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Contenders ready for gruelling Tour of Flanders

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Alejandro Valverde

(AFP) – The gruelling Tour of Flanders on Sunday starts without a clear favourite to etch his name on the second monument of the cycling season.

The Ronde is the cruel culmination of Flemish Cycling Week. It is a 266-kilometre slog from Antwerp to Oudenarde over a route that takes in 24 sharp climbs, many cobbled.

“It is, without question, the hardest one-day bike race ever created,” the American cyclist George Hincapie, who finished a record 17 times, wrote in his biography.

“What seems like a million corners, combined with twenty to thirty steep pitches and narrow roads, none of which go the same direction for more than a mile, all mixed together to make it war on a bike.”

This year’s field lacks a clear pre-race favourite. Peter Sagan who won in 2017, should, as usual, be a contender.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step has dominated the spring races but without a clear number one rider.

They have not entered Julian Alaphilippe, who won the first monument, Milan-San Remo, but their team includes Bob Jungels, Zdenek Stybar and Philippe Gilbert who all have wins this season, as well as Yves Lampaert.

Gilbert dropped out of the Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday with a stomach upset, but said he was primed for Sunday.

“Full focus on the Tour of Flanders!” he tweeted on Thursday.

Alexander Kristoff, the winner in 2015, showed he is in form when he sprinted to victory in the Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday.

“I feel my condition is improving and it’s a good signal ahead of the Tour of Flanders,” Kristoff told the team website.

– Valverde debut at 38 –

The field will also include world champion Alejandro Valverde who is making his debut in the race at 38.

“In my head I’ve already won Flanders a thousand times,” one of the contenders, Oliver Naesen, said recently. “When you’re training on those roads, or riding alone and seeing yourself alone in front, or even when you’re just at home sitting on the sofa, you’re thinking, ‘What will it be like to win the Tour of Flanders?'”

One Belgian who knows is Tom Boonen, one of six cyclists to have won the race three times.

He listed Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Stybar when asked who were his favourites by a local radio station before concluding: “But I think Bob Jungels is going to win.”