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Photo: Sirotti




12.04.2015 @ 12:35 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

One classic stands above the rest when it comes to its dramas, myths and legends: Paris-Roubaix. On Sunday, it is once again time to enter the Hell of the North in a battle against cobbles, weather, fatigue and dust on the long run from Compiegne to Roubaix.


The cobbled season is almost an entirely Flemish affair but for the big finale, the circus moves to France. The Paris-Roubaix brings the curtain down on a very unique part of the cycling calendar and it does so in the most grandiose way. The Flemish classics may be exciting and great bike races but an extra layer of myth and symbolism is added to equation when the riders end their campaign on the French cobbles.


It is no coincidence that the Paris-Roubaix has been dubbed the queen of the classics. First held in 1896, the race has delivered some of the most iconic images of the merciless sport of cycling, and the number of broken dreams in the Roubaix velodrome have turned the famous cobblestone trophy into the most coveted and iconic classics symbol.


The race was put on by two Roubaix textile manufacturers who had been behind the building of a velodrome in their city. They came up with the idea of hosting a bike race that ran from the nearby capital of Paris to a finish in their new building. They had no intention of making the race particularly brutal by including cobbled roads. At that time, however, most of the roads in the area were in a very poor condition and so it was just a natural feature of the race.


World War I was particularly brutal in this area and left many roads in a very poor state. This made the race an even tougher affair and the legend started to be created. After World War II, the organizers faced the same challenges as the men behind the Flemish races did. Local authorities started to improve the road conditions and the race that had now become one of the greatest events on the calendar, risked being turned into a flat race for the sprinters. Like the Flanders organizers, the Paris-Roubaix organization had to abandon their original route and make an extensive search to find roads that didn't feature on their maps. Over time, this has developed the unique route that is now the scene of a legendary bike race and includes humble rural roads that have now been turned into real landmarks of cycling.


Apart from its history, what makes Paris-Roubaix so significant in the world of cycling is its unique nature. While its fellow monuments (Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Tour of Lombardy) can all be prepared by participation in similar events, Paris-Roubaix stands out as the only event of its kind on the cycling calendar. Milan-Sanremo may be seen as a longer version of a number of Italian one-day events, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy are just the pinnacle of a number of races in the same regions, and the Tour of Flanders is preceded by a number of semi-classics taking in the same roads in the Flemish Ardennes. On the contrary, the paves in Northern France are used only once a year.


As a consequence, it is no surprise to see a number of riders who only stand out from the rest on this single day of racing. While the race has always been dominated by the usual crop of classics specialists, they suddenly have to battle a small handful of powerful domestiques who for once leave behind their usual selfless nature to battle the cycling giants. In the Roubaix velodrome, sheer power, brutal strength and phenomenal endurance are rewarded, and that is exactly the main attributes of some of the most highly-esteemed workers in the peloton. Johan Vansummeren's string of results on the French cobbles - capped off with his 2011 victory - is the most recent example of a tireless domestique to shine in the Hell of the North.


In a unique event, it is no surprise to see experience be the key to success. In no other race, pre-race knowledge of the challenges ahead is as important as it is in the queen of the classics, and the winners' list is littered with powerful veterans who have found their niche on the French cobbles. However, even the most experienced and strongest competitor gets nowhere without luck, and an untimely puncture or a dramatic crash has been the source of many broken dreams in Northern France.


What makes Paris-Roubaix stand out is the fact that the selection is purely made by the rough surface and the riders' ability to handle the constant stress of tackling some of the most uncomfortable roads in Europe. In all other races, the main challenges are posed by the climbs or the weather, but the Hell of the North is different. The almost completely flat course would usually make any sprinter lick his lips in anticipation of a final bunch kick, but Paris-Roubaix has the exact opposite nature. It is one of the most selective races on the calendar, and any kind of explosiveness or punch is unusable on the French paves. What counts are pure strength and an ability to just go on and on.


The race has been won by most of cycling's greats but due to its unique nature, even some of the best have struggled on the French pavés. It takes a very special bike rider to excel on the French cobbles. The abilities that allow certain riders to shine in most races count for very little on the road to Roubaix. Instead, it is hard men Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen who hold the record for most victories, having each won four editions of the race. Due to injury, Boonen will miss the chance to become the sole record holder in 2015 while the other dominant classics contender Fabian Cancellara will miss out on the opportunity to equal De Vlaeminck and Boonen by taking a fourth win.


With the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix forms the pinnacle of the cobbled races and each rider has his own opinion about which one to prefer. If they had the choice, however, most seem to prefer to add the French event to their palmares. While the Flemish races are all about passion, the legends and myths of Roubaix put it atop the list of classics.


For the second year in a row, the race takes a special importance as the Tour de France will again pass many of the same pavés. While some riders have played with the thought of doing some of the cobbled races to prepare for July's race - and Nairo Quintana even did two of the Flemish races - no one has ever considered doing Paris-Roubaix which actually takes place on the same roads. The French event is simply regarded as being too dangerous for the GC riders to do but many of Sunday's contenders will be back in July as key support riders for their captains and many may earn selection simply because of that single stage.


Last year Niki Terpstra benefited from a strong Omega Pharma-Quick Step performance to take a memorable win in the Roubaix velodrome. The Dutchman had initially been dropped when Sep Vanmarcke, Fabian Cancellara, Zdenek Stybar and John Degenkolb powered clear and caught lone leader Peter Sagan. Together with Geraint Thomas, Bradley Wiggins, Bert De Bakcer, Sebastian Langeveld and teammate Tom Boonen, he made it back after the famous Carrefour de l’Arbre pave. He didn’t need much time to recover before he launched the decisive attack with 6km to go and with two teammates in the chase group, he soloed away from a group that never got an organized chase going. A few seconds after Terpstra had crossed the line, Degenkolb beat Cancellara in the sprint for second to take what was then his best result in a monument. An in-form Terpstra will be back to defend his title while Degenkolb will try to add a second monument to his palmares. However, there will be no Cancellara in Roubaix this year as the Swiss crashed out of E3 Harelbeke and has missed most of the spring season.


The course

The course always varies from year to year as new sectors are included and old ones disappear. Some may be taken out for the surface to be improved, only to get back on map one year later. A special organization is even created to take care of the famed paves and to discover new ones that may be included in future editions.


Despite the variations, the course always follows a traditional format and the key sectors are always the same. The race kicks off with a long flat section with no pavés before things kick off in earnest after around 100km of racing. From here, the sectors come in quick succession with only little room for recovery. The most famous paves, Carrefour de l'Arbre, Mons-en-Pevele and Trouee d'Arenberg, always play a key role in the race and the race keeps its ties to its history by still finishing on the Roubaix velodrome that was a key part of the creation of the event. This year's race is 253.5km long and includes 27 pave sectors, with a total of 52.7km of cobbled roads. Compared to last year, the race is a bit shorter and has one less pave sector but the total length of the paves has been increased by 1.6km. The course is completely identical to the one that was used in 2013.


Like most other historic races whose names are made up of the names of their start and finishing cities, the race no longer starts at its original point of departure. Nowadays, the race kicks off from Compiegne north of the French capital and from there the riders head along big, flat roads in a northeasterly direction. This part of the race is an easy affair and mainly serves to accumulate fatigue in the riders' legs and allow the early break to take off.


However, team tactics play a crucial role as it can be very important to have a teammate up the road and history proves that early escapees can get rather far in this race. Hence, it is often a brutal war in the first hour of the race that is raced at a massive speed until the right break final takes off. When that happens, the peloton gets its only chance in the entire race to get a small breather. As they approach the 98.5km mark and the first pave sector, the battle for position starts to increase and the pace gradually ramps up and from now on it is a constant war to stay near the front.


The first sector is the Troisvilles whose difficulty has earned it a three-star ranking (out of five).  Among the first 8 sectors, only one has a four-star ranking, the Quievy pavé which comes at the 108km mark. History proves that these early paves don't play a major role as the major teams only ride tempo on the front of the peloton but already at this early point, the gradual elimination starts. From now on, riders will constantly be sent out the back door until only the strongest remain.



While this part of the race is not a time to launch an attack, it may still play a big role. The racing is usually rather eventful due to the many crashes and punctures and by the time the riders reach the first crucial point, at least one contender is likely to have been hit by a major setback.


The three sectors that will feature in the Tour de France come at this early point: Quievy (km 108, 3700, four stars), Saint-Python (km 112.5, 1500m, two stars) and Verchain-Maugré (km 130, 1600m, three stars).


The first big battle starts when the riders approach the Haveluy (4 stars) sector 104km from the finish. It's a rather tough affair and it's usually a small sprint to get to the pave in the best possible position. Again it's still too early for the contenders to play their cards but in the past a rather small group has emerged at the end of the sector. Last year Sky hit the front and upped the pace significantly, with Geraint Thomas even taking some turns on the front.


Things usually come back together after the Haveluy and now the real war starts. At its end, the riders are only 6km from the famous Trouee d'Arenberg (5 stars), the most legendary pave of the race. This is where the first crucial selection is made and it's a true bunch sprint to get to the start in a reasonable position. A crash or a puncture at this time spells the end for your race as there will be no coming back at this point of the race.


The race favourites always stay near the front without making any big acceleration and by the time, they exit the sector, a select group has usually emerged. Afterwards, there is always some kind of regrouping but now the first big selection has been made.


At this point, the favourites will have lost most of their domestiques and this opens the door for the tactical battle that plays a key role in the cobbled races.  Over the next 7 pavés, there's a great chance to anticipate the main favourites. Many riders know that they can't follow the when he rides full gas on the toughest paves but if you are ahead by the time, they force the selection, you may earn yourself a ticket to the finale. This phase is usually very aggressive with constant attacks and team support plays a key role for the favourites. At the same time, the elimination is constant.


It is hard to say when the big favourites will play their next card as it depends on a lot of different factors - number of domestiques, wind, breakaways - but the next key point is usually the Mons-en-Pevele (5 stars) 49km from the finish. This is one of only three paves with a top ranking and is the perfect place to create the next big selection. At the end of selection, we are usually down to a very select group of favourites and from now on it's a real race for the hard men.


The next sectors are all a lot easier but this phase is usually no less aggressive. Instead of waiting for the Carrefour de l'Arbre, some of the outsiders may take the chance to go up the road, especially if the favourites have no domestiques left. Last year a very strong group with the likes of Tom Boonen, Geraint Thomas and Thor Hushovd attacked from afar and got quite a big gap. The Trek team showed their strength though and their chase work kept the group within reasonable distance over these important paves.


Inside the final 30km, things again get more difficult when the riders go over the Cysoing-Bourghelles (4 stars) and Bourghelles-Wannehain (3 stars) double sector just 27km from the finish and the Champhin-en-Pevele (4 stars) just 20km from the line. The decider, however, is usually the Carrefour de l'Arbre (5 stars) which comes 17km from the finish whose 2100m of brutal pave has been the scene of some of the most legendary moments of the Paris-Roubaix history. This is the place to launch the final attacks and just in recent years, several legendary crashes have happened here. Last year Sep Vanmarcke and Fabian Cancellara already made their big attack on Champhin-en-Pevele as they needed to get across to the Boonen group and on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the front group was whittled down to just those two riders, Zdenek Stybar and John Degenkolb. Organizers ASO have reported that the crucial pave is more difficult this year and is now almost as hard as the legendary pave in the Arenberg forest.


At the end of the Carrefour de l'Arbre, 3 sectors still remain but they are all easy and rarely make any difference.  Gruson (2 stars) comes 15km from the line while Hem (2 stars) is located 8km from the finish. The only real danger is the risk of punctures on these two paves. Instead, it is often a very small hill with around 5km to go that may be the only launch pad for a late attack.


At this point the race is spread all over the roads of Northern France and the front of the race is often a pursuit between small groups and single riders. As fatigue has now set in dramatically, things usually remain as they are all the way to the finish on the famous velodrome in Roubaix. If a small group of favourites is still together, however, it is time to play the tactical battle like last year when Niki Terpstra managed to escape.


The riders end their race by doing one and a half lap on the track. If more riders are still together, the sprint is a very delicate affair as it comes down to a combination of speed, freshness and track skills in a kind of finish that is completely unique in the cycling world. In this sprint, nothing is as it usually is and the past has proved that major surprises may occur when the riders go head to head in a final dash to the line in Roubaix.





The weather

Dust or mud? The difference between a sunny or a rainy day in the Hell of the North is immense. If it has been dry for a few days, the dust whirls up from the paves and the riders reach the velodrome in Roubaix with their faces covered in a thick layer. Rainy days have produced some of the most epic bike races ever and some of the most iconic images of riders reaching the finish completely covered in mud that make it look more like a cyclo-cross than a road race.


We haven't had a real muddy Paris-Roubaix for several years and even a rider like Fabian Cancellara has never done the race in rainy conditions. The riders got a chance to test themselves on the wet paves in last year’s Tour de France and they may get the chance to use the skills they acquired in that race this coming Sunday. At the moment, we have beautiful sunshine in Northern France but when we get to the weekend, more clouds will appear and there is a risk of showers. It is most likely to stay dry but the riders may need to wear their rain jackets at some point during the race. There will be a bit of sunshine too – most notably towards the end of the race – and the temperature will reach a maximum of 16 degrees.


Wind has often played a big role on the flat roads of Northern France and may do so again in Sunday's race. There will be a moderate wind from a southwesterly direction which means that the riders will have a tailwind in the first easy section. As they get to the paves, they will first have a cross-tailwind before they reach a crosswind section. After the Mons-en-Pevele, it is again a tailwind before the riders turn into a cross-headwind for the Carrefour de l’Arbre. There will be a cross-tailwind in the final section to the finish in Roubaix.


The favourites

Sunday's race is the last and biggest battle in a series of races that have all been dominated by the same contenders, and by now we all know who's in form and who's likely to have a classics season to forget. Most riders, however, have been on form since Milan-Sanremo and fatigue starts to set in. Furthermore, Paris-Roubaix is a different affair than the Flemish classics and the list of contenders varies slightly from what we have seen over the past few weeks. Some riders who never feature in Flanders, can make an impact in Roubaix while the punchier riders have a harder time in Roubaix where a big engine is the biggest asset. Finally, no one can underestimate the importance of team tactics and even though the strongest riders generally prevails in Roubaix, the 2011, 2013 and 2014 editions are just recent examples of how difficult it can be for the best rider if he finds himself isolated in the finale.


The Tour of Flanders was characterized by the fact that it was the first edition since 2001 that had neither Tom Boonen nor Fabian Cancellara on the start line. This made more riders believe in their chances and made for some interesting tactics where it was pretty unclear which team was going to do the majority of the work. Due to his excellent performances in E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, Geraint Thomas had been given the favourite tag and Sky dutifully took their responsibility to set the pace for most of the day. After they came up short, however, they are likely to take a different approach this time and this year’s edition of the Hell of the North could turn into a very tactical and uncontrollable affair.


Ian Stannard has already told Cyclingnews that Sky are unlikely to take a similar approach to Paris-Roubaix and without Tom Boonen, there is no doubt that Etixx-QuickStep will again have an aggressive mindset. BMC have no big favourite for this race but have several strong riders and they will also be hoping to attack from a bit further out. The same goes for Lotto Soudal who were relentless with their attacks in Flanders. As opposed to this, teams like Katusha, LottoNL-Jumbo and Giant-Alpecin are built around one single leader and they could easily be forced to spend a big part of the day in chase mode.


Recent editions of Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders have underlined the value of anticipating the favourites. That’s how Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Van Avermaet made it onto the podium in Flanders in 2013 and 2014 and how Peter Sagan got into the finale in Roubaix in 2014. Many riders know that they are unable to follow the likes of Sep Vanmarcke when they go full gas over the cobbles and this should set the scene for a very aggressive race.


We would expect the racing to be rather aggressive already after the Arenberg and the key contenders will start to go up the road by the time they have reached the Mons-en-Pevele sector. Most expect the favourite to make their big moves on the Carrefour de l’Arbre but they may be forced to play with their muscles far earlier if they find themselves isolated with several strong teams in a front group.


Katusha, Giant-Alpecin and LottoNL-Jumbo are likely to find themselves in a defensive position but even though they have strong leaders, they don’t have strength in numbers. Apart from Kristoff, Katusha rode very poorly in Flanders while the key riders for LottoNL-Jumbo are not at their usual level. Giant-Alpecin have always had a hard time in Flanders where Degenkolb has often been isolated pretty early but they are better suited to Paris-Roubaix where Ramon Sinkeldam and Bert De Backer have done well in the past and they could turn out to be the key team in controlling the race.


Nonetheless, it will be hard to keep the race under control. With some of the big favourites not being on the strongest teams and several teams with lots of cards to play, this could be the year when a strong group attacks from pretty far out and makes it to the finish in the velodrome, just like it happened for Johan Vansummeren in 2011. The door is definitely open for an outsider to win Paris-Roubaix.


Nonetheless, it is of course very hard not to put Alexander Kristoff at the top of the list of favourites. The Norwegian was in a class of his own in Flanders where he delivered both an impressive show of strength and used great tactics to come away with the win. Knowing that he was already isolated, he knew that a sprint finish was looking unlikely and he could easily find himself caught out in a group of chasers. Having marked Niki Terpstra out as one to watch, he quickly reacted to his attack and with lots of confidence, he cooperated with the Dutchman. Despite doing by far the most of the work, he was strong enough to keep Van Avermaet and Sagan at bay and beat Terpstra in the sprint.


Kristoff has made it clear that he has always been feeling better in Flanders than he has done in Roubaix. For a big guy like Kristoff, however, it is hard not to regard the French classics as a better race for him. Furthermore, he is usually the strongest at the end of the very long and hard races and Roubaix is more a race of attrition than Flanders. The flatter terrain usually suits the heavier guys better and even though Kristoff is a very good climber, he should find it to his liking.


In fact, we have not really had the chance to see what Kristoff can do in Paris-Roubaix since he emerged as a potential winner of the monuments. Last year he was taken out of contention by crashes and mechanicals and he also had bad luck in the cobbled stage of the Tour de France. He may not have felt too strong in previous editions of the French classic but when he last had the chance to be up there, he was at a much lower level.


Kristoff is clearly the strongest rider at the moment but that can be a big disadvantage in Flanders – just ask Fabian Cancellara. Everybody will be looking at him to close the gaps and nobody wants to arrive with him for a sprint finish – unless Etixx-QuickStep continue their less than splendid tactical approach. This means that he will be forced to rely on a strong team but he doesn’t have a very strong support crew at his disposal. Luca Paolini may have won Gent-Wevelgem but that was more due to experience than actual strength. Furthermore, the wily Italian is much better suited to the Flemish classics than Paris-Roubaix and the rest of his teammates have never been strong on the French paves.


However, Kristoff has proved that he can take into his own hands and like in Flanders, he is unlikely to ride defensively. In fact, it will be important for him to isolate his rivals pretty early to create a more level playing field and he will only benefit from a really hard race. In Flanders, he proved that he is strong enough to make the race himself and no one is going to beat him in a sprint in Roubaix. To win this race, Kristoff has to be brutally strong and another victory is definitely not a foregone conclusion but after his performance in Flanders, he is probably good enough to do the double.


In 2013 and 2014, Sep Vanmarcke was probably the strongest rider in Paris-Roubaix but as he was unable to shake off Fabian Cancellara, he has failed to win the race. This year the Swiss will be absent and this should open the door for the Belgian to take the solo win that he has been desperately chasing since his breakthrough.


However, Vanmarcke goes into the race with lots of uncertainty. In the first part of the classics season, he looked like probably the strongest rider in several races but due to an incredible string of bad luck, he never got the win. In the Tour of Flanders, however, he was again off the pace and this time it was not due to misfortune. Instead, he had a bad moment on the Taaienberg which caused him to lose position and so he missed the key split. He tried to bridge the gap but ran out of power when he had almost made the junction on the Kruisberg.


The performance will leave Vanmarcke with several questions when he lines up in Compiegne and he will be less confident in his abilities. However, he was extremely strong in E3 Harelbeke where he was fourth at the top of the Kwaremont despite riding with a broken cleat that made it impossible for him to pull. In Gent-Wevelgem, he was again among the strongest but as usual he spent way too much energy too early.


That great condition cannot have disappeared completely and history proves that he has usually been stronger in Roubaix than in Flanders. This again makes him one of the biggest favourites but he still had to show that he is back at his usual level.


Like Kristoff, Vanmarcke can expect to be pretty isolated though. Bram Tankink has been his strongest domestique so far but he is not suited to Roubaix. Maarten Wynants has not been at his usual high level and he will hope that Maarten Tjallingii can step up in the only classic that really suits him. Nonetheless, Vanmarcke will have to do everything right to win the race and he needs to gauge his efforts much better than he has done in the past. He has a very aggressive nature and like Kristoff, he will probably attack pretty early if he finds himself isolated. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint on the velodrome. Due to his performances on the cobbles in 2013 and 2014, Vanmarcke must be one of the biggest favourites.


Last year John Degenkolb finished second in this race and the performance confirmed that he is perfectly suited to the Roubaix cobbles. He never seemed to be in trouble on the pave and managed to stay with Vanmarcke, Cancellara and Stybar when the elite quartet formed on the Carrefour de l’Arbre.


This year Degenkolb seems to be at a similar level. He climbed impressively well in Milan-Sanremo and after bad luck in the first Flemish classics, he rode strongly in the Tour of Flanders where he was among the first at the top of the Kwaremont and the Paterberg in the finale.


Paris-Roubaix suits Degenkolb much better. Last year no one was able to drop him on the pave and we honestly doubt that anyone will be able to do so in 2015. However, Degenkolb finds himself in a difficult tactical situation as only Kristoff wants to go to the finish with the fast German. This means that he has to be very strong to win the race.


Giant-Alpecin have always had a hard time in the classics but they are much stronger in Paris-Roubaix. Ramon Sinkeldam has the talent to do really well in this race and Bert De Backer made it into the elite group in the finale of last year’s race. This should provide Degenkolb with some amount of support which will be important when it comes to controlling what could be an aggressive race. Unlike Kristoff, he is unlikely to ride very aggressively but if he can stay with the strong Norwegian, he is the only one who can beat him in a sprint.


Etixx-QuickStep are without Tom Boonen but they still have lots of cards to play. Niki Terpstra did best in Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem and is the defending champion but we actually think that Zdenek Stybar is their best card. On paper, the Flemish classics are better for the Czech champion but in his first two outings, no one has been able to drop him on the Roubaix paves. In fact, it was only bad luck that took him out of contention in 2013.


Stybar has shown excellent condition in all the Flemish classics. In Flanders, he did a very good job in preventing anyone from bridging the gap to Terpstra and Kristoff (even though it may have been wiser for Etixx-QuickStep to have asked him to cooperate with Thomas when those two riders had the chance to get across) and in E3 Harelbeke he was one of the three strongest riders. However, he has not really earned the result he has deserved and he has flown a bit under the radar. This means that he will be less marked by Terpstra who is unlikely to get too much leeway. As said, Etixx-QuickStep have several cards to play and like last year they found themselves with strength in numbers in the group that decided the win. Back then, it was Terpstra who made the race-winning but this time it could very well be Stybar.


Terpstra is of course a big candidate to make it two in a row in this race. The Dutchman got his classics campaign off to a very bad start in Waregem and Harelbeke but in Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders he was among the strongest riders. This suggests that he has timed his condition much better than he did in 2014 where he was flying in the first Flemish races while he suffered a bit more in the monuments. Despite his win, he was clearly not the strongest rider in Paris-Roubaix.


However, Terpstra probably has to arrive alone in the velodrome to win the race and due to his past performances, he won’t get much leeway. Kristoff is unlikely to give him an inch. Furthermore, he has never proved that he can stay with the very best on the Roubaix cobbles and it will probably be impossible for him to simply drop the rest. Terpstra has to rely on team tactics to repeat in Roubaix but as he is part of the strongest team, that is definitely possible for him.


The big question for this year’s Paris-Roubaix is how Bradley Wiggins will do. No one is likely to be better prepared than the Brit who hopes to bow out of the sport with another big win. Everybody knows that Wiggins usually achieves his goals and he has prepared this race in his usual meticulous manner.


Unlike what most think, Wiggins has lots of experience on the pave as he has done this race several times. However, he has only been a contender once but last year he proved that he has what it takes to do well here. He has asked his Sky team to back him fully and despite the presence of an in-form Geraint Thomas, it will be all for Wiggins in Roubaix.


Apart from a time trial win in De Panne, Wiggins hasn’t shown much yet but don’t be fooled by his lack of results. Last year he had done nothing before Roubaix either and he was still up there with the best. If he can avoid bad luck, there is no doubt that he will be there in the finale.


However, the step from being there to winning the race is huge and Wiggins doesn’t find himself in the best position. Everyone knows that you can’t give the time trial world champion an inch and he will be heavily marked. Most of the favourites are faster than him in a sprint and he has to get rid of the majority to win the race.


On the other hand, his sprinting skills shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, he has won a reduced bunch sprint in the Tour de Romandie and his track experience will come in handy in the velodrome. Of course he won’t beat the likes of Kristoff and Degenkolb but if he can get away with some of the other guys he has a chance. Furthermore, he is part of one of the two strongest teams and may be able to rely on Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe in the finale. If Sky have strength in numbers, they will attack in turns and this could open the door for Wiggins.


Geraint Thomas went into the Tour of Flanders as the favourite but the Welshman came up short. In this race, he will be a domestique for Wiggins but team tactics still makes him one of the favourites. Surprisingly, no one is talking about him as a potential winner and while everyone will be looking at Wiggins, Thomas may exploit the situation.


On paper, the Tour of Flanders suits him much better but last year he made it into the lead group despite having been on the attack for most of the finale. This year he is obviously a lot stronger and he has the engine to do well in these races. In the Flemish classics, he has the skills to drop everybody else which is unlikely to happen here. However, team tactics may allow Thomas to step onto the top step of the podium.


No one is really talking about Lars Boom but it will be a huge mistake to underestimate the Astana leader. While the Dutchman has always been suffering a bit in the Flemish classics, he has been a protagonist in Paris-Roubaix. In the past, he has been the first rider to exit the Arenberg forest but he has been hampered by bad luck and burnt his matches too early. Last year he was among the strongest riders in the finale until he was set back by a crash and back then he had even had a very bad build-up to the event with a bad crash in Paris-Nice.


In last year’s Tour de France, Boom finally got the chance to show what he can do on the cobbles when he took an impressive solo win in the dramatic stage over the pave. This year he looked very strong in Dwars door Vlaanderen until he crashed. He has been suffering from a small injury since then but he bounced back with a great showing in the Tour of Flanders. Since then he is likely to have improved and now he finds himself in his favourite race. Look out for Boom to be a very strong contender deep into the finale.


BMC line up a very strong team with numerous cards to play but they miss the obvious favourite on their roster. Their leader is Greg Van Avermaet and with a fourth place in 2013 he has done well in this race in the past. The Belgian is definitely strong but he is more of a climber than a rider for the flat paves. For many years, he skipped the Hell of the North to focus on the Ardennes and he was actually pretty surprised when he finished fourth when he finally returned to the event.


However, Van Avermaet is always very strong in the longest races and he is in excellent condition. He seemed to be struggling a bit in the first Flemish classics but in the Tour of Flanders, he was one of the strongest in the final part of the race. He is part of a very strong BMC team and this should provide him with a tactical advantage in the finale. To win the race, he probably has to ride aggressively but he has the right mentality to do so.


At the start of the classics season, Peter Sagan found himself under huge pressure to finally come up with a win in a monument. After fourth places in Sanremo and Flanders, he now only has one opportunity left. Unfortunately, Roubaix is the one of the first three monuments that suits him the least as he benefits less from his explosiveness. This is more of a race of attrition and this is definitely not in Sagan’s favour.


It is still strange to explain what has happened to Sagan. In 2013, he was riding at an excellent level but during the 2014 he got worse and worse. After another poor start to the 2015 season, he has reached a solid level but he is still far from being the rider who went head to head with Fabian Cancellara on the cobbles in 2013.


Furthermore, Sagan has always had troubles dealing with the very long distances and even though he has improved, he has had a number of spectacular blow-ups this year. To avoid that, he rode a very defensive race in Flanders where he saved energy before he made his move the final time up the Paterberg. That kind of strategy rarely pays off in Roubaix and Sagan probably has to ride a lot more offensively. We simply doubt that he can stay with the best on the Carrefour de l’Arbre after 240km of racing but if he can anticipate the favourites like he did last year, his fast sprint makes him a contender.


Filippo Pozzato got agonizingly close to winning this race in 2009 when only bad luck took him out of contention. In 2012, he was back at a similar level but since then he has not been at his best on the cobbles. Towards the end of last year, however, he indicated that he was back on track and he looked very strong at the start of this season. Unfortunately, he was set back by illness just one week before Flanders but despite the missed training and racing, he still delivered a very good performance in Vlaanderen’s Mooiste. He is likely to be even stronger in Roubaix and he is one of the select few who have proved that they can be with the best in this race.


In addition to Van Avermaet, BMC have another very good card to play. Daniel Oss has always been destined to big things in the classics but he fell out of the spotlight after he missed last year’s races due to injury. This year he has been back at full strength and he has been a protagonist in all the races. He has never featured at the point end of Paris-Roubaix but on paper this race should suit him better than the Flemish classics. He is fast in a sprint and has a very big engine on the flat. He won’t be too heavily marked and as he is part of a strong BMC team, he has several tactical cards to play.


Jurgen Roelandts has never really been a protagonist in this race and at a first glance he is much better suited to the Flemish classics. However, the Lotto Soudal leader claims that he likes Paris-Roubaix more and that he should be able to do even better in the French classic. This year he finally gets the chance to prove his skills on the flat pave as he has final had an incident-free build-up to the major races and he seems to be riding at a higher level than ever before. He was very strong in Gent-Wevelgem and he was also up there with the best in Flanders. However, that race also proved that he misses that final bit to follow the best and it is hard to imagine that it will be any different in Roubaix. On the other hand, he knows that he has to ride aggressively to win the race and he will definitely go in with a plan to anticipate the favourites. As said, this edition could be the one that is won by an outsider and this provides Roelandts with options.


Stijn Vandenbergh is a perennial contender in the cobbled races where he is usually one of the strongest. However, he always comes up short due to his poor sprinting skills and he often has to sacrifice himself for his faster teammates. Without Boonen on the roster, Etixx-QuickStep have a flatter hierarchy in 2015 and Vandenbergh has found himself in the finale of this race in the past. Unfortunately, he broke his nose in the Tour of Flanders and this year he doesn’t seem to have timed his condition to perfection. However, he often has the task of attacking from the distance and this has often provided him with a ticket to the finale. Hear Etixx-QuickStep have to use their strength in numbers and there is no reason to rule out that Vandenbergh can be the one that launches the attack that sticks.


Björn Leukemans is one of the most consistent riders in Paris-Roubaix but this year he has flown a bit under the radar. The Belgian got sick just before the Flemish classics and so he was not at his best in E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. However, he got fit in time for the Tour of Flanders where he rode very strongly until he was set back by a mechanical. Leukemans has had an incredible amount of bad luck in Roubaix and so his best performances are some years back. However, he always times his condition very well and this year he seems to be at a higher level than last year.


The big surprise of the race could be André Greipel. The German has never been a contender in Roubaix but this year he is riding at a higher level than ever before. His performance in Flanders was incredible. The German champion attacked throughout the entire race and did a lot of chase work for team captain Jurgen Roelandts. Despite the massive workload, he still had enough left to finish the race in 15th. On paper, Roubaix should suit him better and Lotto Soudal’s decision to take him off the Scheldeprijs roster is a clear indication that they have certain hopes for their German star. He is likely to have a free role in France and will probably not have to do the same amount of work for the team. To win the race, he will have to ride aggressively but if he can anticipate the favourites, no one wants to sprint with him in the Roubaix velodrome.


Arnaud Demare has very big hopes for the cobbled classics but he has had an extreme amount of bad luck. Already last year he was taken out of contention in key moments and this year he has been hit by bad luck at crucial points of both Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders. However, he rode at a solid level in the Driedaagse van de Panne and the FDJ team have always insisted that he is riding at a very high level. Last year he was 12th in Roubaix and this year he is probably stronger. Demare will probably have a great future in this race and 2015 could be his breakthrough year on the cobbles.


***** Alexander Kristoff

**** Sep Vanmarcke, John Degenkolb

*** Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, Lars Boom

** Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan, Filippo Pozzato, Daniel Oss, Jurgen Roelandts, Stijn Vandenbergh, Björn Leukemans, André Greipel, Arnaud Demare

* Tiesj Benoot, Sebastian Langeveld, Martin Elmiger, Stijn Devolder, Jack Bauer, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard, Sylvain Chavanel, Bert De Backer, Ramon Sinkeldam, Marcus Burghardt, Jempy Drucker, Edward Theuns, Manuel Quinziato, Cyril Lemoine, Gregory Rast, Jasper Stuyven, Matti Breschel, Heinrich Haussler, Luca Paolini, Matteo Trentin, Yves Lampaert, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Damien Gaudin, Johan Vansummeren, Borut Bozic, Laurens De Vreese, Lieuwe Westra, Matthieu Ladagnous, Yoann Offredo, Davide Cimolai, Adriano Malori, Mathew Hayman, Jens Keukeleire, Luke Durbridge, Dylan van Baarle, Maarten Wynants, Koen De Kort, Marco Marcato, Oliver Naesen, Yannick Martinez, Vincent Jerome, Gerald Ciolek, Tyler Farrar



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