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Photo ©: Bettini

90th Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT

Belgium, April 2, 2006

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Commentary by Hedwig Kröner, with additional reporting from Jeff Jones and Brecht Decaluwé

Live report

Live coverage starts: 09:30 CEST
Estimated finish: 16:30 CEST

Many people
Photo ©: Jeff Jones
(Click for larger image)

09:36 CEST   

Welcome back to Cyclingnews' Live coverage of the World's finest bicycle races! Today, we will live through the Flandrian's favourite, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen - loved for its raw beauty, this Spring Classic takes place in a country where cycling culture is a way of life, including such nasty things as heavy winds, rain, cool temperatures, cobblestones and sudden 15 percent climbs out in the middle of Flemish nowhere.

But this is the place where a cycling fan's heart starts thumping, so naturally there are many wild supporters out on the 258 km-course today, making up the typical flair of Belgian partying, including many of the country's hundreds of beer types and waterzooi. The start on the market square in Brugge is packed, too, but at the moment it's raining so people have their umbrellas open. Temperatures are about 10° Celsius, with light wind...

But nothing can stop a true Flandrian, as our Chief Online Editor Jeff Jones demonstrated yesterday: He bravely fought his way through the 258 kms of madness in the 'Tourist' version of the race. All thumbs up and hats off!

09:48 CEST   
News from the route: The Koppenberg, the steepest of the 17 climbs today with a maximum gradient of 22 percent, has been cleaned. Of course, that only makes it possible for the riders to ascend it, not for the team or service cars...

The weather has been continuously bad these last few days in Northern Belgium, with the humidity making the pavé sections soaking wet and slippery, making it impossible to get out of the saddle on the "walls". Some may walk!

The peloton getting away
Photo ©: Brecht Decaluwé
(Click for larger image)

09:55 CEST   
The start has been given 10 minutes later as planned, and the bunch is currently riding through the streets of old Brugge, a beautiful town with plenty of history, canals, bridges and that typical Belgian architecture made of red bricks.

It's still raining lightly, and those thick grey clouds don't look as though they're ready to move on.

09:59 CEST   
There are 199 riders taking up the challenge today, as Team Liberty decided not to replace Carlos Barredo and line up with seven riders instead of eight.

Teams Crédit Agricole, Chocolade Jacques, T-Mobile and Davitamon-Lotto were invited to anti-doping controls this morning, but all riders were declared fit to start.

10:14 CEST   
The official start has been given - the Ronde begins! "Vlaanderen's mooiste" has a long and heroic history, which makes up all its charm. Les Woodland's Ronde review takes a look at the essence of the race.

10:24 CEST    7km/249km to go
All is calm in the peloton, no early breakaway as yet. That's understandable, bearing in mind that the first climbs only start at km 145 with the Molenberg.

Still, the tempo is rather high, with a first crash to the back of the bunch, including Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques) amongst others. No problems to get back up on the bike though.

10:37 CEST    12km/244km to go
Did you know that the frenzy new World Champion Tom Boonen created in Belgium led to a 30 percent increase in the number of the "Royal Belgian Bicycle Ligue" licencees? The 25 year-old is a true role model for many young people, who have consequently taken to cycling!

10:46 CEST    20km/236km to go
The riders are currently in Oostende, one of the main North Sea holiday towns with large sandy beaches and dunes. Wind the coastal breeze, the clouds break up a little and there is even some sunshine! Let's hope it stays that way, but once we return back South we could get more rain showers.

11:01 CEST   
According to the organisers, some 15.000 bike tourists rode the leisure Ronde yesterday. While most of them chose to complete a 140 km-parcours, some 2.000 wanted to get the full picture. Our fearless man of the cobbles, Jeff Jones, also rode the 'real' Ronde yesterday and survived to tell the tale.

Niko Eeckhout
Photo ©: Brecht Decaluwé
(Click for larger image)

11:06 CEST    34km/222km to go
The race has been picking up some speed. Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques) has had more bad luck: a puncture. And while a handful of riders try to break away in front, the bunch is moving back on them - the gap is too small at the moment to be calling it a breakaway.

Bart Dockx (Davitamon), Jose Joaquin Rojas (Liberty), Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile) and David Boucher (Unibet) initiated the move, then Enrico Franzoi (Lampre) and Marco Righetto (Liquigas) bridged up to them. But they're gooone now.

11:17 CEST   
The bunch is driven by Team Milram, working for Erik Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi. While the Italian doesn't have a lot to hope for in this kind of race, Zabel has the experience of placing well.

In the first hour of the race, 41.2 kms were covered. Paul Martens (Skil) came to a fall, but could continue the race a few minutes ago. Charles Dionne (Saunier) punctured and was quickly attended to.

11:23 CEST    47km/209km to go
Torhout is the next town the race drives through now: once a year in summer, Belgium's biggest Rock festival is staged here, attended by thousands of young camping- and music-lovers. Muddy feet guaranteed!

11:27 CEST   
The first abandons are signalled on race radio. Japanese rider Tomoya Kano and his German teammate Christoph Meschenmoser (Skil-Shimano) have had enough...

11:33 CEST    58km/198km to go
It's clearing up a little, but this morning at the start the weather was still pretty wet. Exactly to the taste of Peter van Petegem (Davitamon), who told Cyclingnews "I prefer the sun. But this is real RVV weather." Asked if it suited him, the 2003 RVV winner plainly said, "I think so."

What are the team's plans, we then asked. "We have plans. With these conditions, we'll have to see. There will be a lot of punctures and crashes and... the Koppenberg. There is only one plan: the strongest wins," he replied. So he'll survive and see what happens on the Muur? "I think that's the simplest," was 'De Peet's enigmatic response.

11:44 CEST    64km/192km to go
In the meantime, we have the pleasure of announcing that there is now lots of blue sky all over Flanders, so that the race will probably not be as damp as everybody feared!

Christophe Mengin (Française des Jeux) gets a new bike after experiencing mechanical problems, but the field is still together.

11:52 CEST   
Apart from getting wet, Cyclingnews' Jeff Jones and Brecht Decaluwé also snapped a few photos at the start in Brugge. Click here for a photo gallery from the start.

11:52 CEST    68km/188km to go
Kevin Van Impe (Quick.Step), Enrico Franzoi (Lampre) and Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) have attacked. There is a small gap. Aaron Kemps (Liberty) and Alberto Curtolo (Liquigas) bridge up to them but also drag the bunch onto the leaders again - the pack is together, except for a few riders who are having trouble following in the back. Amongst them, Frank Vandenbroucke (Unibet).

Nick Nuyens (Quick.Step)
Photo ©: Jeff Jones
(Click for larger image)

11:55 CEST   
Many people think that Quick.Step is the team today, as it not only has the World Champion and RVV title defendant Tom Boonen in its ranks, but also Paolo Bettini, Filippo Pozzato and Nick Nuyens, all in good enough shape to be serious victory contenders.

Asked how he handled the pressure, Nuyens told Cyclingnews this morning: "I like that, but we have a lot of good other riders. We have Paolo Bettini and Filippo Pozzato as well as Tom. I like this race so if I'm there in the finale, anything is possible. We can play the game like other times..."

12:00 CEST   
As the bunch moves towards Kortrijk, some will be thinking about their second breakfast coming up right after town: at km 91 in Harelbeke, the team assistants have already spotted the best places in the feed zone to hand out their musettes.

Aaron Olsen (Saunier Duval) has abandoned.

12:09 CEST    85km/171km to go
Andy Cappelle (Landbouwkrediet) attacks in the streets of Kortrijk, where many spectators have gathered. But it's a no-go for him, too: the bunch takes him back.

12:21 CEST    95km/161km to go
A new attack just after the feed zone: Thierry Marichal (Cofidis), Ludovic Auger (FdJeux) and Michael Albasini (Liquigas) try their luck. Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile), David Boucher (Unibet) and Rik Reinerink (Skil) are after them.

Javier Mejias and Carlos Zarate (both Saunier Duval) have abandoned.

12:27 CEST    102km/154km to go
We have a lead group: Thierry Marichal (Cofidis), Ludovic Auger (FdJeux), Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile), David Boucher (Unibet) and Rik Reinerink (Skil) are about 10 seconds in front of a chasing peloton. Fighting hard...

12:36 CEST    107km/149km to go
The leaders have increased their gap consistently, it is now 50 seconds. Seems like these six are allowed to go...

But the bunch is still nervous, and Gerolsteiner's Heinrich Haussler is the next to crash. Bad news for Michael Barry, too: he crashed heavily earlier in the race. The Discovery Channel rider has been taken to the hospital.

In the back, Unai Uribarri (Euskaltel), Nicholas Roche (Cofidis), Christian Murro (Tenax) and Frank Vandenbroucke (Unibet) are among those who have already lost contact. The race has now moved into East Flanders, and there are still 40 kms to cover before the fist cobbled climb, the Molenberg.

12:46 CEST    115km/141km to go
The six leaders are doing really well. The gap to the peloton is already 2.15 now, and they're moving closer and closer to the first cobbles.

There's been a bigger crash in the bunch - about 15 riders went down.

12:53 CEST    119km/137km to go
Amongst the unlucky are: Frederik Willems (Chocolade Jacques), Stéphane Auge (Cofidis), Andy Cappelle, Johan Verstrepen (both Landbouwkrediet), Tomas Vaitkus (AG2R), Alexei Markov (Caisse d'Epargne), Daniele Righi (Lampre) and Joost Posthuma (Rabobank).

Koos Moerenhout (Phonak) punctures on the Doorn cobbles section. Wim De Vocht (Davitamon-Lotto) also crashes; he needs to be taken to hospital.

12:55 CEST   
Hopefully, there won't be any more crashes... at least it's dry now.

We had a chance to talk to World champion and big favourite Tom Boonen this morning, who said, "I'm
doing fine. Since the race in De Panne-Koksijde finished, I enjoyed three
fairly calm days. I was more nervous the last few weeks not knowing if
everything would turn out fine."

His teammate Paolo Bettini will be a dutiful helper. "Our tallest guy, Boonen, is the leader today," Bettini told Cyclingnews. "I'll be trying
to make it as difficult as possible for the others. This way, Boonen will be
able to clinch it up in the finale."

13:00 CEST   
The race has arrived in Oudenaarde. A reminder: Thierry Marichal (Cofidis), Ludovic Auger (FdJeux), Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile), David Boucher (Unibet) and Rik Reinerink (Skil) are off the front, having increased their gap to a couple of minutes.

The bunch is chasing, and a few riders have already abandoned, but all the favourites are still there. As we approach the first climb of 17, the Molenberg, Peter Van Petegem punctures, but is given a rear wheel from a teammate. Another Davitamon rider then leads him back to the pack.

13:01 CEST   
Van Petegem punctures again! That's some bad luck for the 2003 RVV winner!

13:03 CEST   
Niko Eeckhout, who also had some technical problems earlier on, is hoping for a good placing. "There is a
lot of wind. That will make it tough, but I'm happy with that," he told Cyclingnews at the start in Brugge this morning.

13:07 CEST    130km/126km to go
Renaud Dion (AG2R) also went down in a curve, but he's back on his bike.

Rabobank and Liquigas is driving the bunch as the battle for good positions has begun. The leaders are 3 minutes ahead.

13:09 CEST   
Philippe Gilbert is up in the front of the bunch, too. He has some ambitions today, as he told HLN that a Belgian rider simply has to ride the RVV once. "And if you ever want to be known in cycling history, you have to have RVV on your palmarès," he said. "The Omloop Het Volk is already on mine, but that one has nothing to do with the RVV. The hills are 400 kilometres from the the finish there," he joked.

13:12 CEST    133km/123km to go
Ludovic Auger (FdJeux) and David Boucher (Unibet) both want the last position in the small six rider's lead train as they arrive in a flat cobbles section, the Paddestraat. The weather is stable, with the sun out sometimes, and only a few puddles on each side of the narrow road show that it did rain this morning.

The riders choose to take the edges of the road, racing hard.

13:16 CEST    136km/120km to go
The bunch is in the Paddestraat now, too. A sunnier and FdJeux rider crash, but get back on their bikes. Paolo Bettini has 20 metres in front of the main group, which has the stretched-out peloton in its back.

The leaders lose some time, the gap is now 2.45.

13:18 CEST   
Back on smooth tarmac now, which will make the bunch regroup.

At the start this morning, Erik Dekker commented to Cyclingnews that he was happy that he didn't need to
race with Boonen for much longer as he will quit racing after this year: "It has
only become worse, it is terrible. We all know that Boonen will win. My
mission is to become second. The weather will make the race even harder than
it is, but it will also be more dangerous. Hopefully I'll be spared from big

13:24 CEST   
Five kilometres from the Molenberg, the field is taking things easy on a wide, straight road. Preparing for the first cobbled climb... It's 463 meters long, averaging 7 percent with a maximum gradient of 14.2. Boonen is in the front, as positioning is now crucial.

13:31 CEST    145km/111km to go
Roger Hammond (Discovery gets a front wheel change.

The front group hits the Molenberg - it's absolutely packed with cycling fans!! Yellow "Lion of Flanders" flags are everywhere...

13:33 CEST   
Boonen is the first to take on the Molenberg from the bunch, with Van Petegem, Gilbert and T-Mobuile riders in his wheel. He gets huge cheers!

The rest of the pack was delayed in the first curve onto the Berg, but they're now all coming back, as there some tarmac again on top of the climb.

13:38 CEST   
Boucher and Reinerink couldn't hold the pace in the lead group, so there are only four riders left in front now: Thierry Marichal (Cofidis), Ludovic Auger (FdJeux), Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile), still at about 3 minutes.

13:41 CEST    148km/108km to go
The lead group arrives in the Kerkgate cobbled section, 3000 metres long, while Dutch champion Leon Van Bon is off the back of the bunch... race radio says he's abandoned.

13:46 CEST   
Beat Zberg (Gerolsteiner) is doing a good job in front of the pack, leading over the cobbles for several kilometres now. In the back, two AG2R riders have lost contact.

The next climb is the Wolvenberg, 17 percent at the steepest bit...

13:51 CEST    155km/101km to go
Henk Vogels (Davitamon) has a mechanical and waits at the side of the road for his team car. Will he be able to get back to the main group of about 60 riders? They're at the Wolvenberg now.

Quick.Step leads out, with a Liquigas rider to the side. Boonen is right there, so are the T-Mobile riders.

13:53 CEST   
The gap to the four leaders is about 3.30 to 3.45 now, as the Wolvenberg is passed. Boucher is still hanging between the peloton and the breakaway, but Reinerink has been caught. All under control yet - Boonen has a pokerface.

13:59 CEST   
On a flat, wide road again: some riders are taking the time to eat and drink, as Discovery's Leif Hoste leads the pack, with Hincapie and Ekimov placed in second and third position.

Hoste, although very strong in the 3-Days of De Panne-Koksijde, knows he won't lead his team today. "Though I
feel very strong, I'm not the leader of team Discovery Channel," Hoste told Cyclingnews at the start. "Hincapie is
our man today, I'm just underneath that. Two years ago, when I finished as
second, I got into a break early on in the race."

14:02 CEST    161km/95km to go
Milram's Cortinovis crashed, but he's back on his bike now.

The next climb is the Oude Kwaremont, 2.2 kms long and cobbled, once more. Average gradient is 4.2 percent, with a maximum steepness of 11 percent.

The bunch is driving through the streets of Oudenaarde now; the sun is still shining! Doesn't look like any more rain today... The bunch is taking it easy now, the gap to the leaders has reached more than 4.40.

14:09 CEST   
Rabobank's Posthuma gets some bottles from his DS in the car. His right arm looks pretty scratched.

Every team seems to take its turn in the wind. Now it's Skil-Shimano, then Discovery' Matthew White takes over.

14:11 CEST    166km/90km to go
Finally David Boucher (Unibet) is caught.

14:17 CEST   
As the bunch is nearing the next wall, the Kwaremont, more favourites come to the front. Even Alessandro Petacchi, as well as Erik Dekker.

Hammond has crashed! He holds his right knee and doesn't get up. The race doctor is there. Doesn't look like he'll continue, he's in a lot of pain.

14:19 CEST   
Some spectators are on the side of the road, but as there is enough space to the sides the riders pass them on each side. It's pretty dangerous. There are also parked cars and lorries on the road.

The pace has picked up again in expectation of the Kwaremont; the bunch is stretched.

14:25 CEST   
Erik Zabel (Milram) leads the bunch with Klier (T-Mobile), Van Petegem, Hushovd etc. as they hit the cobbles. Boonen is in tenth position, Bettini is there, too.

The bunch is exploding. Right after the Kwaremont comes the Paterberg. If you can't follow now or have a mechanical, you're in trouble.

14:29 CEST    178km/78km to go
Bettini leads in the cobbled descent; there are still about 30-40 riders in front. Boonen grabs an energy bar.

Marichal and Schmitz, in front, have dropped Auger and Albasini. They're in the Paterberg now. Still huge amounts of fans!

14:32 CEST   
It's a very narrow road up this 400 m-long climb (average gradient 14 percent, max. 20 percent). Bettini, Nuyens, Zabel, Boone, Klier, Van Petegem, they're all in the main group, driving it off the front.

14:38 CEST   
Serge Baguet, the Belgian champion, is also in his teammate's service, so Boonen is well-protected. It's rather windy now, the spectators' flags are flying. The group now counts about 30 riders, as the Kwaremont and Paterberg made a first selection.

The two leaders, Marichal and Schmitz, are still 2.25 minutes away, now at the foot of the Koppenberg, the famous cobbled climb with up to 22 percent gradient.

14:42 CEST    185km/71km to go
Ouch - this must hurt so much. Both of them ride up the climb like snakes, not in a straight line.

And the World Champion shows his class! He takes off the chase group right in the beginning of the Koppenberg, while many other riders get off their bikes...

14:48 CEST   
What a demonstration of superiority! Boonen dropped most of the group except Bettini, Klier, Van Petegem, Cancellara and a few others - information is not complete.

14:51 CEST   
Now: Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini, Peter Van Petegem, Fabian Cancellara, José Julia Cegarra, Michael Albasini, George Hincapie and Roberto Petito make up the first group, 1.12 behind the two leaders.

Alessandro Ballan, Leif Hoste and Juan Antonio Flecha are chasing. They hit the Steenbeekdries now.

14:58 CEST    193km/63km to go
Ballan, Hoste and Flecha have made contact with the group around Boonen. That makes two Discovery riders and two Quick.Steppers in the group, which now catches the two leaders.

14:59 CEST   
Erratum: Andreas Klier is also in the lead group. Sorry about that!

15:07 CEST   
Hushovd couldn't follow and had let go of the group. Baguet and Pozzato try to bridge the gap to the front. Zabel, too, gets dropped. Jeez, Quick.Step is strong!

15:10 CEST    198km/58km to go
First Baguet and Pozzato, then Hushovd and Zabel get onto the lead group at the foot of the Boigneberg. Sergei Ivanov is on his way up too, and takes advantage of Schmitz going off the back to try and close the gap.

Bettini and Baguet do the work in front for Boonen. Klier is there.

Ivanov is no alone chasing. He turns right and gets a tailwind on top of the hill. But it's tough.

15:10 CEST   
Ivanov has closed most of a minute's gap, but can he do the rest?

15:11 CEST    196km/60km to go
60 km before the finish, the situation is a follows: Boonen, Bettini (both Quick.Step), Van Petegem (Davitamon), Klier (T-Mobile), Cancellara (CSC), Cegarra (Caisse d'Epargne), Albasini (Liquigas), Hincapie, Hoste (both Discovery), Petito (Tenax), Ballan (Lampre), Flecha (Rabobank) make up the front group, while Pozzato and Baguet (both Quick.Step) try to bridge the gap.

15:12 CEST    201km/55km to go
Ivanov sits on 45 km/h as he goes up the false flat to the Roman brewery. Meanwhile, Baguet is hammering the lead group with Boonen on his wheel. Flecha in third.

15:15 CEST    203km/53km to go
The leaders: Boonen, Bettini, Pozzato , Baguet (Quick.Step), Van Petegem (Davitamon), Klier (T-Mobile), Cancellara (CSC), Cegarra (Caisse d'Epargne), Albasini (Liquigas), Hincapie, Hoste (both Discovery), Petito (Tenax), Ballan (Lampre), Flecha (Rabobank), Zabel (Milram), Hushovd (Crédit Agricole).

Fred Guesdon (FDJ) is chasing them now, with the rather knackered looking Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile). Ivanov is ahead of them, but the Russian hasn't made contact with the leaders, who are at the bottom of the hill again in Schorisse, ready for the Foreest climb.

15:18 CEST    205km/51km to go
Pozzato does a strong turn now - it's all for Boonen today. But what can the others do?

Ivanov has blown a gasket, and is being caught by a rather muddy Francisco Ventoso (Saunier Duval), who was dropped from the leaders. Kroon is also up there.

Zabel, Marichal are dropped on Foreest when Zabel rides into a ditch. Hushovd has to chase too.

15:20 CEST    204km/52km to go
Zabel has recovered and is in the lead bunch again. The pace isn't savage yet, as Pozzato and Baguet work. Boonen chats to his DS on the batphone. They reach the top of Foreest.

15:22 CEST    208km/48km to go
The women's Ronde van Vlaanderen has been won by Mirjam Melchers (Buitenpoor-Flexpoint) for the second time in a row. She attacked a break on the Tenbosse, built a gap of 40 seconds, but was caught by Christiane Soeder (Univega) with 2 km to go. Loes Gunnewijk (Buitenpoort) won the sprint for third.

Ivanov catches Marichal on the Foreest descent, but the leaders are already on the Steenberg, with Pozzato still in front. Six climbs after this one. The steepest part is at the bottom.

15:27 CEST    210km/46km to go
The leaders are over the top of the Steenberg and are fighting their way back towards the Trap Op cafe, where they turn right and head towards the Haaghoek. They're almost there now. Most riders are taking on board food and drink.

Karsten Kroon is in this group for CSC too, along with Cancellara.

Ivanov is 52 seconds behind the leaders.

15:29 CEST    212km/44km to go
The correct lead group: Boonen, Bettini, Pozzato , Baguet (Quick.Step), Van Petegem (Davitamon), Klier (T-Mobile), Cancellara, Kroon (CSC), Hincapie, Hoste (both Discovery), Petito (Tenax), Ballan (Lampre), Flecha (Rabobank), Zabel (Milram), Hushovd (Crédit Agricole).

Baguet leads on the Haaghoek. This is a very fast cobbled section, as it's a tailwind. It's also the last long section that the riders do. No-one looks like trying anything just yet.

15:32 CEST    214km/42km to go
Pozzato takes over from Baguet at the end of the Haaghoek. Boonen and Bettini in third or fourth. One rider at the back - looks like Hushovd - tries the muddy side of the road, but doesn't find it to his liking.

They're now on the Leberg, and are riding up it a lot faster than Jeff did yesterday, before he snapped his chain. You can find links of it there now.

Baguet is suffering, and is now gapped.

15:34 CEST    215km/41km to go
Baguet claws his way back on, but he's not long for this group. He's done a great job, but might find himself back with Sergei Ivanov again soon. The Russian champion is also at the top of the Leberg.

15:36 CEST    217km/39km to go
Pozzato takes the lead through the steady descent into Michelbeke, the lead up to the Berendries. Will Boonen make a move here?

15:37 CEST   
The Berendries will be fast, as there's still a tailwind. They hit the 900m / 7.1% climb with Pozzato in front. Hincapie moves up next to Boonen and Bettini.

15:38 CEST    218km/38km to go
Pozzato is setting a hard, but not too savage tempo on the Berendries, as the riders carve through the many flag-waving fans on the sides of the hill. Quick.Step 1-2-3 at the moment.

15:39 CEST    218km/38km to go
Boonen and Bettini have a chat. "I have a cunning plan...."

They're over the top in 2'20. That is not actually very fast.

15:41 CEST    220km/36km to go
Ivanov makes his way to the top, 1'26 behind the leaders, now coming over the VDB VDB VDB VDB VDB paint on the road. Unfortunately, VDB was dropped very early on in the piece.

15:42 CEST    221km/35km to go
Baguet has now been dropped as the leaders go up the small climb into Brakel. They'll do the Valkenberg next, then Tenbosse. It's a fairly steady pace at the moment, courtesy of Quick.Step's Pozzato. All the other riders have had a free ride though, which could be telling.

15:43 CEST   
Bettini now has a chat to Pozzato, maybe to inform him of the cunning plan. The group strings out a bit.

15:45 CEST    223km/33km to go
Right turn and the group hits the Valkenberg. Pozzato sets a pretty hard tempo, and puts Ballan in trouble. Petito is last wheel though, looking for his team car for some food. The climb steepens soon.

15:46 CEST   
Pozzato sits in the middle of the road while others battle to stay out of the wind. Boonen looks left and right. Will there be a mini selection here? Do Quick.Step really have a cunning plan?

15:47 CEST    224km/32km to go
Boonen looks as though he's on a Sunday ride. So that's the cue for Leif Hoste to attack. Boonen takes his wheel, Pozzato is dropped of course. PVP and Klier lead the chase. Let's get it on!!

15:49 CEST    224km/32km to go
Kroon tries get back to Bettini and Hoste, but does an Ivanov and blows when he's within 20 m. Two leaders, then 5 seconds to the rest.

15:50 CEST    226km/30km to go
Boonen and Hoste drive it on the descent into Brakel, trying to keep their tiny advantage. Bettini performs stopping work, in second wheel. It works, because Cancellara swings off after a turn, then realises who is in second.

Ballan attacks as the others start looking at each other. Now they're going again.

15:52 CEST    228km/28km to go
Boonen and Hoste drive, nearly getting taken out by a Shimano neutral moto. They have 13 seconds as they enjoy a speed of 70km/h in the tailwind. The bunch is trying to get to them, but only one at a time. Bettini is doing a superb job blocking, while Hincapie doesn't bother, preferring to sit in third last wheel. Petito is trying to get across next.

15:53 CEST   
The two leaders are nearly at Tenbosse, as Petito nearly rides into the back of a motorbike.

15:54 CEST    229km/27km to go
Hoste is going to have a hard time getting rid of Boonen, but he'll have to if he's to win the Ronde. On the other hand, he's no mean sprinter, as he proved last week. He leads on Tenbossestraat, then Boonen takes over, suffering. The roar of the crowd, with two Flemish riders in the lead, is huuuuuuuge.

15:56 CEST   
The attacks go on Tenbosse, and Hushovd, Flecha and Cancellara all suffer. Petito is caught at the top as Klier and PVP lead. But they're 38 seconds behind Boonen and Hoste...

15:57 CEST    231km/25km to go
Flecha and Hushovd find Zabel as the chase group thins down to eight. Bettini on the front, slowing it down again. The eight chasers: Bettini (Quick.Step), Van Petegem (Davitamon), Klier (T-Mobile), Cancellara, Kroon (CSC), Hincapie, Hoste (both Discovery), Ballan (Lampre).

16:00 CEST    233km/23km to go
Hoste and Boonen are now riding through Parike, but aren't stopping for mattetaartjes. They take the 'Parikeberg' at full gas, with Boonen really powering. Hoste looks good today. But will he be first or second?

Boonen gets a drink from the team car. They are at the top of the climb, which wasn't that tough with a tailwind.

56 seconds to the eight chasers, and 1'13 to Hushovd, Zabel and Flecha.

16:01 CEST    234km/22km to go
It looks like a race for third place in this chase group, with Bettini and Hincapie performing good work for their leaders. No-one can get away under their watchful eyes, and a minute gap with a tailwind is very very difficult to close.

16:03 CEST    236km/20km to go
Hoste and Boonen unload some food en route to Geraardsbergen. See, you don't need to take all that stuff. This descent is rather pleasant with a tailwind. It's 1'02 and growing.

16:05 CEST   
These two out in front are the strongest in the race, no question. Like Boonen and Ballan last week. Kroon almost - almost - got across to them over the top of the Valkenberg, but failed.

16:06 CEST   
Hoste is obviously not in the chase group I mentioned earlier :-) You must watch these things, you know?

16:07 CEST    239km/17km to go
Boonen leads through Geraardsbergen, and onto the Muur. He'll want to do some damage to Hoste here. They on the light cobbles, nearly at the steeper part. Hoste looks good though.

16:08 CEST    240km/16km to go
We might have two evenly matched riders here on the climbs, but Boonen is obviously the better sprinter. Hoste looks more comfy, actually, as he follows the world champ onto the steep part. They have 1'23 to the eight chasers, who are definitely going for third today.

16:10 CEST    241km/15km to go
Boonen leads all the way, looking a bit tired, but Hoste can't attack. He gets out of the saddle on the steep bit but it's no an acceleration. Hoste takes over at the top, pedalling a low gear over. They now have 1'40!

16:11 CEST   
Klier leads the chase group with Bettini and Hincapie in tow. Petito is at the back, hanging on. Hincapie lifts the pace on the steep bit in a bid for third. Petito is goooone. Ballan is suffering too, and the two CSCs.

16:13 CEST    243km/13km to go
Over the top, it's Hincapie, Bettini, PVP, Klier and Ballan, then the two CSCs, Kroon and Cancellara, then Petito.

Meanwhile, Boonen and Hoste are speeding towards the Bosberg, the final climb of the day. A mass of motorbikes goes past them.

16:15 CEST   
Boonen now leading as they hit the final cobbled climb. 400m of cobbles. Boonen switches his line, but Hoste can follow easily. He's still pedalling a smaller gear as Boonen drives the tempo up. After this, they'll be doing 60km/h for a while with the tailwind and false flat descent.

16:16 CEST    244km/12km to go
Over top of the Bosberg, and no attempt to attack by either of these riders. It could well be a two up sprint, but we'll see.

1'43 to the now eight chasers, with Petito rejoining them again. They're all together on the Bosberg.

16:17 CEST    246km/10km to go
Bettini suffers in the chase group and leaves a gap over the top of the Bosberg, but should get back on with Ballan.

16:19 CEST    247.5km/8.5km to go
The lead pair are working well together. 1'40 lead, so they can even relax a bit. No way will they get caught now. Boonen is still a 90 percent favourite, but you never know with Hoste. They're at 65 km/h now with the wind at their backs, going down a slight decline. This is a good bit of the parcours.

16:21 CEST    250km/6km to go
The kilometres tick down rapidly, as Boonen and Hoste continue to ride away from the chasing group. It's close to two minutes now. Klier attacks behind, but can't get clear. Ho ho, I kill me.

16:24 CEST    252km/4km to go
The chasers are strung out, with no-one really being able to get a gap. You have to be so strong to get away.

Boonen and Hoste reach Denderwindeke and take the left hander. Now it's a cross/tailwind, with a small climb and then a nice descent into Ninove-Meerbeke. They stick together.

16:26 CEST    253km/3km to go
They go under 4 km to go as Hoste tries to leave Boonen out there for longer. Surprisingly, they're still taking fairly even turns. That's generous from Hoste.

Peeters encourages Boonen from the team car. Can he win the Ronde twice in a row?

3km to go now. Nowhere to attack, really.

16:27 CEST    254km/2km to go
Tom Boonen is in a smaller gear now has he takes it a bit easier, sitting up and spinning the legs. He could be cramping a bit, but you'll not know until the end.

16:28 CEST   
Hoste comes through again with 1.5 km to go. Will Boonen take another pull?

The chasers have narrow down to Hincapie, Cancellara, Ballan, and Van Petegem.

16:28 CEST    255km/1km to go
Last kilometre for the leaders, with Boonen now in front. It's a crosswind sprint. He talks to Hoste, who of course won't take a turn.

16:29 CEST   
The discussion is quite intense and goes on for 200m or so. But now they're just looking at each other, slowing down like track sprinters. They near the final corner...

16:30 CEST    256km/0km to go
Boonen takes the corner first and hugs the right hand side. Hoste jumps first, and surprises Boonen, but Boonen is way too strong and Hoste is beaten. Boonen wins the Ronde twice in a row!!!

16:31 CEST   
In third place, Ballan winds up and leads out from a long way, but Hincapie wins it easily. PVP fourth, then Ballan and Cancellara.

16:52 CEST   
Well, the favourite won, but Tom Boonen rode a perfect race to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen. He's not the world champion for nothing. Full credit to Leif Hoste for trying to take the race to him - it was Hoste who made the attack on the Valkenberg, with only Boonen able to follow. Hoste has been in great form all week (three wins, one second, one fifth), so he can't be too disappointed with himself.

We'll bid you goodbye from Ninove, but be sure to check back in next Wednesday for Gent-Wevelgem. Tot volgende keer!


1 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick.Step               6.30.14
2 Leif Hoste (Bel) Discovery Channel           0.01
3 George Hincapie (USA) Discovery           
4 Peter Van Petegem (Bel) Davitamon
5 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre
6 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) CSC
7 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick.Step
8 Karsten Kroon (Ned) CSC
9 Andreas Klier (Ger) T-Mobile
10 Roberto Petito (Ita) Tenax
11 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
12 Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Rabobank