Preview: Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen

Mark Cavendish to defend title against Tom Boonen and co.

British rider Mark Cavendish (High Road) will be eager to defend his title at the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, which will be raced for the 96th time on Wednesday, 16 April. The mid-week Belgian classic tends to suit the sprinters, and Cavendish should be up to the task having won two stages in the KBC-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde recently.

The likelihood of a sprint finish is emphasised by High Road's line-up. In addition to Cavendish, fast men like Bernhard Eisel, Gerald Ciolek and Edvald Boasson Hagen will try to help secure another win for the American team.

It was Erik Zabel who won the race back in 1996, riding for High Road's predecessor team, Telekom. The German will take to the start once again, albeit with the German Milram team. He will have support from Aussie Brett Lancaster, who can keep the pace high in the closing kilometres of a race.

But both Cavendish and Zabel will have to watch out for versatile Tom Boonen, who comes from having a good Ronde van Vlaanderen and an even better Paris-Roubaix, which he won in a three-up sprint against Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan. Boonen's Quick.Step team looks familiar for these kinds of races, with Cretskens, De Jongh, Hulsmans, Rosseler, Steegmans, Tosatto and Weylandt. The latter has good chances himself, having won Nokere Koerse recently. Gert Steegmans is usually pretty fast, too, but missed Paris-Roubaix due problems following a crash in Dwars van Vlaanderen.

Last year's runner-up, Robbie McEwen, is still looking for a win this season and this may be the best opportunity for him prior to the Giro d'Italia. He told Cyclingnews in De Panne that "I am feeling strong," but described his frustration with getting boxed in in the last few bunch sprints he participated in. The Aussie made the Scheldeprijs one of his priority races for April. He can bank on Greg van Avermaet, who is a good sprinter in his own right.

While Rabobank doesn't have its captain Oscar Freire in the line-up, Australian Graeme Brown could be the man for the Dutch squad to take the win on the flat roads around Antwerp. One rider in the Rabobank team will have his final race on Wednesday. Jan Boven is calling it quits after 12 years as a professional ­ all spent with Rabobank. He will continue as a directeur sportif with the team.

Barloworld will bank on Baden Cooke, who can sprint with the best, but does not have Robbie Hunter with him this time.

Other teams with sprinters that have outsider chances include Elk Haus Simplon (Steffen Radochla, Jochen Summer), Volksbank (Olaf Pollack, André; Korff), Topsport Vlaanderen (Niko Eeckhout) and Mitsubishi-Jartazi (Stefan Van Dijck). And of course some riders will try to create a surprise by breaking away. But riders like Gerrit Glomser (Volksbank), Andy Capelle and Bert de Waele (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner), Geert Omloop (Mitsubishi-Jartazi), Matthé Pronk (Cycle Collstrop) or Serguei Gonchar (Preti Mangimi) will find it very difficult to stay away on the flat course. The big hope they will have is that the top riders may lack a bit of motivation after a tough Paris-Roubaix and with the prospect of the Amstel Gold race coming up.

The route

After the neutral roll-out from Antwerp the peloton will go through the start/finish area in Schoten and start a big, clockwise 150-kilometre loop. They will ride due north, turning back south, hugging the Dutch border for a while but not actually crossing into the neighbouring country.

After that the loop continues southward, passing the city of Lille - not to be confused with the French town of the same name. When they hit the easternmost point of Lichaart, they will turn back west towards Antwerp. Once back in Schoten they will tackle the first of three finishing circuits of 16 kilometres each. That is when the sprinters' teams are expected to reel in any breakaway attempts to set up for an exciting showdown on the Paalstraat.

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