This year's Het Volk does an awfully good job of ringing in the year, at least from the perspective of the course. 2008 is likely to be remembered as the year the peloton climbed every last legendary ascent known to the sport, and a few more to boot. So leave it to Het Volk to harden itself (the F-) up.
For the last 15 years or so, the race has ended in Lokeren and has generally dispensed with all climbing by km 140 (of 200). This year the organizers have reverted to the old Omloop, starting and finishing in Gent. In the process, they've added a climb and grouped the ascents in ways that will affect the outcome and the riders somewhat differently.
From the Het Volk homepage, here are the 11 ascents and their location in the 199km course:
1 Grotenberge 73
2 Leberg 91
3 Berendries 96
4 Valkenberg 101
5 Tenbosse 106
6 Pottelberg 123
7 Kruisberg 134
8 Taaienberg 143
9 Eikenberg 149
10 Wolvenberg 152
11 Molenberg 160
Basically, you've got about 90kms of relative peace and quiet, a spate of 4 climbs in 15km, another 18km to relax, then hand-to-hand combat for 36km, over six rated bergs. With less than 40km to the finish, a little attrition in these climbs could be a winning move.
Or not... last year Pippo Pozzato lead home a five-man gruppetto, followed by another 15 guys in hot pursuit. The year before Philippe Gilbert burst onto the scene with a brilliant solo move. And in 2005 Nick Nuyens came home alone, though with the entire field just seconds in arrears. So history is pretty fickle about saying how the race will unfold.
The surest thing you can say about Het Volk is that riders will come to get some seasoning on the cobbles and bergs before next month. As usual, Het Volk bears more than a passing resemlance to de Ronde. Download the official course map... and compare it to Flanders. Of the 11 climbs, only the Grotenberge, Pottelberg, and Eikenberg are not featured in the Tour of Flanders, and portions like the somewhat critical Leberg-Berendries-Valkenberg trio are in the same order, which I presume (hesitantly) means the same roads. They don't occur as close to the finish or figure in the race, but I'm sure the riders like seeing the hills in race conditions of any kind. The Grotenberge is all new from last year, though at 73km it shouldn't have too much impact.
Who it favors? When not snowing or letting an occasional Italian interloper make off with the prijs, this is a Belgian affair through and through. 52 of 59 editions have been won by the home team. Nevertheless, the startlist is not short of foreign teams and riders harboring absurd delusions. Among the guys thinking maybe they can win:Chicchi, Vaitkus, Burghardt, Hammond, Hushovd, Cancellara, O'Grady, Bettini and a few others. But check out the Belgian lineups: Boonen, Devolder, Steegmans, Weylandt, Roesems, Nuyens, Gilbert, Steels, Eeckhoudt, etc. Het Volk winners can come out of anywhere, but a safe place to start looking would be in that last grouping.
Cycling.TV should have the coverage, though I haven't checked details. Others??