Can Fabian Cancellara fly to victory in Flanders?

White-hot Swiss a favourite; Boonen and Ballan also

Fabian Cancellara's scintillating early season form will be tested to the full when he lines up as one of the favourites for what could be a rain-lashed Tour of Flanders this Sunday.

As the early spring classics move up a gear ahead of next week's 'Hell of the North' at Paris-Roubaix, the Swiss all-rounder has every right to believe he can win the 264km one-day classic from Bruges to Meerbeke.

Yet more than a few obstacles stand in his way, not Belgium's two-time winner Tom Boonen, or Alessandro Ballan, the man who romped home in unusual Flanders sunshine last year to end Italy's five-year wait for a win.

The 17 steep hills, variously known as 'bergs', on the race course make life tough enough for the peloton. The fact they are sometimes cobbled, often narrow and usually lined 10-deep with hundreds of beer-swilling, screaming cycling fans makes the job that little bit harder.

And umbrellas are likely to be a big feature on the bergs this Sunday, with the weather men predicting wind, rain and even hail.

Cancellara, a two-time world time trial champion, comes into the race on the back of victory at Milan San Remo and the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race. But even his team manager, Australian Scott Sunderland, knows he will have to excel on several fronts if he is to conquer the race known as the 'Ronde'.

"Fabian's definitely capable of winning Flanders. He's proved at the Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan San Remo that he's strong," Sunderland told AFP Friday. "But Flanders is a different kettle of fish."

The threat of inclement weather has automatically reduced Ballan's victory chances as the Italian is said to dwell in dry conditions.

And that could boost the chances of the weather-hardened Belgians such as Quick Step's Boonen, Leif Hoste of Silence-Lotto, on-form Philippe Gilbert of Francaise des Jeux or Cofidis hard man Nick Nuyens, who finished metres behind Ballan in 2007.

Hoste, a three-time runner-up, will be looking for new Belgian sensation Greg Van Avermaet to earn his spurs and help him shake off his rivals as he bids to shake the 'Ronde' monkey off his back again.

"I don't feel like I'm the eternal runner-up. I'm looking forward, not backwards," said Hoste, third in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

A Belgian victory in what has been a fairly barren season so far for Boonen and his compatriots would go down well in Flanders.

Sunderland said they've done everything possible to be ready, but that anything is possible.

"Material-wise we're ready for all kinds of weather though it looks like wind, rain and even hail - a real spring day in Flanders!" he added. "But you just don't know how the riders will go in the race. We've got a strong team and ideally we'll hope to have the numbers up there, but keeping the guys together until the end is going to be a difficult task."

The main issue for any Flanders contenders will be the climbs, over three-quarters of which feature in the final 80km.

It's on the 'bergs' that the heart rates of Cancellara, Boonen and Ballan will rise a few notches as they aim to keep pace without falling victim to the treacherous cobblestones.

This year the legendary Koppenberg, the maximum gradient of which rises to a whopping 22 percent, has returned to the delight of fans at least. It took only one rider to fall on the Koppenberg in 2005, and while Boonen escaped the mayhem in his wake the victory hopes of many of his rivals virtually ended there.

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008

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