Het Volk heralds European one-day classics

Pozzato, Boonen set for warm-up in Ghent

A mouth-watering prelude to the upcoming cycling classics season gets under way this Saturday when the peloton tackles the 63rd edition of Het Volk.

Although not a 'classic' with the same pulling power or prestige as the likes of Paris-Roubaix, Het Volk never fails to produce some early season drama for fans of bike racing over the tight, winding cobbled climbs of Belgium.

Last year Italian Filippo Pozzato of Liquigas took the honours, finishing two seconds ahead of Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha, with Belgian star Tom Boonen trailing home in third after 'suffering cramps'.

Stuart O'Grady's fifth place finish in 2007 arguably provided a sign of his form on the cobbles, the Australian going on to claim the honours at the Roubaix velodrome at the end of the 'Hell of the North' later in April.

This year the peloton, or at least those old enough to remember, will roll back the years to 1995 when the race last started and finished in Ghent, north of Brussels.

Organisers decided a return to the race's traditional route last May, after the past 12 editions finished in the north-eastern town of Lokeren.

With 11 'hellingen' on Saturday's 199km route there is one less small climb than last year, and the last, at Molengen 39km from the finish, means attacks are likely to come thick and fast in the finale.

Like every year, Boonen - the former world champion and a former winner of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders - will be one to watch.

However the quality in depth of his Quick Step team means he could be upstaged by one of his team-mates.

Italian Paolo Bettini, the reigning world and Olympic champion, will fancy his chances as will Pozzato, German Marcus Burghardt of High Road and the irrepressible Flecha, who rides for Rabobank.

O'Grady will also be back for a crack at the cobbles, as will fellow Australian Robbie McEwen, of Silence-Lotto.

McEwen, ninth last year, admitted recently he is still not on top form but as he builds towards his aim of Milan-San Remo and his usual stages haul from the big Tours.

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