Cancellara the man to beat at Tour of Flanders

It is estimated that over 800,000 people will line the roads for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, as one of cycling’s true heartlands enjoys the biggest weekend of its calendar. 256km and 18 steep hellingen face the riders, as they battle the cobbles and the elements.

While all eyes will be on Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) on the start line in Brugge as he looks to win his second consecutive Tour of Flanders, home hopes will be carried largely by Tom Boonen (Quick Step). Twelve months ago, Cancellara simply powered away from Boonen on Flemish cycling’s most hallowed ground, the Muur-Kapelmuur, and soloed regally to the win in Meerbeke, and the Belgian will be looking for revenge this time around.

After Cancellara’s ominous show of strength at the E3 Prijs in Harelbeke last weekend, however, his odds have only tightened further, although Boonen did respond with a sprint win at Gent-Wevelgem the following day. Boonen can also rely on the support of Sylvain Chavanel, who has been hugely impressive in the past week and could well prove to be the key to unlocking the race for Quick Step. If he goes on the offensive in the final 50km, it will take a big effort to bring him back.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) was third twelve months ago, and while Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the centrepiece of his spring campaign, the classy Walloon seems the man best placed to break up any possible Cancellara-Boonen hegemony. After being so heavily marked at Milan-San Remo, he may enjoy a little more freedom in Flanders given that Cancellara’s wears the favourite’s tag.

Garmin-Cervélo have three aces in Heinrich Haussler, Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar, but while the trio have worked in harmony this spring, they have yet to bring home a big prize. Whether Sunday is the day that their luck changes remains to be seen, but the men in black will have a huge say in the outcome of the race.

Italian pair Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) have real pedigree on the cobbles, and also gave evidence of their current form at Milan-San Remo. Others to have sparkled this spring include Dwars Door Vlaanderen winner Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-SunGard) and the precocious Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale). Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) is always a presence in the classics, and while Stijn Devolder’s (Vacansoleil-DCM) form is an enigma, as a double Ronde winner, he cannot be ruled out.

The route sees the climbing begin after 68km with the Tiegemberg, but the real hostilities will begin on the 7th climb, the Oude Kwaremont (170km), which is followed immediately by the Paterberg and the fearsome Koppenberg. Last year, the Molenberg (207km) saw Cancellara forge clear with Boonen, before the Swiss rider’s exhibition on the penultimate climb of the Muur-Kapelmuur (240km).

As usual, the sharp cobbled heave up the Bosberg is the final obstacle, before the 12km run-in to the finish in Meerbeke.

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