With the Tour of Flanders looming large on the horizon both Juan Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson Hagen are ready to mix it up with the best Classics riders in the world.
Much of the pre-race talk has centred on the race’s new route and a series of finishing laps which take in the one-two punch of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg cobbled climbs.
Despite the unknown quantity of the new format, Team Sky line up at the start in Brugge with a strong squad ready to cover off all eventualities as they continue their quest to snare one of the sport's prestigious monuments.
The race marks a return to action for the rider who has come closest to achieving that goal thus far – Juan Antonio Flecha.
The amiable Spaniard took third at Paris-Roubaix in 2010 and will be looking to improve on his 11th place at the thrilling edition of the ‘Ronde’ last season.
Back after sustaining a hand injury in training, the 34-year-old is happy to lend his considerable experience in the Classics having already netted third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February.
“I haven’t been racing for a while but there’s nothing more that I can do than try to be 100 per cent on Sunday. That’s the only thing I expect of myself,” he admitted.
“I know my legs are good but with my hand, just three weeks ago I was having surgery. I wanted to come back earlier but it wasn’t possible but I’m really happy to be in the race on Sunday. Whatever the plan is I will do that the best I can.”
One rider not lining up for the team this season is Geraint Thomas - a top-10 finisher in the race last season – after committing to the track ahead of this summer’s Olympics.
On racing without one of the most talented Classics riders in the peloton, Flecha added: “G is a great rider. He has shown already last year and the year before that he can do really well in these races. Of course we miss him but the Olympics are once every four years.
“I told him in Mallorca, I remember as a kid in Barcelona watching the Olympics and I can remember most of the guys who got a medal there. Having an Olympic medal in your home country is something really unique. The Classics are every year. He’s still young he can do well many times.”
Edvald on form
Fresh from his recent fifth place at Gent-Wevelgem, Boasson Hagen is looking to make an impact in Flanders during a season in which he has already raised his arms twice in victory.
The Norwegian is happy with how the Classics have panned out thus far, having found a balance in a dual role acting both as support for Mark Cavendish but also as a contender in his own right.
“I have been helping Mark but I also have a free role and my own chances. I really enjoy the riding and we have a great team,” he explained.
“I’ve been getting better and better and I’ve always felt like I get a lot of support from the team so that’s great. With Mark arriving it takes away a lot of pressure away from me in the races. I can do my own thing but I still get support.”
When asked on what the changes to the Flanders parcours mean for 2012, Boasson Hagen admitted that the race will be as tough as ever.
“It’s really hard; up and down and the new climbs are going to make changes. The Kwaremont and the Paterberg are the main punch. It’s the same for everyone and we all need to get over the climbs. What matters is who is first at the finish line and it’s going to be interesting on Sunday to see how it goes.”
Sports Director Steven de Jongh agreed with that assessment, adding: “When you enter Oudenaarde for a first time you enter the hills and you start off really hard with the Taaienberg. It’s going to be interesting to see what will happen, as when you come to Kwaremont you’ve done 180 kilometres. From Paddestraat it’s going to be interesting as well, as you then have the Kwaremont, Paterberg and the Koppenberg. And if you have a look after that I don’t think there will be big groups any more as it is all hard after that.
“It’s going to be an elimination race, especially if they forecast rain. All the teams are going into the unknown which I think gives some chances. I think the good thing is that if it’s hard, for sure you will have strong riders in the final. If our guys are good and they are with that select group over those climbs, it will be easier for them to be in a good position for the next climbs.
“If you are bad you will get dropped and if you are good you will go really far.”
You can follow all the action from Flanders on Sunday with our live interactive text coverage here.