The character of Het Volk has changed significantly this year, making the traditional midweek reconnaissance rides all the more critical.

For the past 12 years, the opening race of the Belgian Classics season has finished in Lokeren, to the north east of the start town, Ghent.

In recent years, Ghent has watched as nearby Deinze lured away the start of the Ghent-Wevelgem Classic.

But the city council has fallen in love with cycling again, having hosted a stage finish of last summer?s Tour de France and now has lured back a race that has had a long association with the place.

After the success of the Tour stage finish on the deceptive Charles de Kerchovelaan, a road that is just a stone?s throw away from the famous t?Kuipke velodrome, Het Volk will also finish there, changing the dynamic of the race.

And with the final hill, the Molenberg, coming just 40 kilometres from the finish, the race will be very different to recent years.

WHAT?S DIFFERENT?

The biggest difference is the fact that the distance between the final hill and the finish is reduced.

In recent years there have been just over 60 kilometres of flat where the race would be decided. The stretches of cobbles, wind and pure fatigue would be the deciding factors.

This year the favourites will know the last hill is more significant. The Molenberg comes with 40 kilometres remaining and it is likely the number of contenders will be considerably reduced there.

Another interesting difference is the finishing straight itself. It?s not steep but it?s not flat either. It?s a difficult one to judge ? as Tom Boonen found to his cost in the Tour when he failed to get round Gert Steegmans, his lead-out man, on the line.

At the end of 200 kilometres ? particularly if the weather has been harsh ? the gradual gradient will ensure a worthy winner, if the race has come down to a small group.

The other significant change new course director Peter Van Petegem has made is to remove the Oude Kwaremont, one of the most famous hills, which is usually crossed quite early in the race.

Gert Steegmans wins on Charles de Kerchovelaan in Ghent during last year?s Tour de France ? beating his team-mate Tom Boonen. Will Steegmans be celebrating again on Saturday? By Luc Claessen

THE SEASON STARTS HERE

The Tour of California has the makings of a great early-season stage race, but this is where the season really gets underway.

There won?t be any transatlantic style whooping or hollering. Hyperbole will be kept to a minimum, and no one will be ?putting the smackdown? on anyone else.

Instead, Het Volk is a hardman?s race that rewards the strongest and most tactically efficient on the day.

While it doesn?t have the same stature as the Tour of Flanders, it is still an important race ? especially for the Belgians and, more crucially, it?s a big marker when it comes to assessing the form is on the right track for April.

A large number of Brits will head to Belgium for the weekend. Just two British riders are in the field ? Roger Hammond of Team High Road and Jeremy Hunt of Crédit Agricole.

THE FAVOURITES

Het Volk is one of the most open Classic races.

Many of the big favourites are not quite at their peak, preferring to save themselves for April?s main events and the shorter distance plays into the hands of the lesser riders too.

It?s tricky to pick a winner but we?ve had a hunch for Gert Steegmans ever since they moved the finish of the race and, despite Philippe Gilbert?s great form, we?re sticking with it.

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Gert Steegmans (Quick Step), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux)

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Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), Stijn Devolder (Quick Step)

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Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto)

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Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto), Roger Hammond (Team High Road), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Stuart O?Grady (CSC), Wouter Weylandt (Quick Step)

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Mathew Hayman (Rabobank), Tomas Vaitkus (Astana), Frederik Willems (Liquigas), Bert Roesems (Silence-Lotto), Andreas Klier (Team High Road), Bert De Waele (Landbouwkrediet), Jimmy Casper (Agritubel)

HOW THE BOOKIE SEES IT

Latest odds according to Unibet.com

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) 4.50
Philippe Gilbert (FdJeux) 9.00
Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) 14.00
Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) 15.00
Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) 16.00
Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) 16.00
Fabian Cancellara (CSC) 18.00
Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) 20.00
Bert De Waele (Landbouwkrediet) 22.00
Stuart O?Grady (CSC) 25.00
Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) 28.00
Selected others
Roger Hammond (High Road) 45.00
Jeremy Hunt (Crédit Agricole) 65.00

THE ROUTE

Ghent-Ghent, 199km
Saturday, March 1
Starts: 11.30am
Map courtesy of Omloop Het Volk organizer

THE 11 HILLS
73km Grotenberge (875m, asphalt)
91km Leberg (950m, asphalt)
96km Berendries (940m, asphalt)
101km Valkenberg (540m, asphalt)
106km Ten Bosse (450m, asphalt)
123km Pottelberg (1,300m, asphalt)
134km Kruisberg (900m, of which 500m is cobbled)
143km Taaienberg (530m, cobbled)
149km Eikenberg (1,200m, cobbled)
152km Wolvenberg (625m, asphalt)
160km Molenberg (460m, cobbled)

HOME ADVANTAGE

Want to win Het Volk? It helps if you?re Belgian?

Belgian winners 52
Everyone else 8

RECENT WINNERS

2007 Filippo Pozzato (Italy) Liquigas
2006 Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) Française des Jeux
2005 Nick Nuyens (Belgium) Quick Step
2004 Cancelled because of snow
2003 Johan Museeuw (Belgium) Quick Step

THE NEXT DAY

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is a smaller race but boasts a very similar field to the previous day?s race.

Starting in Kuurne, near Kortrijk, it heads east and turns around in the suburbs of the Belgian capital, Brussels, returning via the hills in the triangle between Kluisbergen, Oudenaarde and Ronse, and finishes in Kuurne.

RELATED LINKS
Hammond checks out Het Volk course
Will jet-lag take its toll on Boonen?

EXTERNAL LINK
Omloop Het Volk ? official site
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ? official site