Here in Bruges Tom Boonen (Quick Step) dominates the headlines and pre-race talk in the bars about possible winners of the Tour of Flanders, but last year?s winner Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) is also a favourite, even if the weather turns nasty as predicted.

Like other Italians before him, Ballan has been adopted by cycling fans in Flanders and loves racing on the cobbles, up the muur and over farm tracks that make the Ronde Van Vlaanderen so special.

?Racing in the north is a different kind of cycling compared to Italy but it is the real cycling,? he said just a few hours before starting the Tour of Flanders.

?There is something special about racing in northern Europe. Perhaps it?s because of the weather, because of the atmosphere, the huge crowds, the muur and the feeling that the day of the race is something special. Whatever it is, it makes the Tour of Flanders a unique day for cycling.?

?It?s a tough race even in the sun and a lot worse if it rains or even snows as is predicted for Sunday. Contrary to what people are saying, that doesn?t worry me.?

?I feel like I?m an adopted Flandrian and I?ve even thought about moving to Flanders for a month to really saviour the atmosphere and at the same time spend time with my family. In Flanders everybody knows about cycling because it?s the most popular sport in April. I know I?m a bigger star here than in Italy.?

Ballan won the Three Days of De Panne in 2007 before going on to beat Leif Hoste in the Tour of Flanders. He was only seventh overall this year in De Panne but is confident of his form and despite often being shy and of few words, he considers himself as much as favourite as Tom Boonen.

?I feel I?m a favourite. Cancellara could make us all hurt but I?m not afraid of any of the others,? he said.

?Boonen has been hiding a bit but believe me, he?s going well. Then there?s Chavanel, Gilbert, Hoste and Pozzato, Quinziato and Gasparotto.?

?I?m feeling good and as I?m as strong as last year. I?ll have to watch everybody but I?ll worry about my own race. At Flanders it?s not about what your rivals do but about what you can do with your own legs. I think I?m ready for a second win.?