Flanders promises to sort the men from the boys

Sunday's 89th edition of the Tour of Flanders promises to be a battle of cycling's hard men. But who

Sunday’s 89th edition of the Tour of Flanders promises to be a battle of cycling’s hard men. But who

PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM Steffen Wesemann will be hoping to have shaken off the effects of illness and a crash at the Three Days of De Panne to defend his Flanders crown on Sunday. The T-Mobile rider hit the deck on the first day of the race traditionally used as preparation for Flanders and, although not badly hurt, pulled out the following day with stomach problems. Another strong favourite, Quick Step’s Tom Boonen, also fell at De Panne, requiring stitches after injuring his hand on stage one, promptly falling again the following day, not helping his cause. However, he claims he’s ready, and will lead a strong Quick Step team, which includes Servais Knaven, Filippo Pozzato and Het Volk winner Nick Nuyens. A notable absentee from the squad is Paolo Bettini, 9th last year, who will not start in Bruges, the after-effects of a bad cold having curtailed his preparation. “It’s a shame,” Bettini said. “I have recovered fully, but I am still too weak to take part in such a difficult race as the Tour of Flanders.” Quick Step and T-Mobile’s biggest challenge is likely to come from the ranks of the Discovery Channel team, although the American squad could be in danger of having too many chiefs and not enough indians in its ranks. Lance Armstrong will ride what is likely to be his only Classic of 2005 – and quite possibly his last Classic ever if he announces his retirement at the press conference he has called for April 18 – and this is a race he would love to win. Armstrong, though, says he’ll be riding in support of his faithful lieutenant George Hincapie, who will be one to watch having taken a fine victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in February. Also in the squad is British national champion Roger Hammond, who is coming to form nicely having taken second place to Chocolade Jacques’ Nico Eeckhout at the Dwars door Vlaanderen last week, and says he’d be happy with victory at either Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, where he finished third last year, the following Sunday. An outsider who has quickly elevated himself to one of the favourites, Belgian Stijn Devolder, is another Discovery rider more than capable of winning, and will be brimming with confidence after winning the overall classification of the Three Days of De Panne on Thursday. It’s certainly a strong Discovery squad, completed by Viatcheslav Ekimov, Leif Hoste and New Zealander Hayden Roulston. But watch out, too, for procycling columnist Frank Hoj (Gerolsteiner), who will be looking to improve on his eighth place of last year, and Classics hard man Peter van Petegem of Davitamon-Lotto who will be out to prove that he can still win the big races, having won Flanders in 1999 and 2003. There are some small changes that have been made to the course compared to last year’s edition, most notably the dropping of two cobbled sections – at Kanegem and Lippenhovestraat in Zottegem – and two ‘bergs’ – the Rekelberg and the Grotenberge climbs. But race organiser Wim van Herreweghe insists that the race will be as hard, if not harder, than previous editions “because, from the Oude Kwaremont, the third of 17 climbs, there will be 14 climbs to cover in just 84 kilometres. Or one every six kilometres”. The addition of the climb of Valkenberg for the first time since 1996, won that year by Italian Michele Bartoli, also ensures a tough race. The ‘Ronde’ will have its usual start in the city of Bruges before heading out to Ostende on the west coast, and then back inland again to Kortrijk, which the race visits for the first time since 1984, in tribute to two-time winner (1942 and 1948) Alberic ‘Brik’ Schotte who died on the day of last year’s race. The race-winning move more often than not uses the tough Muur at Geraardsbergen, coming with just 16km left to race, as its springboard, with many riders already having been weakened by the fearsome Koppenberg, with an average gradient of 11.6 per cent, maxing out at 22 per cent, just over 50km previously. The final climb, the Bosberg, serves to shake things up even further before the run-in to the finish in Meerbeke where the winner will be decided after 256 kilometres of racing.