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Tour of Flanders: Rating the Contenders!

This is probably my favorite post of the year to write. I'd have raced home to do it, except for a freak thunderstorm. But enough about me...

  • Tom Boonen -- Rating: ★★★★★

His mediocre spring campaign has all of Flanders on edge, but I'd still pick him to win. If he's right, and for all we know his next ride could be the one where it all comes together, then there's no better rider for this race. Boonen was practically sculpted by the Gods of De Ronde: Cancellara's raw power but just a little quicker up the hellingen, and with McEwen's finishing kick. In his two wins (05-06) here, there was just no way to beat him. And despite recent appearances, how sure are you that the real Tom Boonen won't show up Sunday?

  • Alessandro Ballan -- Rating: ★★★★★

A slightly leaner version of Boonen (minus the sprint), Ballan made the winning move last year by rocketing off the front of the pack on the ascent of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, a stunning acceleration that only Leif Hoste could follow. Ballan then managed to re-take a lost sprint in the final, oh, millimeter, on nothing more than pure power. If Boonen isn't the model rider anymore for this race, perhaps Ballan is. Problem for him is that he'll be watched like a hawk this time around on the last few climbs, and however glorious his finishing kick was in 2007, it's not something you want to bet on seeing again. He can win if he makes the final selection with a bunch of other non-sprinters though.

  • Philippe Gilbert -- Rating: ★★★★

Sylvain Chavanel's win Sunday has gotten the most attention in Belgium, and Cancellara's flair for victory has won the most accolades overall... but by CQ's rankings Gilbert is the world #1 for 2008 so far. Part of this is his impressive total of 30 race days (for reference, the year is on its 90th day). But in Brabantse Pijl, Gilbert smacked the pavement with about 40km to go, dusted himself off, chased down the peloton, and set off on a solo attempt to catch Chavanel, which almost worked. He still had enough in the tank, after catching on a small group for a breather, to take off again for second. Un-freaking-believable. Brabantse Pijl is not Flanders (which he's only done once) and Gilbert's skills have more to do with climbing than pure power, but after seeing him in action all year, I wouldn't rule him out of anything.

  • Fabian Cancellara -- Rating: ★★★★

If you don't know why he's listed here, you haven't been watching cycling much in the last month or so. Still, the case against Tony Spartacus Cancellegend is strong: apart from a distant sixth in 2006, he's never made the final selection or the top 40 at de Ronde. He was in comparably fabulous condition a year ago, only to burn out before Geraardsbergen and fade to 53rd place. He can't win Flanders with a long attack; to win, he has to play Boonen's game, using his immense team to hang in there on the climbs, and hope for things to shake out in the last few km. If Paris-Roubaix were tomorrow, I'd bet DS Little Bear's college fund on him, but Flanders is different.

  • Filippo Pozzato -- Rating: ★★★★

The press like to focus on Pippo's hair and portray him as a dillettante, but Pozzato is a very dangerous rider in this event. Of the top guys, his sprint is second only to Boonen's, and if the group doesn't splinter into a zillion pieces, Pozzato is a very serious contender. His form is solid: caught napping at San Remo, he still rallied for second, and he's finished fourth or higher nine times already this season. His Het Volk win last year shows he can race in Belgium. He has a solid team with him as well, unlike Ballan (Gilbert too?). I wouldn't make him my pick, but he's got every chance to win.

  • Leif H\o/ste -- Rating: ★★★★

Can Hoste overcome the magnetic force field that has trapped him to the second step of the podium? Old arm-waver hasn't done a thing this year, but that was the same situation last year, when -- again -- he should have won. Honestly, there's no reason he can't do it this time. I'm not really a fan, but that's your unvarnished truth.

  • Juan Antonio Flecha -- Rating: ★★★

The Spanish Flandrian has looked decent lately, and is always hanging around in these races. Problem is, he's pretty good at everything, but it's hard to picture him sauntering away from the faster guys. As usual, he'll be on his own, his team isn't in top shape at the moment. Like Ballan, he has to make the finale and count on something going his way in the final few km. Unlike Ballan, it's never happened before.

  • George Hincapie -- Rating: ★★★

Two years ago he was poised to make a winning move, taking on Boonen at his prime, when he hesitated and his ex-teammate Hoste went instead. It's been a long two years, and this year he's been an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Or, he's been training. Hope for the latter; he'll need it to get his mojo back.

  • Sylvain Chavanel -- Rating: ★★

On fire this past week. That's about the only reason to think of him here, other than the fact that his team captain Nuyens hasn't shown much for his part. With Chavanel, we're in completely uncharted waters: he has typically skipped the cobbles for the Ardennes. Worth a flyer, but I don't rate his chances.

  • Nick Nuyens -- Rating: ★★

He's never made the leap from a guy who can win on the cobbles in March to a guy who can graduate to the bigger stage of de Ronde. He's solid enough and a good bet for the top 15, but I don't see anything he does where there isn't someone else doing it better.

  • Andreas Klier -- Rating: ★★

Klier is High Road's Plan 1-A. He's made it one step higher than Hincapie, finishing second in 2005, and has hung around the top 10 a few times. Count on seeing him around late in the race.

  • Vlad Gusev -- Rating: ★★

He's bagged two top-10s here, showing that his time-trial pure power translates pretty well at de Ronde. It's been a quiet spring, and I don't know what he would do if he got to the last km with any of the names above him, but Flanders is all about strength, and he has that.

  • Stijn Devolder -- Rating: ★★

Probably no better than second option on his team, Quick Step, and he hasn't raced in Flanders all that much. But he looked strong in Brabantse Pijl, and may well be in on whatever goes down. Or taking off at KM 53 for a long and pointless escape. Either way.

  • Martin Elmiger -- Rating: ★

This is his time of year, and AG2R don't have much for alternatives. But top-20 is more likely than anything more interesting.

  • Thor Hushovd -- Rating: ★

I'm assuming he's the team captain this weekend, but it's sentences like this that demonstrate why the Podium Cafe doesn't charge for access. I'm not sure why he should be on this list, he rarely makes waves in Belgium.

  • Gianni Meersman -- Rating: ★

Just a kid. Was 24th at the E3. Keep him in mind for the future, though maybe the Ardennes instead.

And some other names you might not want to completely forget: Sebastian Lang, Greg Van Avermaet, Gorik Gardeyn, Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Stuart O'Grady, Karsten Kroon, Enrico Gasparotto, Steffen Wesemann, Janek Tombak, Nico Eeckhoudt.