It promises to be one of the most open editions of the Tour of Flanders for years, with the big names lining up to take shots at each other over the cobbled hills.

Although Friday has been dry, bright and very mild in Belgium, the forecast for Sunday is wet and cold, which adds an extra dimension to the race.

When the weather is foul, heart and desire rise to the top of the list of qualities the true contenders must demonstrate. It becomes harder to follow, sit tight and wait when the rain is falling and the cobbles are greasy.

So we could be in for a cagey, tactical affair in the early hours before the big names decide it’s time to try and split it.

The big question in Belgium is whether Tom Boonen, who has been very quiet in the past month, has the form to challenge, or whether Fabian Cancellara can repeat his devastating form of a fortnight ago at Milan-San Remo.

THE LOWDOWN
Sunday, April 6
259km
17 hills
British Eurosport
13.10-14.15 & 15.30-16.00

RECENT WINNERS

2007 Alessandro Ballan (Italy)
2006 Tom Boonen (Belgium)
2005 Tom Boonen (Belgium)
2004 Steffen Wesemann (Germany)
2003 Peter Van Petegem (Belgium)
2002 Andrea Tafi (Italy)
2001 Gianluca Bortolami (Italy)
2000 Andrei Tchmil (Belgium)
1999 Peter Van Petegem (Belgium)
1998 Johan Museeuw (Belgium)

OUR TOP TEN FAVOURITES

1 Fabian Cancellara

Switzerland / CSC
Last five years (2003-07): 73rd / 41st / 62nd / 6th / 53rd
Unibet.com’s odds to win: 4.50 (joint favourite)
In his favour: Awesome form. If this was a Formula 1 race, Cancellara would be first on the grid, Boonen would be in the third or fourth row.
Against: Misjudged it horribly last year. Can he match the pace and go with the moves on the Muur?

2 Alessandro Ballan

Italy / Lampre
Last five years: – / 82nd / 6th / 5th / 1st
Unibet.com’s odds to win: 10.00
In his favour: Silky smooth style and an impeccable knack of reading the race.
Against: Lack of back-up from his team in the latter stages.

3 Leif Hoste

Belgium / Silence-Lotto
Last five years: 2nd / – / 23rd / 2nd / 2nd
Unibet.com’s odds to win: 11.00
In his favour: Super motivation – fired by three second places. Great team back-up. Certain to be in the mix in the final stages without having to make much effort early on.
Against: Tends to choke. Tactically he’s one tooth short of a full chainring.

4 Tom Boonen

Belgium / Quick Step
Last five years: 25th / 25th / 1st / 1st / 12th
Unibet.com’s odds to win: 4.50 (joint favourite)
In his favour: Race-winning experience. Knows how to win Flanders. Has the strongest team in the race behind him and no Paolo Bettini to complicate matters.
Against: By his standards poor form so far this season. Huge weight of expectation on his shoulders. Will be marked tight. Team strong but can’t afford a repeat of Het Volk, where they went missing.

5 Filippo Pozzato

Italy / Liquigas
Last five years: – / 108th / 43rd / 13th / 14th
Unibet.com’s odds to win: 12.00
In his favour: A class act who watched and learned from Boonen but now leads a team that is not in the spotlight.
Against: Not as good as he was 12 months ago. May be isolated later on, unless Manuel Quinziato can stay with him.

6 Philippe Gilbert

Belgium / Francaise des Jeux
Last five years: – / – / – / – / 25th
Unibet’s odds to win: 15.00
In his favour: The memory of a brilliant Het Volk win. Pure aggression. Never-say-die spirit. A lunatic in the team car urging him to do the unthinkable (Marc Madiot).
Against: The extra distance, the lack of major support from team-mates, the fact the element of surprise has been negated.

7 Nick Nuyens

Belgium / Cofidis
Last five years: – / – / 21st / 17th / 7th
Unibet’s odds to win: 20.00
In his favour: Has a team-mate who is flying, Sylvain Chavanel, to share the workload and add to the options. Decent support from the team. A sharp tactical brain to take advantage if he finds himself in the right move.
Against: Lack of results at this level. There’s a world of difference between seventh and first – just as there’s a world of difference between Het Volk and Flanders.

8 Juan Antonio Flecha

Spain / Rabobank
Last five years: 34th / 12th / 12th / 12th / 52nd
Unibet’s odds to win: 35.00
In his favour: He’s the best hope of victory in a strong, but not sensational, Rabobank team.
Against: Finds the hills a bit too much. Better suited to Paris-Roubaix. May keep his powder dry.

9 Stijn Devolder

Belgium / Quick Step
Last five years: 53rd / 21st / 35th / – / 43rd
Unibet’s odds to win: 20.00
In his favour: Could be the decoy if Boonen is feeling below par or is marked out of it. Would be the ideal man to put in a powerful break around mid-way.
Against: A bit brainless when it comes to racing and thinking on his feet. Will be tied to the Quick Step game plan and probably put at the service of Boonen.

10 Andreas Klier

Germany / High Road
Last five years: 27th / 6th / 2nd / 9th / 55th
Unibet’s odds to win: 35.00
In his favour: Knows his way around. Has been in the top 10 three times. A better bet than Hincapie.
Against: Has been quiet of late. In a strong team but are they all a bit samey, leaving them rudderless?

THE DARK HORSES
Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) – will do the donkey work for Boonen. The hills come too fast and steep for him

Karsten Kroon (CSC) – CSC’s second favourite. Could profit if they all watch Cancellara.

Enrico Gasparotto (Barloworld) – in great form at the Three Days of De Panne. Good sprint but untested at this level. Thin team.

Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) – has been flying lately and will be a factor.

Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) – always pops on the final few hills but his stamina is improving. May use this to tune up for Roubaix.

Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) – a big engine who surprised last year with a top 10 place.

Oscar Freire (Rabobank) – unlikely to be at the front at the finish to use his sprint.

Vladimir Gusev (Astana) – another diesel, probably waiting for Roubaix, like his team-mate.

George Hincapie (High Road) – one last tilt at the two big Classics for Big George. Podium at the very best.

Roger Hammond (High Road) – tends to come undone in the final stages and usually uses this to prepare for the tests to come on Wednesday and Sunday. Has been in great form at De Panne, though, so you never know.

OTHER BRITS
Jeremy Hunt (Credit Agricole)
Ian Stannard (Landbouwkrediet)

CW’S PREDICTED PODIUM
1 Fabian Cancellara
2 Leif Hoste
3 Alessandro Ballan

WOMEN’S WORLD CUP RACE
Nicole Cooke defends her Tour of Flanders title in the orange and black colours of the Halfords Bikehut squad. Her big goal for the season is the Olympic Games, so don’t expect her to be at her peak this Sunday. She’ll be supported by an all-British squad featuring Lizzie Armitstead, Catherine Hare and Emma Trott.

Another Olympic hopeful, Emma Pooley, will wear the World Cup leader’s jersey following her win in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Italy last month. While the gradient of the hills won’t worry her, the tiny Specialized rider is a bit lightweight for the cobbles and may get bounced around too much to be a factor in the race.

Emma Davies and Helen Wyman of Team Swift are the other two Brits in the field for the 114-kilometre race from Oudenaarde to Ninove which covers 10 of the climbs used in the men’s race and precedes it by a couple of hours.