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Photo ©: Bettini

91st Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT

Belgium, April 8, 2007

De Ronde - A killer cobbled Classic

Can anyone stop the might of Tom Boonen?

By Gregor Brown in Gent, Belgium

Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic)
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
(Click for larger image)

De Ronde is almost upon us. This Sunday will see the running of the 91st Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), a race that every Belgian would kill to win and any cyclist would love to have nestled in their palmarès. It's a race like no other, one that is designed for the true hard-men with a mix of pavé, climbs and, usually, dodgy weather.

The parcours certainly merits the name "Classic." De Ronde is a long, hard slog spiced with short cobbled climbs (Hellingen as they are called in Flemish). The 2007 edition, once again starting in Brugge, boosts 18 Hellingen before the race reaches its finale in Ninove-Meerbeke after 259 kilometres.

The second half of the race is loaded with dangers. The riders will encounter one climb after another as they wind their way in a westerly direction. Almost half the climbs are cobbled, with big gaps between the pavé that can spell disaster for those not near the front. Riders towards the back are often bogged down in the chaos that symbolises De Ronde, as last year's scenes on the Koppenberg illustrated only too well. Fortunately, for most of the peloton at least, the short but monstrously steep climb has been left off the menu this time around.

Nasty cobbles
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Still, the parcours remains far from straightforward, as the top riders will be watching their rivals on some of the most famous ascents in Belgium, like the Oude Kwaremont, which includes 1600 metres of cobbles and a maximum gradient of 11.6%, or the shorter Taaienberg, 500 metres long but with a whooping maximum gradient of 15.8%. These climbs are likely to blow all but the strongest riders, leaving the ultimate two climbs, the Kapelmuur (km 243) and Bosberg (km 247), to finalise the day.

All eyes will be on the new Lion of Flanders, Tom Boonen. Last year the pressure was on him and 'Tommeke' did not let down his legion of adoring fans. Clad in his world champion's jersey, Boonen followed an attack by compatriot Leif Hoste with 30 kilometres to go, and easily overpowered the then Discovery Channel rider in a two-man sprint. His win harked back to 1975 when Eddy Merckx stormed to victory in his rainbow stripes.

2007 is not looking any different for Boonen. The 26 year-old Quick-Stepper was with the best in Milano-Sanremo and then went on to dominate the Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Prijs. If he could pull it off on Sunday he would be only the second rider to ever win three straight, the first being Fiorenzo Magni from 1949-1951.

Boonen and Hoste in 2006
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

It won't be an easy task for Boonen, and there are dangerous adversaries who will do anything in their power to stop his march towards glory. Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) is being touted as a possible winner. The Swiss showed how fast his motor can rev last year when he struck out solo in Paris-Roubaix, and recently he almost got the better of Boonen in the E3.

There are a few Italians that would like to pick up where Andrea Tafi left off, namely Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) and Boonen's own teammate, Paolo Bettini.

'Pippo' Pozzato really put his name into the Belgian spotlights when he won the February Semi-Classic, Omloop Het Volk. He struck with the same bolt of lightning that knocked down the world's top sprinters in the 2006 Milano-Sanremo. The rider from Veneto knows how to deliver in a pinch and he's showing he has the legs to go the long and hard distances.

Pippo's neighbour, Ballan, is just as talented but still lacking a 'big' win. He almost came through last year in both Flanders and Roubaix, and may just break through this time with an extra year's racing in his legs. Since coming back from his crash in the GP Chiasso, Ballan has been slowly on the rise; including his strong showings in recent Semi-Classics and the currently ongoing Three Days of De Panne.

Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

With all eyes on Boonen, the odds might swing in favour of his Italian teammate Bettini. The world champion had some problems with his ribs after a crash in Tirreno-Adriatico but don't discount Il Grillo jumping away for the victory. The same may apply to dark-horse Quick-Step teammate, Peter Van Petegem. The 37 year-old Belgian oozes class and experience, and has triumphed twice before in Flanders.

Despite the 18 climbs, sprinters could still fancy their chances if a small group arrives in Ninove-Meerbeke, with Oscar Freire's name on everyone's lips after a ferocious sprint in Milano-Sanremo coupled with his Brabantse Pijl hat-trick last Sunday. If Freire were to be successful, he would be the first Spaniard in history to make De Ronde's podium.

There have been Australians on the podium in the past, including Stuart O'Grady. Almost as dangerous as Freire, the CSC rider has been in the mix lately, placing highly in Sanremo and the E3 Prijs.

Last year's runner-up Leif Hoste is unlikely to be a threat, his Predictor-Lotto manager Marc Sergeant confirming that the Belgian still hasn't fully recovered from injuries sustained to his pelvis earlier this season. Others to watch are Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), up and coming Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile), Pozzato's teammate Luca Paolini (Liquigas), Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) and Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux).

This Sunday Cyclingnews will be covering the 91st Ronde van Vlaanderen live. Coverage begins around 12:00 local European time (CEST)/ 6:00 (USA East)/ 22:00 Australia (EST) - also on WAP-enabled mobile devices at http://live.cyclingnews.com/wap/