How do I talk myself out of picking Tom Boonen?
I guess we have to look at the challengers. First, within his own team, there is Pippo Pozzato and Paolo Bettini, both legitimate challengers. But Pozzato is clearly indebted to Boonen after San Remo, and Bettini... well, you never know if he's going to screw the team leader, but I doubt he could even if he wanted to. Nuyens sounds like a guy who wants this for himself... it just isn't happening unless Boonen drops back.
Another hot choice... Alessandro Ballan. Probably my second choice. We know he can't outsprint Boonen though, and I frankly don't know any of his listed lieutenants enough to say if he'll have help getting away. Most likely, he'll be boxed in by Quick Step helpers. Can't rule him out though. The rap on the race is that the strongest guys are always there at the end -- and Ballan is one of the strongest right now.
My sentimental choice is Peter Van Petegem. The old warrior in the late 80s sunglasses is a symbol of the Cobbled Classics, he's a two-time winner who gives everything to this race, and his time is almost up. Fact is, though, as solid as his form has been, it's hard to imagine him in any better position than staying with Boonen -- and with Boonen's sprint prowess, that's just not good enough. His teammate McEwen is considered a contender, but it doesn't sound realistic to me.
The Disco boys... I love George Hincapie, and he's the type of rider who should be able to match Boonen, or just about. He can climb and sprint, loves the cobbles, and has a terrific team around him. Like Ballan, I wouldn't rule it out, but it would take Boonen dropping off the pace, or coming to the line on an empty tank for Hincapie to get around him. And Hincapie has supposedly been training for the Tour as well as the Classics. How can you beat Boonen, who is focused on the race, with anything less than the same focus?
Klier and Wesemann... good riders with a history of success in Flanders. Again, problem in a sprint showdown but maybe one of them could escape, if all twenty-five Boonen lieutenants have their guard down. The Milram boys are always a threat, simply because they can both sprint against Boonen, but neither is all that likely to be there in the winning move over such a demanding course. Eeckhoudt's form is good these days, Eisel is having a good week, Flecha... Paolini...
Lots of people could win, and if Tom Boonen is off his game, it becomes completely wide open. But Boonen is primed and ready, has gone through the process successfully before, has shown all the strength needed to power away at the end of races, has the team to check the opposition, and has the sprint to finish off anyone hanging around. He's the obvious choice, but for good reason. I'm going with Boonen.