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92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen - ProT

Belgium, April 6, 2008

Beer, chips and mayonnaise and the Ronde

By Bjorn Haake & Paul Verkuylen

Last year winner Ballan
Photo ©: Sirotti
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This year's edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen promises to be one of the most exciting editions of recent times. The weather is forecast to be cold, wet and miserable, which means that not only will the favourites have each other to contend with, they will face, to the joy of the Belgian public, the danger of wet and slippery cobbles, which have decided the race on more than one occasion in the past.

The recent string of strong results from Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) it looks as though a new era of Classics specialists had finally come of age. More fancied and experienced Classics men such as Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Leif Hoste (Silence - Lotto) and last year's winner Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) will have their work cut out for them.

With the Ronde so deeply engrained in the culture of the Belgian public, it is hard to look past local hero, Boonen, to play the role of favourite. The pressure is so great for Boonen, winner in 2005 and 2006 that a minor placing here may well lead the critics to suggest that he has lost his touch. Having started his season with a series of wins in Qatar, the strongman from Mol has been steadily improving his form. During the recent semi-classics Dwars van Vlaanderen and the Brabantse Pijl, Boonen was seen keeping out of trouble, but expect him to be in the thick of it come the final 50 kilometres.

Leif Hoste finished second last year for the third time
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
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Silence-Lotto's Hoste is not far behind Boonen on the pressure-o-meter. Having finished second no less that three times, he could well be forgiven for thinking that the Flemish Gods are playing a joke on him. After a quiet build-up to his main target of the year, he recently expressed that he is content with his form which suggests he is hoping 2008 is his year. A recent crash in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde may impede him somewhat, but as is typical of the hard men from Flanders, he is not letting it get to him.

Defending champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) may find the going tough this year. Last year's warm weather conditions suited the big man from Italy perfectly, but this time around with wind, rain and hail expected, he may find it much harder to break out of the group. Not that he should be discounted however. His performances in Milano-Sanremo and the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde have shown he is in the similar devastating form he had last year.

The always aggressive Gilbert has made yet another step up in his form this year. In nearly every race he has competed in this year, which started way back in January at the Tour Down Under, he has figured in the results. Last week at the Brabantse Pijl he only missed Chavanel's winning move after being held up by a crash. He bounced back to eventually take second, at one point reeling in the Frenchman to within 15 seconds. He opted not to take part in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde in favour of honing his form for this one race. Expect the Wallonian to be one of the most aggressive riders on the day.

Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), 28 wins the 63rd Dwars door Vlaanderen
Photo ©: AFP
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Brabantse Pijl winner, Sylvian Chavanel, is also surely one of the hot favourites if recent results and form are taken into account. He justified his dominant win in the Brabantse Pijl by saying, "I can't help that I can stand the poor weather conditions pretty well." Going off his recent form and self confessed strength, along with the weather prediction for Sunday, he should be very dangerous indeed.

Recent winner of Milano-Sanremo, Fabian Cancellara, is a master at this sort of racing. It was with Swiss precision that he took Paris Roubaix in 2006, and his move in Sanremo was timed to perfection. All that is left now, according to the man himself, is Flanders. "Sanremo and Roubaix I have won, and Flanders now becomes the dream for me" he told Cyclingnews recently. "I feel that I have the ability to be at the front and maybe win Flanders. You have to have the head, without the head you can't go forward."

Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) and 2004 winner Steffen Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop) are also riders likely to be near the front, waiting to take advantage of any rival team politics. Wesemann's young team-mate David Kopp along with Austrian Bernhard Eisel (High Road) have been showing good form as of late. High Road will also be hoping to have Roger Hammond in the fold, either to act as a helper or to take the initiative himself.

Other riders worthy of a mention are Stuart O'Grady (CSC) and George Hincapie (High Road). The quiet Australian has slowly returned to from after his crash last year at the Tour de France, and should not be allowed an inch, or he will take a mile. While American Hincapie has been knocking on the door of a major Classics victory for years, and with the renewed enthuasiasm of joining a new team, we should see him close to the front all day.

Let the fun begin

After last years unusually warm edition left everyone a tad disappointed, many have been hoping for the typical foul weather common to Flanders this time of year to return. Sports Directors like Marc Seargant (Silence-Lotto) or Patrick Lefevere (Quick Step) told Cyclingnews that they wanted to see "a real Flanders again." Not that they admitted to wanting to see it from any other angle than that of the team car. "Those days are over," Seargant laughed. Yet, one has to share the feelings that a rainy, muddy and misty Ronde van Vlaanderen is the ultimate test of who is the hard man.

Even in dry conditions this race is tough. 264 kilometres up and over the many cobbled climbs which litter the region makes this one of the hardest races in the world.

Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) on the loose.
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The race starts out calmly from Brugge, before heading south east in a not so straightforward way. The first part of the race is predominately flat. But after 150 kilometres, with the Molenberg, the third climb of the day, the race will get serious. What makes the hellingen so extremely tough is not so much the steepness itself, but the cobbles that bounce bike and riders around like a pinball. Some climbs are better than others. The 300-metre long Molenberg belongs to the other category.

The early one-two-three punch comes after a relatively long flat and straight section, heading south from Oudenaarde. It starts innocently enough with the 11-percent Oude Kwaremont, which is more of a nuisance with its dirt-littered cobbles than a serious hill. But after a short descent the peloton will hit the Paterberg, with a maximum gradient of 20 percent. When it was used in the recent E3 Prijs, some riders had to resort to walking.

Then it is on to the Koppe, the Koppenberg. This climb was made famous by Jesper Skibby when he almost got crushed by the race director's car in 1987. It has been in and out of the race the last few years. The initial route announcement earlier in the year had not made space for the monster, which rises at a maximum gradient of 22%. Eventually, though, it was put back in - to the delight of the protagonists.

Leif Hoste told Cyclingnews that "it's good for the race," and emphasised that it helps to weed out the competition. One can't win the race at the Koppenberg, but it is possible to lose it there.

After that the favourites will be racing full on. At this point expect the Quick Steppers, headed by Boonen and Stijn Devolder, at the front, making it as hard as possible for their most serious rivals. After the descent of the Koppenberg a longer cobble section before the Taaienberg (15.8%) will really show who has got the legs. Expect the cobble specialists to take advantage of the Haaghoek, a rough cobble section preceding the Leberg.

Weaker riders often can come back after a climb, but this strategy only works so many times. The rapid succession of hills in the 12 to 14-percent range - the Leberg, the Berendries and the Valkenberg - will provide ample opportunity for some serious attacks and if the early break of the day is allowed a good advantage, expect their escape to end at this point.

Once the Valkenberg is conquered the group of potential winners will be fairly small. At that point in the race the main obstacle that remains is the famous and feared Muur in Geraardsbergen (Mur de Grammont). As it makes its way to a small chapel in Geraardsbergen the cobbled rise reaches its maximum steepness of 19.8%. This is where Ballan put on the back burners last year and took off with Hoste to ride the last 15 kilometres to the finish. Except for the cobbled Bosberg (maximum 11%), a few kilometres after the short and twisty descent of the Muur, the run to the finish line in Meerbeke is predominately flat.

A tight right-hand bend in Meerbeke will provide the first glimpse of the finish for those fighting for the win. Should the race be decided by a small group, expect fireworks as the anticipation of the fans and riders alike reaches boiling point.