March 31, 2011

Vlaanderen's mooiste

Over the past decade or so I've really grown to appreciate the Ronde. Though it's always been legendary, I'll admit that I was less than insane for it in my first few years. Respect, yes. Reverence, not quite. For sure, great champions like Merckx, the Planckaerts, and Museew made their careers into legends on the bergs, but Roubaix always held my attention because the battles were more visible to an impressionable young American. LeMond stoked my early racing fire and he was rarely (7th in '85) a factor in Flanders (but he still got this pic in his first Sports Illustrated article in 1984 - yea, you should read it!)

Then Van Petegem won. He wasn't even really on my list of 'favorite riders at the time, but he took the win from wonder-kid-come-never-ran Frank Vandenbrouke and super-hero Johan Museew. It stuck in my memory for some reason and a deeper appreciation was born. That he went on to pull the Flanders - Roubaix double in 2003 is just sweet! Here's a short summary of that '99 race...

Of course Boonen was impressive in his wins, but much like Museew they just did't enthrall me (I'll give him his props for the tenacity of last years race, and for a stirring sprint victory at Gent-Wevelgem last week though. Good on ya Tomeke!)

The sweet spot for me was Stijn Devolder...and really that's where the love of Flanders comes from for me. Forget winning back-to-back (as only 5 others have done, including Boonen), it was the WAY he won those races. Pure Panache! Yea, he took some heat for the win in 2008 when Tomeke was 'supposed' to win...but watch the video and listen. He was on the attack from 46k, and smartly launched a tactically astute counter just as the break was caught...perfect team tactic! In the Belgian Champions tri-color no less! Awesome, simply awesome...

Ok, enough nostalgia..let's get to this year. The runnup has been fun to watch. From the E3 to Gent Wevelgem and 3 Days of Depanne...there has been great racing that puts a variety of riders on the 'watch' list and will hopefully* make for a great and thrilling race. Let's work our way thru the destruction sure to be metted out...

It's only fair to give due credit to the incredible depth that is coming to the race. Many of the teams have multiple threats that just might create the tactical situation Fabian Cancellara can't overcome. While not quite favorites for Sunday Thomas DeGendt and Marco Marcato at Vaconsoleil, Nikki Terpstra, Gert Steegmans and Sylvain Chavanel at Quick-Step, Leif Hoste and Fillippo Pozato at Katusha, and quick rising Lars Boom at Rabobank may just add to the story line. And that's only a partial list. Among my top favorites:

Stijn Devolder - you knew he'd make my list right? I'd look for him to be active early in the hopes that he can sneak out to a worthwhile margin and force the others to come to him. He's not been seen in the mix much yet this season, but that may actually serve to his tactical advantage

Phillippe Gilbert - On good form, if not quite up to his traditional fall flurry of fitness, Philippe will play a roll in the race. I see him forcing a selection on one of the infamous middle climbs like the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg or Koppenberg. It won't break the field, but it will seal a fate or two.

Juan Antonio Flecha - has suprisingly agressive race at the RVV. He's often an instigator and may well be in the break as they cross the Taaienberg and Valkenburg, but I think the Muur - Kapelmuur will again be the make or break point - and he's very good on that climb. Good enough to stay in touch with

Alessandro Ballan - he's ridden well in the spring. He's won before. He has Van Avermat to play the foil. Maybe, just maybe it'll go his way. To do so he needs a small group together over the Muur.

Thor Husovd - Tyler rode very well last year (5th), but I just think Thor is better suited to this race. Motivated and tough, he may be the guy to tag onto the super-duo

Tom Boonen - you can't forget his two wins. It simply means too much to Tom to win and he dearly wants another crack at redemption. He doesn't have to drop Fabian, he just has to take him to the line. then again...

*Cancellara may simply ride away...


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