolls to sign on.

Manuel Quinziato (BMC) rolls to sign on.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Philippe Gilbert (BMC) remains a man in demand.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) remains a man in demand.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Adopted Flandrian Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda) is a hugely popular figure in Belgium.

Adopted Flandrian Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda) is a hugely popular figure in Belgium.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Philippe Gilbert (BMC) enters the race searching for form.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) enters the race searching for form.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) salutes the crowds in Bruges.

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) salutes the crowds in Bruges.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) goes to sign on.

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) goes to sign on.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) is a potential dark horse.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) is a potential dark horse.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) is a crucial part of Tom Boonen's challenge.

Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) is a crucial part of Tom Boonen's challenge.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Matt Goss (GreenEdge) in determined mood in Bruges.

Matt Goss (GreenEdge) in determined mood in Bruges.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Danilo Hondo (Lampre-ISD) has a wealth of experience.

Danilo Hondo (Lampre-ISD) has a wealth of experience.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Philippe Gilbert's fans were out in force.

Philippe Gilbert's fans were out in force.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Frederic Guesdon (FDJ-BigMat) is riding his final Tour of Flanders.

Frederic Guesdon (FDJ-BigMat) is riding his final Tour of Flanders.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda) won Paris-Roubaix in 2011.

Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda) won Paris-Roubaix in 2011.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) returns from injury to ride the Tour of Flanders.

Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) returns from injury to ride the Tour of Flanders.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Thor Hushovd (BMC) was hopeful he had come good in time for De Ronde.

Thor Hushovd (BMC) was hopeful he had come good in time for De Ronde.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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FDJ-BigMat prepare for the start of the Tour of Flanders.

FDJ-BigMat prepare for the start of the Tour of Flanders.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Tomas Vaitkus (GreenEdge) ready for action.

Tomas Vaitkus (GreenEdge) ready for action.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda).

Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda).
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Kevin Hulsmans (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) brings some Flanders know how to Filippo Pozzato's challenge.

Kevin Hulsmans (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) brings some Flanders know how to Filippo Pozzato's challenge.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Christian Knees (Sky) before the Tour of Flanders.

Christian Knees (Sky) before the Tour of Flanders.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)
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Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM) is a two-time winner of De Ronde.

Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM) is a two-time winner of De Ronde.
(Image credit: Daniel Benson)

Christmas Day in Flanders was how Fabian Cancellara coined it, and there certainly was festive feel to the city of Bruges as the Tour of Flanders got underway from the city’s picturesque Markt square on Sunday morning.

The threatened rain had held off at least for the start of the race and huge crowds gathered to cheer on their favourites for De Ronde. As ever, there were swarms of fans milling around the Omega Pharma-QuickStep bus, and Tom Boonen was raucously cheered all the way through the cobbled streets of Bruges as he rode to sign on.

The Belgian is flanked in his team by Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra, and the feeling is that the battle between the collective might of Omega Pharma-QuickStep and the individual force of Cancellara will dictate the way in which the race unfolds. Among those hoping to take advantage of any stalemate between those heavyweights are Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) and double champion Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM).

With a new finish town at Oudenaarde, and a challenge new course that includes three ascensions of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, the Tour of Flanders is a race pregnant with possibility. Fresh from victory at the Three Days of De Panne, Chavanel was insistent that Boonen was the real leader at Omega Pharma-QuickStep, and he was reluctant to give anything away when asked if he might try and go clear on the Kwaremont. “Why not?” he smiled.

As the riders departed Bruges, faint sunshine was slowly lifting the early morning chill. The first climb is the Taaienberg after 109km, and the riders must cross 15 more hellingen and potentially face some light showers before the winner is crowned in Oudenaarde.

Enormous and passionate support can be expected along each of the course’s 255km. No other race inspires quite the same fervour as the Tour of Flanders, as pre-race favourite Cancellara noted in Bruges before the off. “When you see the people here and on the road, you see that this is a place that lives for cycling.”