One of the true monuments of the sport of professional cycling, Sunday’s Tour of Flanders (April 5) packs in more action in one day than some stage races can achieve in three weeks.

Everything that makes racing in Belgium great is here – sharp hills, cobbles, legions of flag-waving fans and a chance to see the very best racers fighting it out over the energy-sapping 261.5km route.

The Tour of Flanders route is littered with climbs that have become legendary in the sport. Where even the toughest riders can find their dreams lying broken and bleeding in the muddy cobbles.

Mountains they may not be, but the sheer pace that the riders hits the climbs means that the inexperienced can find themselves blowing spectacularly and being shelled out the back of the race. It’s not unusual to see bunches of riders forced to dismount and awkwardly clatter up the fearsome Koppenberg – one of the only times you’ll ever see a pro get off his bike and walk. It’s a war of attrition, and only the hard men survive to the finish.

The Tour of Flanders is a race that every Belgian cyclist dreams of winning. Last year Stijn Devolder was given a free run to the finish while every other contender was watching his Quick Step team-mate Tom Boonen, himself twice a winner of the race.

Boonen is always outright favourite for Flanders. He has the right physique, knowledge of the roads, and determined grit to be a danger throughout the event. Will he again be marked out of contention, or can he break free and kick-start his 2009 classics campaign in style?

We’ll also be looking out for the black jerseys of the Cervelo Test Team. They’ve been on fire in their debut season so far, and the squad’s on-form Heinrich Haussler would cause a major upset if he scored a victory. He’ll be assisted by British Classics specialist Roger Hammond.

As a spectator event, the Tour of Flanders is almost unsurpassed. The determined fan can, with a bit of luck, catch the race in up to ten different places en route as it winds through Belgium. Success depends on how many Belgian beers and frites you have consumed.

For television spectators, it provides several hours of nail-biting racing where the outcome can never be truly predicted.

Cycling Weekly will be covering the race in full online and in the magazine


WHO’S GOING TO WIN?

We assess the favourites for the Tour of Flanders

*****

Tom Boonen (Belgium, Quick Step)

He may not have hit the podium for the last two years but two-time winner Tornado Tom is hot favourite as usual. Yet to hit top form this year but sure to find something extra this weekend.

****

Heinrich Haussler (Germany, Cervélo)

Haussler is the man of the moment and desperate to win this one. Coming within inches of beating Mark Cavendish at Milan-San Remo will have given his confidence a big boost ? as if it needed it.

Filippo Pozzato (Italy, Katusha)

The extravagantly coiffured Italian warmed up nicely in Flanders by taking the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne and E3 Prijs in the same week. Bound to feature in the closing stages.

Stijn Devolder (Belgium, Quick Step)

Winning last year in the national champion?s jersey was a very special moment. If team-mate Boonen hasn?t got the legs, Devolder will be ready to pounce.

***

Nick Nuyens (Belgium, Rabobank)

Another home rider who will be gunning for the most prestigious race on the Belgian calendar – particularly as he came second last year to Devolder. If he wins, it’ll be the highlight of his career so far.

Sylvain Chavanel (France, Quick Step)

A great start to 2009 for the great French hope. With last year?s Brabantse Pijl and Dwars door Vlaanderen already in the bag, it could be time for Chavanel to land the big one in Flanders. Sadly, riding for Quick Step puts him third in line for the throne.

Thor Hushovd (Norway, Cervélo)

Third at Milan-San Remo and winner at Het Volk ? sorry, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ? shows Hushovd means business this year. Whether he can get over the Bosberg with the front runners is debatable.

**

George Hincapie (United States, Team Columbia)

Big George; don?t you just love him? Popular rider and nearly-man for an eternity. Running out of time to land this one.

Juan Antonio Flecha (Spain, Rabobank)

A classy rider in the Classics. The Argentine-born Spaniard has got what it takes and third in Flanders in 2008 was no fluke.

Philippe Gilbert (Belgium, Silence-Lotto)

A French-speaking Belgian, therefore considered a foreigner in Flanders. Has the pedigree to perform but not shown the form as yet.

*

Leif Hoste (Belgium, Silence-Lotto)

Three times runner-up Hoste must wonder if he will ever make it to the top step of the podium. We suspect not.

Daniele Bennati (Italy, Liquigas)

Doesn?t quite cut it in the Classics but always capable of an upset.

Marcus Burghardt (Germany, Team Columbia)

Knocking on the door but probably standing on the doorstep this time.

Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland, Saxo Bank)

Struggling with illness this season. More likely to work for team-mate Karsten Kroon than have thoughts of his own victory.

Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) Silence-Lotto

Showing well in De Panne and 8th in last year?s Flanders. A good each-way bet.

For a full list of starters visit the official website


THE ROUTE

One hundred and thirty kilometres of flat and windswept Belgian scenery, then it?s hills all the way once the bunch hit the Molenberg. A knee-trembling 16 bergs to get over this year, with 2008?s openers Kluisberg and Nokereberg replaced by the Eikenberg and Varent.

Start: Brugge 0km

Molenberg 130km

Wolvenberg 140km

Oude Kwaremont 178km

Paterberg 182km

Koppenberg 188km

Steenbeekdries 194km

Taaienberg 196km

Eikenberg 201km

Varent 206km

Leberg 212km

Berendries 216km

Valkenberg 222km

Tenbosse 229km

Eikenmolen 234km

Muur – Kapelmuur 244km

Bosberg 248km

Finish: Meerbeke 260km


TV COVERAGE

British Eurosport

British Eurosport & Eurosport HD, 1pm (UK time)


BRITISH AND IRISH RIDERS

Steve Cummings (Barloworld)

Roger Hammond (Cervélo)

Jeremy Hunt (Cervélo)

Dan Lloyd (Cervélo)


2008 TOP 10

imageAbove: Devolder milks the applause

1. Stijn Devolder (Bel) Quick Step 06:24:02

2. Nick Nuyens (Bel) Cofidis – Le Crédit par Téléphone at 15sec

3. Juan Antonio Flecha Giannoni (Spa) Rabobank

4. Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre ? Fondital at 21sec

5. George Hincapie (USA) Team High Road

6. Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Liquigas

7. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor) Team CSC

8. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) Silence – Lotto

9. Simon Spilak (Slo) Lampre – Fondital

10. Arnaud Labbe (Fra) Bouygues Telecom


RECENT WINNERS

2008 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Quick Step

2007 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre

2006 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step

2005 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step

2004 Steffen Wesemann (Ger) T-Mobile

2003 Peter van Petegem (Bel) Lotto

2002 Andrea Tafi (Ita) Mapei

2001 Gianluca Bortolami (Ita) Vini Caldirola

2000 Andrei Tchmil (Bel) Lotto


RELATED LINKS

Tour of Flanders 2008: Devolder clinches superb lone win

Tour of Flanders 2008: Photo gallery by Luc Claessen

Cycling Weekly Rider Profiles: Index

Wednesdays international news roundup

EXTERNAL LINKS

Official race website – www.rvv.be