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93rd Ronde van Vlaanderen - ProT

Belgium, April 5, 2009

Ronde van Vlaanderen: Flanders' World Championships

By Gregor Brown

Can somebody stop Stijn Devolder and the Quick Step team?
Photo ©: AFP
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The Ronde van Vlaanderen is the world championships of Flemish cycling. The winner of the 260-kilometre Northern Classic, run April 5 in western Belgium, will be crowned king in a country known for its beer and frieten.

The cobbled sectors and climbs that form the Ronde van Vlaanderen ('Tour of Flanders') develop and make champions in the sport of cycling. And the Belgian fans, some of the most devoted in the world, remember all the names of the past winners: from Paul Deman to Stijn Devolder.

Riders like Rik Van Looy, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx and Johan Museeuw have gone on to tame the course's wild heart, while others have died a thousand deaths trying to make the top step of the podium. Riders like Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly and Leif Hoste have come close, but never won the Ronde.

In recent years, the race has been the stomping ground of team Quick Step. Tom Boonen pulled off back to back wins in 2005 and 2006, the second win coming in the jersey of World Champion. Just as special was Stijn Devolder's win last year in the Belgian national champion's black, yellow and red top. Alessandro Ballan, the 2007 winner, is out sick this year and will miss the opportunity to fly the world champion's colours in Flanders.

Bartoli: Flanders the hardest Classic

"Flanders is the hardest classic out there," said Michele Bartoli, who won the race in 1996. "It is not only because of the climbs; it is also the stress of dealing with the wind, the curves, the pavé. You have to stay alert and not fade too far back in the group – you have to be 100 percent.

"The Belgians are the favourites now more than before. In the past, there were foreigners like Andrej Tchmil, Max Sciandri, Rolf Sørensen, Andrea Tafi and me.

"I think it will be a Quick Step dominated race with Boonen winning, like he did in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. The other favourites will be Stijn Devolder, Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan.

"Ballan will have a little extra pressure with the world champion's jersey. He is a calm guy, though, and the responsibility won't weigh him down. He will wave Italy's flag there because I think it will be difficult for Filippo Pozzato."

For more read Spring Classics: Bartoli holds court

The course varies a bit each year, but there are some key climbs (or 'hellingen') that make up the race route: Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Varent, Muur - Kapelmuur and Bosberg. This year the organisers dropped out the first two climbs of the 2008 parcours – Kluisberg and Nokereberg – and added in the Eikenberg and Varent.

Climbs (km, C=cobbled/A=Asphalt):
Molenberg (130, C/A)
Wolvenberg (140, C)
Oude Kwaremont (178, C/A)
Paterberg (182, C)
Koppenberg (188, C)
Steenbeekdries (194, C)
Taaienberg (196, C)
Eikenberg (201, C)
Varent (206, A)
Leberg (212, A)
Berendries (216, A)
Valkenberg (222, A)
Tenbosse (229, A)
Eikenmolen (234, A)
Muur - Kapelmuur (244, C)
Bosberg (248, C/A)

Cervélo leads fight with Haussler, Klier and Hushovd
Photo ©: Bert Geerts
(Click for larger image)

The number one favourite is two-time winner Boonen (Quick Step). The Belgian will have the confidence and past experience to battle for the win. If he does take the win he will tie with Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman and Museeuw for the most number of wins in the Ronde.

Strong favourites to beat Boonen are German Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), the Italian who recently won the E3 Prijs, Boonen's teammate Devolder, Nick Nuyens (Rabobank) and three-time runner-up Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto).

Outsiders include Marcus Burghardt and George Hincapie (both Columbia-Highroad), Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto), Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) and Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank).