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Van der Poel 'under pressure' to win landmark third Tour of Flanders

Mathieu van der Poel is hot favourite for Sunday's Tour of Flanders (JASPER JACOBS)
Mathieu van der Poel is hot favourite for Sunday's Tour of Flanders (JASPER JACOBS)

Around 750,000 fans will pack the cobbled hills and lanes of the Flemish Ardennes on Sunday where Mathieu van der Poel has been presented with an open invitation to win cycling's Tour of Flanders for a third time with three key rivals missing.

A mass fall in midweek took out the great Belgian hopes Wout Van Aert and Jasper Stuyven, while champion Tadej Pogacar opted for altitude training ahead of the Giro d'Italia in May.

That leaves Van der Poel embarking on this epic 270km struggle over 17 hills and 18 cobbled sections as the overwhelming odds-on favourite.

The race is the second and most sacred of cycling's so-called 'Monuments'. First staged in 1913, it was designed to reflect the stoicism of the Flemish. The winner is often a tough, tactically-minded rider ready to give every last drop for victory.

Van der Poel, the 2020 and 2022 Flanders champion and twice runner-up was far from optimistic after the midweek crash at the similarly named Around Flanders race.

"This puts more pressure on my shoulders, and I prefer it when the best riders are racing," said the 29-year-old.

"They had been preparing for months, nobody likes to see that."

Visma, cycling's most powerful team, will align the American Paris-Nice winner Matteo Jorgenson, chaperoned by Dylan Van Baarle.

- Holy week and heavy drinking -

After the 114km mark, there is a cobbled hill every 8km or so, constantly whittling down the field from 25 teams of seven.

Two-time Tour de France winner Pogacar said after last year's win he could retire happy after soloing home after a series of devastating attacks.

"My season is already a success," he beamed. "I could still retire after this win and be super proud and happy even if I don't win the Tour this year."

Team UAE ace Pogacar opted not to defend his title to target an elusive Giro-Tour double last achieved by the late Marco Pantini in 1998.

Van der Poel warmed up for Sunday's test finishing second to Mads Pedersen in last week's Gent-Wevelgem.

Pedersen was also caught in the midweek fall, but should be at the start line Sunday. He is holing up until the last minute in the team hotel.

He and Van der Poel are the men to beat in the lush green Flemish plains with low- hanging grey skies and claustrophobic crowds.

Six riders have managed to crack Flanders three times -- Belgians Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen, Italian Fiorenzo Magni and Swiss Fabian Cancellara.

Van der Poel has his eyes set on joining this elite band and there will be quite a party if he does.

Aptly for a series of bike races known a 'Holy Week' locally a mass was said ahead of the start of the race as recently as the 1950's, but on Sunday most of the breweries of the beer-producing region erect marquees for roadside raves.

There are five ultra-long one-day bike races known as the Monuments, and the Tour of Flanders is considered the greatest because of the constant steep, narrow climbs coupled with crowds that even a 100 years ago began to tip over half a million.

The other four Monuments are Milan-San Remo, which calls for patience, the mudfest of Paris-Roubaix with it's perilous rough-hewn cobbles, Liege-Bastogne-Liege through the winding forested lanes of the Ardennes, and the Tour of Lombardy which is a climbers' classic.

Shuttle buses and extra trains have been laid on throughout Flanders for what is regarded by many as an unofficial world championship.

Each hillside in the latter part of the race is turned into a giant makeshift party pub, with beer tents and food caravans before an after-party that goes on into the night.

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