You know the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix by heart, but the race that kicks off the Belgian season is a full week prior to Flanders itself. All the big names are in attendance and confirmed for tomorrow’s E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. Boonen, Cancellara, Gilbert and Flecha will fight it out over the cobbles the serve as practice and preview for the next few weeks.

As ever during the Classics season, Cancellara is the odds-on favorite and with great reason. After perhaps dominating second place finish possible at Milan-San Remo, the Swiss Time Machine heads north to the cobbles and tougher terrain he believes will be enough to rip the race truly apart. He’s won E3 two years running and finished second here in 2007. Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha have both made podiums here in 2010, with a similar outcome expected in 2012.

Checking the race profile, some familiar terrain pops out, including the Eikenberg, the Paterberg, and the Volkenberg, legendary climbs from the Ronde that the favorites will ride many times before the race. The race features nine cobbled sections, many coming on the climbs. Interestingly, many of these sections are loaded in the back-end of the race, when the legs are fatigued and going into a slow, unhappy burn. All of the cobbled sections, in fact, come in the last 100km of the 200km race.

One of the most oft-forgot climbs is the Knokteberg climb. It’s paved, but is rather long for a ‘berg at 1.7km with a rather long section that hits 13%. It’s the last ascent before a fast downhill and a run-in to the finish. If all goes according to plan for RadioShack-Nissan, Fabian Cancellara will be off and on his own by then, though the high-quality startlist means that is no sure thing.

Heinrich Haussler, Oscar Freiere, Stijn Devolder and Lars Bak will also threaten the big names, with SKY’s Edvald Boasson-Hagen ready to step-in if Flecha is not feeling 100%.

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