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Countdown to the Cobbles: Here We Go!

[Process note: I'm inventing a new column to provide the daily (ha!) download of details relevant to the Cobbles scene. What form it takes remains to be seen. But know this: with T-A and P-N underway, the Cobbles Season is more or less upon us, and every day the plot thickens. So look for daily updates -- facts, analysis, nonsensical distractions, etc. -- from around the northern end of things.]

3. Reports of Death Exaggerated

Way_of_the_cross_mediumBiggest news of the day comes from the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, a/k/a Harelbeke, which is not going quietly into the good night now that it shares the weekend with the almost-monumental Gent-Wevelgem instead of Brabantse Pijl. The thinking in some quarters has been that Gent-Wevelgem's shift would enable the race to stake out a huge place for itself a week before de Ronde. But according to Sporza, attendees at E3 Prijs will include Belgium's toppers: Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Stijn Devolder, and Greg Van Avermaet while early startlists include Edvald Boasson Hagen, Juan Antonio FlechaFilippo Pozzato, ... need I go on?

With just under three weeks to go, the startlists are not much help, but this announcement starts to answer the season's big question: what will the relocation of Gent-Wevelgem do to the calendar? All indications are that the riders will treat G-W like the Top Ten classic it is, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where you just drop it into the pre-Flanders weekend without it sucking some life out of the other events. Some possibilities: maybe the E3 is the warmup for G-W. Maybe the peloton splits, somewhat like Omloop/KBK weekend, where the climbier guys rule on Saturday and the sprinters on Sunday. Maybe everyone races both all out, then feigns interest in Driedaagse de Panne for a day or two before dropping out. Stay tuned.

Oh, and check out the hellingen via the E3 Prijs website, the coolest presentation of the Flemish Ardennes I've seen so far.

2. Harden the Luck Up

Speaking of sprinters and cobbles, Alessandro Petacchi was set to make the start line today at stage 1 of Tirreno-Adriatico after falling in training this week, per the team website. The defending Grote Scheldeprijs champion banged his chin and ankle and came into Le Due Mari in questionable condition, but completing this race is critical for him to have any chance at Milano-Sanremo, and to keep up as the sprinting peloton ventures north. Missing from the internet is anything indicating Petacchi's plans (when cruising rider sites, all the Italian you need to know is "sito in construzione"); his interest in riding the cobbles comes and goes. But the Giro start in the Netherlands is surely on his mind, and Petacchi has made his mark in the harder environs, with a third in Gent and the memory of 50k in a Belgian gale with a broken kneecap.

Another cobbles hopeful, Johnny Hoogerland, bit the dust in Paris-Nice, but seems OK and rolled in 49th today. Hoogie may have flashed some climber cred in the 2009 Vuelta, but his 12th in de Ronde last year is likely a result he'll try to improve on.

One last sidenote to definitely-absent Gert Steegmans: he told Sporza that one of his big objectives was Paris-Roubaix, now crossed off his list. Paris-Roubaix? I can find two starts in his history: a DNF and a 61st. Still, he's a big, strong lad who's rarely ridden for himself in big races, so it's not quite as implausible as, say, Carlos Sastre taking a shot at the Hell of the North. But if his real problem is misfortune, racing for Bruyneel might not be the solution. Train gates? Steerer tubes? Shall I go on?

1. Boem Boem Boom

Dutch rising star Lars Boom finally surrendered his leader's kit(s) at Paris-Nice today, with a handful of teams wisely getting guys into a small break, sans Rabobank. While I am sure the disappointment will be dripping off the pages of De Telegraaf later, there's no great shame in being taught a lesson by Jens Voigt. Still, as of last night there were about 20 different articles on Mr. Tree ("boom" = tree) including a reader survey on whether he was the best (survey says: nope, Robert Gesink is), and a quote from Rabo DS Erik Dekker which may or may not suggest that Boom can win the Tour de France someday, depending on whether you take Google translations at face value (I don't). Meanwhile, here at the Cafe our own J. Frinking remarked yesterday that Boom looked like he was headed for trouble. Frinking 1, De Telegraaf 0.

[Update] And Lars reports that his Apple is smashed, presumably meaning his computer. Bad luck? Or does he not like losing? Onward and upward, young Lars!

[And one more] Sounds like Boom is more realistic than De Telegraaf: "It is nice that the people are so compassionate and enthusiastic, but they should not expect a lot from me directly now. I'm still just Lars Boom."

Cuddles' Corner!

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_medium "When Tom Boonen accelerated briefly in the Omloop and dropped the entire race field, seemingly just cuz he could, it sent a rather loud message to the field that he wasn't to be trifled with. Not everyone likes to send messages before, oh, the Koppenberg. Some guys like to take a string of DNFs and triple-digit finishes into Flanders-Roubaix week, only to suddenly come alive. My Top Three Spring Sandbaggers: 1. Leif Hoste; 2. Nick Nuyens; 3. Martijn Maaskant. Don't be fooled."