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Countdown to the Cobbles: Italian Holiday!

Wayofthecross-3_mediumThe Countdown is pleased to take a brief respite from the grey skies of our native Flanders for a holiday of basking in the sunshine on the Italian Riviera. Yes, it's MSR week, where we put mud and cold behind us for a beauty of a more... obvious sort. With temperatures in the upper 50s, it's time to shed the wool layers and black socks, lay out on the beach for some vitamin D replenishment, and generally dry out. Should be a lovely week...

3. Everyone Else Will Win

With Tom Boonen firmly installed (cough) as the favorite to win Milano-Sanremo, the Man from Mol is fighting back with every bag of sand he has, telling Sporza:

Daniele Bennati is the main favorite for me. Maybe not the most likely name, but he is good at driving, like his Liquigas team. Perhaps Liquigas drives the same tactics as us: a long, hard race and a sprint with a depleted group in Sanremo.

Is it me or does he sound a bit unpersuaded by his own words? Like a guy who feels unbelievably confident but has to go through the motions of talking down his chances? Maybe it's a language translation thing.

[Speaking of translations, my favorite Dutch word of the week is "klopt," as in, "Boasson Hagen klopt Petacchi in massesprint." Google tells me it literally means "true" but it translates to "beats" in context. It also sounds exactly like what happens when you hit someone in the helmet with a wooden shoe -- onomatopoeia that also works as a metaphor for vanquishing an enemy. Want me to use it in a sentence? Here goes: I will klopt Ursula in the VDS this week, mark my, um, words.]

Anyway, Bennati thinks Freire will win. Freire is picking Petacchi. Petacchi picks Allan Davis. Davis has tabbed Hushovd as a "sure thing." Hushovd says the pressure is all on Farrar. Farrar thinks Cavendish has another trick up his sleeve. And Cav is picking... OK, himself. Hey, it's worked before. Oh, and Bwin has installed as the favorite... Andre Greipel. Who isn't on the startlist. Can I get a bet down there?

2. Meanwhile, Back on the Cobbles...

What, there's an actual cobbled race today? That would be Nokere-Koerse, which loops around Greater Nokere for a few hours. The best description you'll likely find in English is here. Bottom line: it tends to finish in a sprint, despite the line being at the top of the Nokereberg, a 350-meter cobbled hill in the 5% incline range. Along with Sunday's Ronde van het Groene Hart, Nokere-Koerse is a great opportunity for smaller teams or riders on the big squads who weren't chosen for the Italian Vacation to make a name for themselves before every last classics guy on the planet descends on Brussels Airport sometime Sunday afternoon. In short, for the guys at these two races, this is a big deal.

The races themselves don't seem much alike; Nokere-Koerse dates back to 1944 (huh?) and runs the Vlaamse Ardennen while the Green Heart Course kicked off in 2007 and rides around the flat Holland provinces. But spring racing is never easy, and weather or strategy can turn either one into a relatively hard or, um, less hard day in the saddle. So bike racers will race their bikes in interesting ways... but one way would make this even more interesting: if someone pulled off the Forgotten Double. With only three years in common it hasn't happened yet, but Wouter Weylandt won both a year apart. He's not here, so it's up to someone else. Like Jens Keukeleire. Full startlist here. Neither RTBF nor Sporza show signs of live video. Bummer... 

1. Locked and Loaded

El Pistolero himself, Alberto Contador, will set foot in Belgium with the intent to race his bicycle, as he apparently has committed to riding La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He has ditched the Vuelta a Pais Vasco and Volta a Catalunya in order to ride the Classics this year, for the first time since 2007. He will also ride the Criterium International/Jens Voigt Invitational, facing Lance Armstrong in a race for the first time since the 2005 Tour. It's been a while since a Tour winner did something in the Ardennes, but sure would make for good fun.

Cuddles' Corner!

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_medium"Yesterday Edvald Boasson Hagen won a stage of Tirreno Adriatico and celebrated by flapping his arms, alternating left and right, in a shameful, terrible display. Obviously this guy is going to win more than his share of races, so something must be done about this. Can the Podium Cafe solve his problem and design a victory salute for the Lillehammer Lightning?"