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There are many things going on in the sports world right now... the Final Four is upon us as March Madness heads into April... Major League Baseball is enjoying the first few weeks of its nascent season... the NFL draft has football fans praying for the next star of the future... and the NBA and NHL seasons are winding down, some teams headed for the postseason while others prepare for the golf season. But for those sports fans for whom American sports simply isn't enough, there is a plethora of other athletic endeavors to whet the fanatical appetite...

 

Fenerbahce beat Chelsea 2-1...There is joy in Istanbul this week as home side Fenerbahce found a way to defeat visiting powerhouse Chelsea in the first leg of their quarterfinal Champions League home-and-home series. Chelsea had the early control of the game. Near-misses by Essein, Drogba and others kept the game from becoming a rout early. Only a Michael Ballack cross, shanked by Deivid past goalkeeper Volkan Demirel into his own net, separated the sides at the half...

Down 1-0 on Deivid's own goal, Fenerbahce's fortunes turned when substitute striker Colin Kazim-Richards entered the game for midfielder Ugur Boral in the 54th minute. Ten minutes later, it was Kazim-Richards who was putting the Turkish side level with a Chelsea team that had, to that point, completely controlled the pace of the game. Yet, surrounded by the hostility of 49,000 ardent Fenerbahce fans at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, Chelsea ultimately failed to maintain their momentum. Deivid, once the goat of the game, made up for his early mishap eight minutes from the end with a superb 35-yard strike past Chelsea goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini. Now Fenerbahce must hang on for only a draw, or a one-goal loss of 3-2 or higher, to advance past one of the prohibitive favorites and into the semifinals...

 

The rest of the Champions League action offered as much excitement. Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo continued their sublime play for Manchester United, earning the Red Devils a 2-0 away victory at the Stadio Olimpico over Roma. Despite dominating the play with a 24-5 shot advantage, Schalke could not answer Bojan Krkic's 12th minute goal for Barcelona as the home side lost 1-0. And Liverpool hung on for a 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium against Arsenal, putting them in the driver's seat for a semifinal clash with the Turks...

 

And that's all without mentioning the UEFA Cup action earlier today...

Djokovic falls to qualifier Kevin Anderson @ the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami 

As I type this, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer are battling in the third set, Roddick up 7-6(4), 4-6, 3-2, in their quarterfinal matchup at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Federer has been far from his dominant self this season... but he is still the most dominant player of his generation, as his 14-1 record against Roddick attests. The winner of this match is slated to play Nikolai Davidenko in the semifinals for the right to play the winner of Tomas Berdych-Rafael Nadal in the final. Conspicuous in his absence is the defending champion of this tournament. Novak Djokovic -- winner of the 2008 Australian Open over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after defeating Federer in the semifinals -- lost to Kevin Anderson, a 6'7'' South African and a former NCAA doubles champion at Illinois. The magic would not last much longer for Anderson, who lost in the next round to 31-seed Igor Andreev. But, no matter what happens for Anderson in the rest of his career, he will always have the story to tell his grandchildren of the day he took down the mighty Djokovic in Miami...

 

But perhaps the greatest event coming up in the wide sports universe is the cobblestone cycling classics about to be raced throughout Belgium and northern France. Starting on Sunday, the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix will captivate millions of cycling fans around the globe as the greatest one-day strongmen battle through rain and wind through the heartland of cycling history...

  

Tom Boonen winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2006...The Tour of Flanders will host its 92nd running of the race on Sunday. This race runs from Brugge to Ninove, winding through the heart of hilly Flemish Belgium. The riders will travel 264 kilometers (164 miles, or approximately the distance from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa), climbing seventeen cobblestone-paved hills along the way ranging from a half-mile to two miles each -- with some pitches up to 22% grade! Tom Boonen wavered in last year's race, failing to win a third straight race after dominant solo victories in 2005 and 2006. As the heir to the "Lion of Flanders" title worn on occasions by Eddy Merckx and Johan Museeuw, Boonen will have plenty of motivation going into this year's first of the cobblestone classics. Look for him to find a way, using his Quick.Step teammates to set him up for another solo toward the finish somewhere in the final ten kilometers...

 

Gent-Wevelgem will enjoy its 70th edition next Wednesday. Covering 209 kilometers (130 miles, or about the distance from Los Angeles to San Diego), Gent-Wevelgem is usually used as a refresher ride after Flanders and as a warm-up for Paris-Roubaix by the favorites of those races. Featuring fewer cobblestone stretches than either Flanders or Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem is usually won by a sprinter. This season has been a hard one to predict with sprinters, but past winners have included Thor Hushovd, Tom Boonen, George Hincapie and Mario Cipollini as well as unlikely victors Nico Mattan, Andreas Klier and last year's winner Marcus Burghardt. Look this year for someone like Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan or even CSC's Juan-Jose Haedo to take this year's spoils...

 

The Arenberg Forest is always a major turning point in Paris-Roubaix... 
Which brings us to the Queen of the Classics (or, if you ask many, the Hell of the North), Paris-Roubaix. On April 13, the race will start in the northern Parisien suburb of Compiegne and finish on the velodrome at Roubaix for the 106th time. For now you may see one of the most fabled cobblestone sections in all of cycling, the 1.5-mile straight-ahead Trouee d'Arenberg. In existence before World War I raged in this area, the Forest of Arenberg has proven to be a pivotal sector of attrition, separating the hard men of the cobbles from the pack and setting up stirring finales...

 

But we will preview Roubaix next Thursday...

 

For now, read a couple of reviews of past Paris-Roubaix races: the centennial edition in 2002 and Boonen's first victory in 2005...

 

For now, though, sports fanatics of all stripes, I must go get some sustinence into my stomach... or else these fingers will begin to fade... and, now that your bracket is totally busted with the fluke occurrence of all four number-one seeds making the Final Four, take a look around at the wider world of athletic competition... you might find something surprising you never realized could be so captivating...

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