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Belgian Days

Monday's course is the first of two flat stages combining portions of France and Flanders. The roads from Dunkirque to West Flanders to Waregem and down to Compiegne have been crossed by some of Cycling's greatest heroes... and are perhaps in the vicinity of some of the sport's greatest moments. But on closer inspection, any further resemblance is pure coincidence.

It scarcely needs to be said here again how wonderful the April classics are. Aside from the bone I have to pick about all the lion imagery (seriously... lions? In Belgium?), I would otherwise agree that the purest moments of Cycling greatness take place, rightfully, in northern France and Flanders. No, I'm not saying the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix are better than the Tour... we're talking apples and oranges. I'm merely pointing out that in these two April Classics, you can find all the best the sport has to offer packed into a single day.

But you won't find too many of the Hell of the North cobbles in the Tour de France, not this year. And you won't come over the Koppenberg, Paterberg, Muur de Huy, or any part of Geraardsbergen tomorrow. Nor will the riders be blasting out 250km in the process of hammering up and down the famous climbs of the Classics. The weather forecast does not call for cold wind and rain. You probably will find many of Cycling's most devoted fans, and no shortage of great places for a beer and frites, but that wonderful connection is maybe the only element of April you'll see invoked tomorrow.

Still, if these Tour stages aren't sufficiently Flemish, it's not something to get too worked up over. This is the Tour, and one of the Tour's functions is to make a good deal of headway every day, without destroying the riders. Other than the high mountain passes, the subtle challenge of the Tour is the daily effort required, something you think you can repeat for three weeks... just. Re-running de Ronde or Paris-Roubaix would be completely over the top. The attrition would start too early. And after all, we want to give riders a reason to think about not doping, not keep putting them in the position of needing chemicals just to survive.

So don't weep for what the next few stages are not. Besides, Tom Boonen -- ever the symbol of Belgian cycling -- isn't quite the unbeatable April version of himself in July, so why should the Belgian stages be? Clearly the fans are left to think about one thing only over the next three days: the Green Jersey. As usual with the Tour, it will require some patience to await the battle royale.

Subtly interesting stage of the week: Check out all the KOM points on stage 5. The ~:> won't have it easy trying to rack up early climber's points going against the pure power guys on a course like this. It'll be interesting if all the KOM competitors show their hand this early. It's three days before the real mountains, so there's plenty of time to recover.