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

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Tom 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.

Amidst a huge controversy about changes to the course this year, speculation is rife (as always) about who will be the last man standing. On paper, BMC Cycling is the strongest team, with 2007 Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan lining up alongside teammates and classics specialists Phillipe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet, George Hincapie. But none of those riders have seemingly found their form yet this season. A host of other racers could factor, including French champ Sylvain Chavanel, Garmin-Barracuda's up-and-comer Sep Vanmarcke, and the flying Liquigas-Cannondale youngster Peter Sagan.

Many, however, are predicting a two-man race. Tom Boonen, who won Flanders in 2005 and 2006, showed that he's ready for the challenge bay chalking up victories in Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke in the last week. And after a decisive win at the Strade Bianchi in early March, Fabian Cancellara looks like he's returned to the form that netted him the Flanders title in 2010.

Cancellara will ride the all-new Trek Domane at Flanders.

Cancellara might have the technical edge after his team's bike sponsor, Trek, unveiled a new race frame yesterday that's designed expressly for the big Swiss rider's spring classics campaign. The Domane, which was developed with input from Cancellara, employs a split top tube design (reminiscent of the Volagi Liscio) that bypasses the seat tube junction to meld straight into the seat stays. The company says that by decoupling the input of rider power from energy-squelching road vibrations, the frame helps minimize rider fatigue while increasing traction on rough surfaces such as cobbles. Though just formally announced yesterday, the bike has already proven itself: it's the frame aboard which Cancellara soloed to the win on the gravel roads of the Strade Bianchi.

Curious to see how the race plays out? In what must be a US first, NBC Sports is airing all of the spring classics live, including Sunday morning coverage of the the Tour of Flanders. See you tomorrow bright and early.

–Aaron Gulley

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