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Tour of Belgium - 2.1

Belgium, May 28-June 1, 2008

All eyes on Boonen as Tour build-up begins

By Ben Abrahams

Tom Boonen won the final stage in 2007.
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After a successful Spring Classics campaign followed by his customary mid-season break from the bike, Tom Boonen returns to competition this Wednesday for the build-up to his next major objective this year: the defence of his green jersey at the Tour de France. The Belgian superstar hasn't raced for seven weeks, since his premature celebration at the Scheldeprijs handed victory to Mark Cavendish, but has spent the last three of those in solid training and comes with a Quick Step team that, at least on paper, looks to be the strongest in the race.

While Boonen may stretch his legs in the bunch sprints expected on Wednesday and Thursday, Quick Step's leader is likely to be Belgian champion Stijn Devolder. The winner of this year's Tour of Flanders has also been out of action since mid April, but has the form to challenge for overall victory.

"The Tour of Belgium is the first serious test for what is to come at the Tour of Switzerland and then the Tour de France," Devolder told Sporza. "I will start with ambition in Eeklo. The past few days I have already had a very good feeling in training. Friday and Saturday are the crucial stages for me."

Added Quick Step directeur sportif Dirk Demol: "Both Devolder and Boonen have been away from competition for seven weeks. For them the Tour of Belgium is about getting going again after a rest. Devolder is good, but we must wait and see. If you look at our selection we have a strong team, but this is not a primary objective for Quick Step."

Flanders winner Stijn Devolder will lead Quick Step.
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In the absence of defending champion Vladimir Gusev, currently riding the Giro d'Italia, Astana team-mate Sergei Ivanov carries the number one dossard, in a team which includes Austrian sprinter René Haselbacher and American Chris Horner.

The Silence-Lotto squad, like their arch rivals Quick Step, have brought several big guns to their home tour, notably Belgian time trial champion Leif Hoste and 2006 winner Maarten Tjallingii from The Netherlands. Other riders to watch include Rabobank's talented youngster Robert Gesink, Belgian hardman Nico Eekhout (Top sport Vlaanderen), Australian sprinter Allan Davis (Mitsubishi-Jartazi) and 2004 Tour of Flanders winner Steffen Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop).

The Tour of Belgium will also see the first appearance from cyclo-cross king Sven Nys in his new Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner team colours. Nys' transfer from Rabobank was originally slated for June 1, but Landbouwkrediet boss Gerard Bulens received confirmation from the UCI on Monday evening that the transfer had gone through successfully and Nys appeared at the team presentation on Tuesday evening. The Belgian last rode the race in 2006 when he finished eighth overall, and this year will use the event to build form for the Beijing Olympics where he will ride the mountain bike cross county.

Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
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The parcours has been altered somewhat this year, although the first two stages on Wednesday and Thursday should still favour the sprinters. Stage one is a 180.5 km loop around West Flanders, starting and finishing in Eeklo near to the Dutch border. Stage two heads south-west from Eeklo, passing south of the Belgian capital Brussels, but expect the sprinters' teams to have the race in hand before the finish in Tienen after 201 km.

Like last year, stages three and four remain the ones likely to decide the general classification. The individual time trial has been moved back a day, and so riders will face the decisive hilly stage on Friday instead. The 189 km route features 11 classified climbs, with the infamous Mur de Huy - the final climb in Flèche Wallonne - coming after 134 km.

Saturday's time trial uses the identical 16.7 km course from last year, where Gusev took the victory and with it the race lead. On Sunday, the final stage rolls out of Buggenhout where a predominantly flat final 70 km should ensure the traditional bunch finish on the Mechelbaan in Putte.