It's the second Monument of the season and the one we've all been waiting for: the Tour of Flanders – or, quite simply, De Ronde.
If the Ronde is six-and-a-half hours of pure joy for us pavé-craving fans, it's precisely because the legendary race takes place over 255km of bone-jangling terrain that make it such a tortuous challenge for the protagonists. Held on narrow Flemish roads and cobbled farm tracks in the rolling Belgian countryside, the Tour of Flanders, with its seemingly never-ending series of hellish hellingen, is arguably the hardest race on the cycling calendar.
Before we take a look at the big favourites for this, the 100th edition of the Ronde, let's focus on three other Rs – the race, the route and the rivalries – interlaced with a smidgin of history.
There's no two ways about it: the Belgians love their cycling. Almost as much as they love their cobbles (and their beer. And chips). More than a sporting event, cycling is like religion in Belgium. Here, the name Boonen means more to people than Beckham, cyclists are national heroes and practically every public statue involves a Flandrian on a bike.
First run in 1913, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen took a four-year hiatus during World War I but is the only of cycling's major races to have been held on German-occupied territory during World War II – making it the sport's longest uninterrupted classic. (Had the invaders banned it, you suspect their grasp on Belgium may not have lasted as long as it did.)
So far in its 103-year history, 68 of the 99 wins have gone to the host nation. Tom Boonen is one of three Belgians (alongside Stijn Devolver, twice, and the retired Nick Nuyens) to have won the race in the last decade.
But with Norway's Alexander Kristoff winning last year after back-to-back wins by Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, the prospect of a fourth edition in a row without a home win looms large. It's something that's only happened once before (during Florenzo Magni's glorious hat-trick in 1949-51) so expect the Belgians to have even more zip than usual come Sunday.
The route: Clobbered by the Koppenberg
Traditionally the race started in Gent but after a 20-year period starting in neighbouring Sint-Niklaas, the race moved westwards to Bruges in 1998. As for the finish, that's changed a fair bit through the years with the Gent velodrome and the town of Meerbeke holding the lion's share. Since 2012, however, it has been the tapestry hub of Oudenaarde, around which many of the famous cobbled climbs are located.
The 2016 edition is 255km long and features 11 cobbled climbs (or hellingen), eight other climbs and seven further sections of flat cobblestones. It's a largely unchanged route since the controversial decision in 2012 to remove both the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg from the finale.
If the iconic sweep of the mossy Muur and its chapel, where Cancellara famously dropped Boonen in the 2010 edition, are sorely missed by the Flanders purists, then the daunting double of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg has certainly added some spice to proceedings. The Kwaremont is ridden for the first time with 153km remaining but later returns in tandem with the Paterberg twice – the final combo coming just ahead of the 11km run to the finish.
The steepest climb, with an average gradient of 20 percent, is the Paterberg – which made its debut in the race in 1986 after a cycling-loving farmer decided to cobble over one of his tracks in a bid to catch the eyes of the organisers. He succeeded: it's featured every year since, and nowadays is the final climb on the menu before the riders head back to Oudenaarde.
But perhaps the most infamous of the hellingen is the Koppenberg, which, after a leisurely but foreboding start, peaks out at a comedic 22 percent. Flanked by tree-covered banks, it's a claustrophobic challenge made all the more arduous by the mud that gathers between the stones and makes the steep slope perilously slippery when wet. It's here on the Koppenberg where Jesper Skibby's bike was run over by an official's car in 1987 – prompting the poorly paved climb's absence from the race for 15 years.
Always a focal point during the race – no more so than in 1984 when only two riders managed to reach the top on their bikes – the Koppenberg's current position 45km from the finish means the race is rarely won here, but can easily be lost. Other key cobbled climbs include the Eikenberg, Kruisberg, Wolvenberg and the Taaienberg (referred to by locals now as the Boonenberg because of Tornado Tom's penchant for launching attacks from its gutter).
Of course, the route is only part of the package: this is a race that's hard enough when the sun shines, but if the weather gods decide on wind or rain, then it takes on a whole new level of hellishness.
The rivalry: Boonenara or Cancelloonen?
Tom Boonen (L) and Fabian Cancellara in 2010
Image credit: Reuters
One big rivalry has characterised the race over the past 10 years or so, but with the man they call Spartacus retiring at the end of the season, this will be the last time we'll see Fabian Cancellara go mano-a-mano with Tom Boonen in Flanders.
Both riders top the record books (alongside four others) with three wins apiece in the Ronde. Could this be the year that one of them takes the outright lead with an unprecedented fourth Flanders triumph?
The stats, however, are misleading. Since Boonen's first Ronde-Roubaix double in 2005, both riders have combined to 13 wins in 22 editions of the two cobblestone Monuments. And yet we haven't witnessed a bona fide head-to-head between the two in either Paris-Roubaix or the Ronde Van Vlaanderen since 2010 – the year Cancellara completed the first half of his own first double by motoring away from Boonen on the Muur.
Injuries, crashes or circumstance have conspired to keep the two titans apart during a five-year period in which both still managed to add second doubles in their rival's absence. In recent years, Cancellara's successive successes in Flanders means this final showdown between the two masters has taken on extra significance.
Who's going to win?
While the pool of contenders is not as deep as Milan-Sanremo when it comes to picking a winner on such demanding terrain, it's still quite a task singling out who will stand atop the podium in the market square in Oudenaarde on Sunday. Let's take a look at those in with a shout...
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) – Last year's winner showed his form over the cobbles with victory in the opening stage of Three Days of De Panne on Wednesday but he may well find himself a marked man on Sunday. He will certainly not be allowed to ride clear on the asphalt climb of the Hotondberg with Niki Terpstra as he did last year. But should it come down to a small sprint, the Norwegian is an obvious choice to become only the eighth rider to have won two years in a row.
Team Katusha rider Alexander Kristoff of Norway is kissed on the podium after winning the 99th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) Classic cycling race in Oudenaarde April 5, 2015
Image credit: Reuters
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) – The world champion finally got the monkey off his back with his first victory in the rainbow stripes last weekend in Gent-Wevelgem. While a lack of support from his team remains an issue, Sagan has the class, ability and belief to go one better and win the first Monument of his career. Should he win, the Slovakian will be the fifth rider to win the Ronde in rainbows – following in the tyre tracks of Louison Bobet, Rick van Looy, Eddy Merckx and, a decade ago, Boonen.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)
Image credit: AFP
Greg van Avermaet (BMC) – The Belgian is arguably the spring's most consistent rider and probably the best chance the home nation has of ending that three-year winless streak. He tackled many of these climbs en route to winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month and van Avermaet's clearly riding with much more confidence and swagger this year. Like Sagan, he has never won a Monument, but he's been on the podium for the past two editions and is ready to step up to the top.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team), 2016
Image credit: AFP
Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) – His superb ride in E3 Harelbeke, where he managed to fight back into the leading group despite being held up with a puncture for well over three minutes, shows that Spartacus cannot be ignored. Cancellara knows these road more intimately than most men will know their wives; he has the chance to make history before retiring and if anyone can rise to the occasion, it's him.
Fabian Cancellara dons the yellow jersey
Image credit: Reuters
Ones to watch
While his form doesn't justify putting him in the favourite bracket, experience means Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) should still be a key player in Sunday's race, which comes 11 years after his first victory. There are concerns that he is far from his best following his crash in last autumn's Abu Dhabi Tour, but Etixx-QuickStep are far from a one-trick pony and Patrick Lefevere will have high hopes too for Zdenek Stybar and last year's runner-up, Niki Terpstra.
Belgian hopes don't only lie with van Avermaet and Boonen, however. An impressive fifth in his Flanders debut last year, youngster Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) further underlined his cobble credentials with third place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) disappointed last year but will hope that a change in his training and spring preparations will signal a return to his 2014 form, when he finished third.
Dutchman Lars Boom (Astana) is also due a big race after a quiet start to the season. While Roubaix is more his cup of tea, Boom will still hope to explode the field with his attacking riding.
His podium in Milan-Sanremo will have give Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal) a boost ahead of the cobbled campaign, while another local rider, Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEdge), will hope he goes under the radar. More realistic choices come in the Sky trio of Michal Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. The two Welshmen have the right engines to excel on the cobbles, while the Pole pipped Sagan for a win in E3 before Easter and returns to the Ronde for the first time in three years primed and in good form.
Etixx-QuickStep's embarrassment of riches continues with Matteo Trentin and Stijn Vandenbergh – both of whom could have a say if their superiors falter – while Australia's Heinrich Haussler will try and channel his second place in 2009 in a bid to upset the favourites.
The surprise package of Gent-Wevelgem, Viacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha) could be a good foil for Kristoff should plans go awry, ditto Stijn Devolder and Edward Theuns chez Trek should leader Cancellara falter. Devolder has twice won Flanders while Theuns has been an under-appreciated force so far this spring.
The clock's ticking for Italian veteran Filippo Pozzato (Southeast), runner up to Boonen back in 2012. And who else? Take your pick from Ian Stannard (Team Sky), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Damian Gaudin (Ag2R-La Mondiale) or experienced local rider Dries Devenyns (IAM).
Watch the Ronde Van Vlaanderen live on Eurosport and the Eurosport Player from 14:00 CET on Sunday 3rd April.