Flanders: The best race of the year?

Will it be Boonen again, or Hincapie?

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After a great opening to the Classics season at San Remo, it’s been interesting to see who’s been doing what in the run-up to Flanders this Sunday. Usually you’d expect Quick Step and Tom Boonen to be at the very forefront of things, but instead the best performer up north so far has been the surprising figure of Sylvain Chavanel. He looks a decent bet for Sunday, when he certainly won’t be given as much leeway as Jacky Durand was when he was the last French winner.

But if there is going to be a winner from outside Belgium and Italy, I’d expect it to be High Road’s George Hincapie. His form looks to be coming together nicely for Roubaix, but I don’t expect him to be too far away from the podium in Flanders if things go his way, which so often they have not seemed to.

But whoever wins, I’ll be happy to devote most of my afternoon to the race. Flanders was the first Classic I ever reported on back in the mid-1990s when Gianni Bugno beat Johan Museeuw by a tyre’s width and I spent the day being driven around the route by a gent called Paul Wellens. He knew the course like the back of his hand and I asked one of my fellow passengers if he’d been a pro. Not only had he raced at the top level, he’d finished sixth in the 1978 Tour, Bernard Hinault’s first win. I kept pretty quiet after that.

Since then I’ve been back to Flanders a number of times. It’s one of those races you can see several times, but the short cuts are now so well known that viewing options are becoming more and more limited. The last time I went I decided just to stick on the Oude Kwaremont for as much of the day as possible. Frites, mayonnaise and Belgian beer in front of a big screen set me up nicely. And I reckon that’s the best way to experience a race that is as big in Flanders as the Grand National is in Britain or the Superbowl in the US.

Like those events, Flanders provides a great insight into the locals, who will all be desperate for a local winner, ideally beating a Dutchman into second place. And my impression is that Boonen might just be that winner, having held himself back over recent races for the one event that can make his season in the eyes of his most fervent fans and critics.

So, for me it’s Tom to win, George second and maybe a podium place for Chavanel. I only wish I was on the Oude Kwaremont to see it.



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