Spring Classics set to explode into life in Flanders
IAM Cycling riders, including French cyclist Sylvain Chavanel (L), take part in a track reconnaissance run for the upcoming Tour of Flanders one-day cycling race, in Oudenaarde, on April 3, 2014 - by Dirk Waem
The likes of Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan will be among the favourites in some of the oldest and most prestigious races on the professional cycling calendar.
While the Spring Classics cannot match the prestige of the Tour de France, they can surpass it in terms of excitement.
And they do so with a largely different cast.
Tour champion Chris Froome as well as Grand Tour specialists such as Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali or Nairo Quintana won't be there challenging for victory but the fields are no less impressive for their absence.
Swiss Cancellara and Boonen, of Belgium, as ever, will start as two of the main favourites having claimed between them 12 of the last 18 editions of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix since 2005.
Of the six occasions when it wasn't either who won, three times it was one or the other's team-mate who did so.
Their main competition this time around should come from Slovak Peter Sagan, a hugely talented cyclist who has already won the Tour de France green jersey twice and is tipped to one day take an overall triumph at a Grand Tour.
But first he must prove himself on the gruelling Spring Classics, starting with the two Northern Classics on the cobbles: Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
In reality, the Spring Classics began with Milan San-Remo a few weeks ago and last weekend's Gent-Wevelgem but it is only with the advent of the Flanders-Roubaix double on successive weekends that these historic races really kick into gear.
Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan come into these two races having already stretched their legs and showed their form at San-Remo, where Cancellara was second, and Gent-Wevelgem, where Sagan was third and Boonen fifth.
Sagan also won E3 Harelbeke and that makes him the favourite in terms of current form, although his two main rivals have the experience and history to ensure they can never be overlooked.
But it won't just be about those three as several other riders have showed their potential.
German sprinter John Degenkolb won Gent-Wevelgem and will be confident if he can last the pace over the 260km of either De Ronde or the Hell of the North to be still in with a chance when the line approaches.
Alexander Kristoff won a sprint finish at San Remo where British sprint king Mark Cavendish went too soon and could finish only fifth, while Sagan was down in 10th.
One Briton who had been expected to challenge at the Spring Classics was Team Sky's Ian Stannard, someone thought capable of making a breakaway stick.
But a fractured vertebra in a fall at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday means he misses out.
Instead, though, 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins has been drafted in and has the ability, if not the previous success, to be a dark horse.
Perhaps more realistically would be a tilt by the in-form Geraint Thomas, who was third at E3 Harelbeke last Friday and was leading Paris-Nice a month ago until a crash robbed him of his chances.
Other contenders, although not at Flanders, will be Belgian Philippe Gilbert, a twice former winner of the Amstel Gold race.
He incredibly won all three Ardennes Classics in 2011 and will be amongst the favourites for those this time around too.
He is skipping the cobbles this year but his Belgian team-mate Greg Van Avermaet, fourth in 2012 and seventh last year in Flanders, could be ready to step up to the plate.
Another Belgian, Stijn Devolders, now Cancellara's Trek team-mate, won back-to-back Flanders titles in 2008 and 2009 as Boonen's main foil at Quick Step, and could again benefit from an illustrious marked team-mate.
Also to watch out for are Belgian Belkin rider Sep Vanmarcke, second in last year's Paris-Roubaix, and Niki Terpstra, the highly-touted Dutch rider.
But as ever with the Spring Classics, adverse weather, brutal short climbs and the sheer length of these races ensure that on the day, anything could happen.