Older and wiser, Paolini returns to Flanders for a chance at a cobbled victory

The Italian’s best finish in the cobbled classic is a third at the 2007 edition

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Luca Paolini can afford to relax on Katusha’s red Skoda car. He already helped the Russian team win Milano-Sanremo with Alexander Kristoff.

Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), the second of cycling’s five monuments, appears next on his radar. This time, Paolini leads the team and Kristoff will mark the moves in the case of a sprint. If long red beards indicated wisdom and knowledge, then we should believe every word Paolini says.

“The course changed in the final kilometers, with the hard climbs positioned very close to one another,” Paolini said at the start of Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne) in Koksijde. “You’ll have to invent something to preempt Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan. I’m not talking about a long-range attack but one at a point closer to the finish, where they are not expecting it.”

The 37-year-old Italian from Milan has been racing at the professional level since 2000. He rode alongside Paolo Bettini at Mapei, helped Filippo Pozzato at Liquigas, and now wears the red colors of Katusha.

He won the 2002 Giro del Piemonte and the 2004 Brabantse Pijl, but began to fade away behind younger Italians. In recent years, however, Paolini has enjoyed a resurgence. Last year, he won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad one-day classic and a stage at the Giro d’Italia. That stage win, in which he beat Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), also netted him the pink jersey, one of the biggest prizes for an Italian cyclist.

Back to Flanders, where this year the sun shines and there is hardly a wind to blow the warm air. The last time the Belgians enjoyed such weather was when Italian Alessandro Ballan won in 2007.

“I know, he also won De Panne that year. I won a stage and then placed third in Flanders,” Paolini said.

The weather forecast shows sun and temperatures around 70 degrees for Sunday’s race.

“If it’s good weather, you’ve seen it in other races that riders with good level are remaining in the group for the finish,” Paolini said. “It starts to get dangerous because you risk arriving with a big group. If it’s a little wet, then it’ll help with the race selection, which is good for those that have good legs.”

Besides finishing third in 2007, Paolini’s legs carried him to seventh in 2012 and 23rd last year behind Cancellara. He is getting older and so are his two children — which is why he said he raced De Panne: “At home, it might have been harder on me!”

If the 37-year-old Paolini were to win, he would become the oldest winner of the race (2000 champion Andrei Tchmil was 37 years and 2 months).

“It’s a hard-man’s race, a true race, where you not only have to have strong legs, but be tactically smart,” Paolini said.

“There are points in the race, where if you’re not at front — at least if you’re not Cancellara who can recover the loss easily — then you are out of the game. You have to race it 100 percent in the front spots, manage it well the entire day. Basically, the weaker you are, the smarter you have to be.”

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