Flanders: The Course, the contenders, and a new classics bike

Boonen_2011FlandersTom Boonen fights the cobbles at the 2011 Tour of Flanders.

The Tour of Flanders, Belgium's biggest bike race, is set to go off tomorrow, and pundits and cycling fanatics have spent the last few weeks speculating who has the form to win this important spring classic.

If you're unfamiliar with Flanders, officially the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, you're missing out. Among cycling junkies, this 260-kilometer race (162 miles) across the hilly countryside and cobbled backroads of western Belgium is as momentous as the Tour de France. It is the second in the season of the five monuments of cycling, and it can inspire near-hysteria in race-mad Belgium. I witnessed the frenzy firsthand last year when I rode the Flanders cyclosportive and then watched the race live. After mostly rolling and flat riding in the first two-thirds of the course, a rapid succession of short, steep, often cobbled hellingen, or hills, shred the peloton. For most racers, it's about survival, and only a few specialists have the fortitude to vie for the win.

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