Luca Paolini (Liquigas) took a straightforward stage win on the opening day?s racing of the Three Days of De Panne, when he easily outgunned fellow-Italian Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) in a two-up sprint at Zottegem.

On an overcast day in Belgium where cross-winds shattered the peloton on the 192 kilometre stage, the two Italians broke away from a group of seven riders six kilometres from the finish on the last short climb of the day.

Ballan, with an eye on the overall, collaborated fully with Paolini in the final kilometres. The Lampre rider even considerately eased back at the finish to make sure Paolini, a former double stage winner in the Tour of Britain, crossed the line first.

Third, leading in a group of five chasers at 11 seconds back, was Quick Step?s Kevin Hulsmans. The main bunch, now almost certainly out of the fight for gc in such a short race, finished over two minutes down.

?We agreed to work together because the stage was good for me and the overall is good for Alessandro.? Paolini said afterwards.

?Really, I wanted to test myself before Flanders, get a stage win in and see what my condition was like. Who?s my favourite for Flanders? Bettini.?

Britain has a long list of starters in this year?s De Panne, amongst them Britain?s Roger Hammond, who told CW before the start that he is suffering from a slight cold but ?hopes to be in top condition in time for Sunday.?, and his T-Mobile team-mate Mark Cavendish. Other Brits present include David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Navigators? Kristian House, Dan Fleeman and Daniel Lloyd (DFL) and Discovery Channel?s Steve Cummings.

Wednesday?s stage is a gruelling 227 kilometre run from Zottegem to Koksijide. The race ends on Thursday with a short time-trial.