La Primavera from Milan to San Remo kicks off the Spring Classics season
Cycling's Spring Classics season got off to a flying start at the weekend with the now-traditional appearance of the cuddly donkey soft toy given to the winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne race, Tom Boonen (Quickstep).
With Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team) claiming bragging rights in Het Nieuwsblad (named after the Belgian newspaper) the day before, it looks like many of the big names have got their winter preparation just right.
Between now and the end of April, seven races offer the opportunity for a rider to inscribe his name alongside the greats. They fall into two distinct categories: the cobbled and the hilly. The former demand power and balance, while the latter require timing and nerve.
The racing begins in earnest with Milan-San Remo (21 March), a glorious dash to the Italian coast that has traditionally favoured the sprinter. Known as La Primavera, it signals the true start of the season for the big names, and is the longest of the classics.
This may be a race that Mark Cavendish may target and could win, and he certainly looks better able to cope with inclines this season. More likely is that Filippo Pozzato of the newly-formed Russian team, Katusha, will be the man to watch for in the final metres.
As with many races this season there will be the added spectacle of the Lance Armstrong show rolling into town. In his last appearance at the race he finished 44th and, should he be in anything less than winning form, he may chose to put himself in the role of super-domestique for one of his Astana team with more realistic hope of victory.
Fans cheer on the riders at the Muur-Kapelmuur
Next comes the Tour of Flanders
(5 April), the first of the cobbled races and one which every rider dreams of having on their palmares. To win in front of the passionate and knowledgeable Belgian fans is a unique experience. Peppered with bone-shaking cobbled climbs, the action begins at the first of these, the Molenberg, and builds to a peak at the Muur-Kapelmuur, where the fans cover the hill like ants.
For Belgian riders the race brings much greater expectations, sated only by victory. Both Tom Boonen and Steyn Devolder have won here and this year Greg Van Avermaet is the latest to be tipped for the race. He will face stiff competition from former winner and reigning World Champion Alessandro Ballan, an Italian whose fluid power seems custom-built for the cobbles.
Falling on the Wednesday between Flanders and Paris-Roubaix (12 April), Gent-Wevelgem (8 April) offers the best promise of victory for Mark Cavendish. Barry Hoban, whose record of two stage wins in an edition of the Tour de France the Manxman smashed last summer, is the only Briton to have won the race. The nature of the race has changed since he won in 1974, in particular the removal of the Kemmelberg's cobbles as a deciding factor.
Paris-Roubaix is known as "The Hell of the North" through its close association with the battlefields of World War One and for the sheer brutality of the cobbled "pavé" sections which make it so unique. There is no hill of note, but the toll on riders is enormous - some regard finishing it as achievement enough.
While Cancellara, Boonen and Ballan will be the favourites, this race can turn on something as simple as a puncture at an inopportune moment, making luck an important ally. Cervelo Test Team's Hushovd has made victory his goal for the Spring and looks in good form, but it is Martin Maaskant of Garmin Slipstream who could be a good tip should the cycling gods favour him.
One of the cobblestone sections that the riders of Paris-Roubaix have to endure.
The second part of the spring season has a very different feel, with the three races that form the Ardennes Classics. They are defined by one feature: their lung-searing hills.
Amstel Gold (19 April) finishes atop the Cauberg after winding its way over 30 hills in the manner of a drunken bumblebee. The ability to avoid road furniture and a good sense of direction are useful in any bike race but none more so than here. Frank Schleck has both crashed and won here, but this year he may find himself eclipsed by his younger brother Andy, who many consider to be the more talented sibling.
Favourite for La Flèche Wallonne (22 April) looks likely to be Lampre's 'Little Prince', Damiano Cunego, whose record in the Ardennes is impressive. Having won Amstel Gold and finished third on top of the Flèche's Mur De Huy in 2008, he undoubtedly has the ability to win any of the three.
The final race of the Spring classics is also the oldest and it is therefore fitting that Liege-Bastogne-Liege (24 April) is known as La Doyenne. While it doesn't finish at the top of a hill, it is the Classic where the true climbers are most likely to prosper, as there is almost as much climbing as your average Alpine stage of the Tour de France.
Eddy Merckx won five times, and of the current generation, Alejandro Valverde has two wins to his name. He may be the defending champion but his attendance is far from assured given his ongoing entanglement in the Operacion Puerto blood doping affair. This could then finally be the moment for Cadel Evans, the eternal second of his generation.