Alessandro Ballan became the first Italian to win the Tour de Flanders in five years when he won in 2007, but this year he doesn’t appear to be able to repeat in Belgium’s biggest hard-man’s race.

The tall rider from Castelfranco Veneto won the Tour of Flanders in Meerbeke ahead of Leif Hoste after attacking and leaving behind favourites like Tom Boonen on the Muur-Kapelmuur. The three Brits that day – Roger Hammond, Steve Cummings and David Millar – didn’t finish the race.

This season, after racing six years with Lampre, Ballan is heading US-based BMC Racing. He will join BMC team-maes George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt Sunday, but none looks capable of pulling off the win, though, Hincapie finished fourth in the Ghent-Wevelgem Sunday.

Ballan was touted as a favourite for Milano-Sanremo two weeks ago, but suffered slight delay in training due to a stomach virus in early March. For this reason, Ballan will have better chances winning Paris-Roubaix next Sunday in France, when he has had more time to reach his peak.

“I hope for both wins,” he told Cycling Weekly yesterday morning prior to the start of Three Days of De Panne stage two. “Maybe since I am not a favourite I won’t be as closely watched, which could work in my favour, helping me repeat.

“Sure, I am not a big favourite due to the problems I had before Tirreno-Adriatico in early March, but I hope to be a protagonist and up front with the favourites, nonetheless, in the final.”

The Tour of Flanders is one of Belgium’s two big races along with Liège-Bastogne-Liège at the end of this month. Ballan has no chance of winning Liège, though, which is suited to riders who can handle longer, rolling climbs. Flanders is a fistfight, with hard punches that come quick and fast. This year there are 15 climbs in 262 kilometres, the Oude Kwaremont and Koppenberg being among the hardest.

Before his Flanders win in 2007, 30-year-old Ballan won The Three Days of De Panne. He is racing again this year, place 22nd overall prior to today’s final two stages.

“I am doing well here in De Panne and I am still hoping for the best Sunday. Unfortunately, I missed a key move on Wednesday, but my legs feel really well and my condition is great.”

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