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Will Fabian Cancellara end his Paris-Roubaix career on a high by claiming a historic fourth win?

Photo: Sirotti

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10.04.2016 @ 10:58 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. 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 the equation when the riders will 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 symbols.

 

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 a recent example of a tireless domestique to shine in the Hell of the North while Bert De Backer has been among the best two years in a row in the only race of the year where he is close to a top 10 finish.

 

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. Boonen will be back to try to exploit what could be the chance to become the sole record holder in 2016 while the other dominant classics contender Fabian Cancellara has one final 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.

 

In the last two years, the race has had an extra important role as the Tour de France course featured a stage with the grueling paves. This year there won’t be any cobbles on the menu in La Grande Boucle and so this extra layer of excitement has been taken out of the event. However, the big GC riders never did this race anyway as it has always been regarded as way too dangerous for riders that vie for overall honours in the big stage races.

 

Last year John Degenkolb crowned a memorable classics season by adding Paris-Roubaix to the win he had already taken at Milan-Sanremo. Supported by a very strong Bert De Backer, the German was attentive to bridge the gap from a group of favourites to a dangerous attack with Greg Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert after Carrefour de l’Arbre and the trio were soon joined by Lars Boom, Zdenek Stybar, Martin Elmiger and Jens Keukeleire. No one could get away in the finale and when it came down to a sprint in the Roubaix Velodrome, the result was almost a foregone conclusion. Degenkolb easily beat Stybar and Van Avermaet to claim his first cobblestone trophy. Due to his training crash, he won’t be back to defend his title and Van Avermaet will be absent after his crash in Flanders, leaving Stybar as the only returning rider from last year’s top 3.

 

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 the 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 257.5km long and includes 27 pave sectors, with a total of 52.8km of cobbled roads. Compared to last year, the race is four kilometres longer but the number of paves is unchanged and there will be just 100m of extra cobbles. Only one new pave has been added, Hameau du Baut which is back after a three-year absence and is pretty unique as it is uphill at a gradient of 7%.

 

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 very 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 107.5km mark. History proves that these early paves don't play a major role as the big 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 first big battle starts when the riders approach the Haveluy (4 stars) sector 103.5km 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. In past years Sky have hit the front and upped the pace significantly.

 

Things usually come back together after the Haveluy and now the real war will start. 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 could speel the end of your race as there is rarely any chance to come back at this point of the race. However, things have been slightly more conservative in recent years as a big regrouping has taken place after the forest.

 

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 the first selection has been made.

 

At this point, the favourites will have lost many 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 best when they ride 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) 48.5km 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 the sector, 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. In 2014 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. Last year this was the place for Bradley Wiggins to launch his big attack.

 

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 26.5km from the finish and the Champhin-en-Pevele (4 stars) just 19.5km from the line. The decider, however, is usually the Carrefour de l'Arbre (5 stars) which comes 16.5km 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 organizers ASO reported that the crucial pave was more difficult and it 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 14.5km 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 in 2014 when Niki Terpstra managed to escape.

 

Just before entering the famous velodrome, the riders tackle the final pave which was created a few years ago as a symbol of the race. It has a 1-star rating and plays no role at all.

 

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 the 2014 Tour de France but many riders will find themselves in untested territory in 2016. This year everything suggests that we could very well have a wet race which could significantly chance the outcome and alter the status of the favourites as it will be a completely different race to what we have seen for more than a decade.

 

It’s expected to be a sunny morning in Roubaix with a temperature of 13 degrees but in the afternoon there is a 50-75% chance of rain. 4mm of rain is expected to fall in Roubaix and the temperature will drop to around 10 degrees.

 

The race will be windy in the early part, with a strong wind blowing from a southwesterly direction. It will abate towards the end of the race and gradually turn to a westerly direction. It means that the riders will have a tailwind and cross-tailwind in the first part while it will be more of a crosswind when they approach the Arenberg pave. It will be a cross-headwind in the section leading to Mons-en-Pevele and from there it will be a cross-tailwind and a tailwind for most of the rest of the race. However, there will be a cross-headwind on Carrefour de l’Arbre.

 

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 compared to 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.

 

Last year’s race was marked by the fact that there was no Fabian Cancellara and even though Alexander Kristoff had been in outstanding form, lots of riders felt that they were capable of winning the race. This made it a very open affair and the finale became pretty uncontrollable, with many outsiders launching strong attacks.

 

This year the scenario is different. E3, Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders have made it evident that two riders are currently above the rest: Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara. Bad luck and tactical mistakes have mostly put Cancellara on the defensive while Sagan has been riding aggressively but from their two different positions, they have proved that they have an extra gear compared to the rest.

 

Both go into this race as the big favourites and the tactics will revolve around them. Everybody will be looking for their moves and will try to anticipate the big attacks. Trek looked strong for Flanders but failed big time as Cancellara only had Stijn Devolder after the Taaienberg. Tinkoff don’t have a strong team which is even less suited to this race as the less explosive nature means that we can’t expect Oscar Gatto to be there in the finale. This means that the big goal will be to isolate the two stars pretty early.

 

In 2014, Cancellara was the big favourite and back then that tactic worked perfectly. Cancellara found himself on the back foot on several occasions and was forced to make several big accelerations just to get back in contention when he had missed key moves. This meant that he had nothing left for the decisive on Carrefour de l’Arbre and it never came. The Swiss was always on the defensive.

 

Etixx-QuickStep have a formidable team where almost every rider has a chance to win. In Flanders, they tried to make the race as hard as possible already very early and the plan will again be to isolate Cancellara and Sagan. There is a very big chance that both favourites will be isolated pretty early and then it can become a very tactical race where it won’t be easy for the two favourites to win.

 

On one hand, the rainy conditions will make the race more selective which could isolate Cancellara and Sagan earlier. On the other, the harder nature of the race will make it more of a battle for survival and a race of attrition where it will all be decided by pure strength. That’s an advantage, especially for Cancellara, as he is probably the strongest at the end of a brutal race.

 

With a tailwind, the scene is set for a very fast race and it will be much easier to attack from afar. We won’t be surprised if Sagan and Cancellara move pretty early to get rid of some of their rivals and reduce the numerical advantage of Etixx-QuickStep. History shows that you can win this race with big solo rides and the tailwind and rain will make it easier to accomplish such a feat.

 

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 Cancellara when they go full gas over the cobbles and this should set the scene for a very aggressive race where especially Etixx-QuickStep, Lotto Soudal, Sky and BMC will be very eager to send riders up the road. Such a move can definitely pay off if the race becomes really tactical. 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, we will make Fabian Cancellara our 5-star favourite. The Swiss has a formidable track record in the cobbled classic and has been the strongest rider in the race whenever he has been at the start since he took his second win with a commanding solo ride in 2010 – maybe with the 2012 edition being the only exception. He failed to win in 2011 and 2013 but his defeats were only due to the fact that he was heavily marked and had poor teams to support him.

 

It is no wonder that Cancellara has such a great track record in Roubaix. As a quadruple world time trial champion, he is the most powerful rider on the flats during the last decade and he has great technical skills on the cobbles. He has tactical astuteness and a fast sprint at the end of a hard race and most important he excels in really long races of attrition. This is exactly what Paris-Roubaix is all about and for Cancellara it is a matter of getting as hard a race as possible.

 

Cancellara has been in outstanding form all year. Many were questioning whether he could return to form after his annus horribilis in 2015 but he has silenced his critics. He won the hardest race in Mallorca in January to prove that the prospect of retirement has only made him hungrier than ever. He won the time trial in Algarve, took a very impressive win at Strade Bianche, crushed the opposition in the Tirreno TT and was clearly the strongest rider in Milan-Sanremo. His comeback from mechanical failure at E3 was impressive and there is a big chance that he would have won that race without that incident.

 

In Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, he was up against Peter Sagan and those two riders have been the strongest riders in during the last few weeks. However, we have never really seen them in a real head-to-head battle. Gent-Wevelgem was too easy to find out who was the strongest of the pair and Cancellara was on the defensive in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. There is little doubt that they are fairly evenly matched but things could be different in Roubaix. The flatter course is more about strength than explosiveness and it definitely suits Cancellara much better than it suits Sagan.

 

Cancellara’s big challenge will be the tactical battle. He has twice lost the race because everybody was looking at him to close to gaps and he will be very reliant on his team. They looked very strong in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem but they really failed in Flanders. Jasper Stuyven had to come back from a mechanical which cost him the power in the end where Cancellara only had Stijn Devolder at his side. This race is a bit more of untested territory for Stuyven and Devolder has never been very good in Roubaix. Gregory Rast has often been strong here but the Swiss has not been firing on all cylinders in 2016.

 

Etixx-QuickStep want a hard race and Cancellara could very well be isolated early. If he finds himself up against several Etixx riders, he is unlikely to be able to mark everybody. However, the tailwind makes it possible to go from afar and this will only be made even more of an option by the wet conditions which will turn it into a harder race. In the last few races, Cancellara has been on the defensive and he wants to avoid being caught on the back foot. We expect him to attack from far out and this will turn it into a race of attrition between the strongest riders. This suits Cancellara down to the ground and we doubt that anyone will be able to keep up with him on the cobbles at the end of a hard race. Even if he has some company, he can beat most – maybe even Sagan – in a sprint in the velodrome. Cancellara wants to go out on a high with a big ride in Roubaix and the weather is there for him to do it. The Swiss is our favourite to win the race.

 

Usually, we would never make Peter Sagan one of the absolute top favourites for Paris-Roubaix. The flat course simply doesn’t suit his explosiveness and for a few years he even skipped the race to focus on the Amstel Gold Race which is a much better match. He returned to the race in 2014 when he did a brave move to anticipate the favourites and ride to 6th while a mechanical set him back in 2015.

 

Sagan has never been close to the win in Roubaix but that is only partly due to the course. He did the race in 2014 and 2015 and in those years he was not at his usual level in the classics. He has turned things around since last year’s Tour of California and this year he is obviously back at his best level.

 

More importantly, he has improved his tactical skills massively and in fact he hasn’t done anything wrong in the last few races. In the past, he has often spent way too much energy early in the races which has cost him in the end. That has been costly as he has always had problems in very long races. This year he has been saving much more energy early in the races, even making some gambles by not following dangerous moves, before hitting out early when nobody expected it. Finally, he has had the legs to make the difference on the climbs.

 

However, we have never had the chance to see him up against Cancellara on the Flemish hellingen due to race circumstances and it is hard to gauge who’s the strongest. Nonetheless, Sagan showed impressive strength to keep Cancellara and Vanmarcke at bay in the finale in Flanders and this proves two very important improvements. First of all he is also very powerful on the flats and is no longer fully reliant on his explosiveness. Secondly, he can now do well at the end of long races without cracking spectacularly.

 

Despite Sagan’s strength, we still regard Cancellara as the top favourite. The rain will make the race much harder and Sagan still has troubles at the end of the toughest events. Most recently, he cracked spectacularly at E3 Harelbeke and that race was much easier than Paris-Roubaix. As said, we expect Cancellara to move from afar and as he has no strong team to support him, Sagan will be keen to work with the Swiss to avoid getting caught out in a tactical battle. It could become a brutal battle between those two riders and it is very likely that this will wear Sagan down. Furthermore, he is not as powerful as Cancellara on the flat cobbles and we doubt that he will be able to keep up with the Swiss. On the other hand, he is usually faster than Cancellara in the sprint and he is obviously stronger than ever. He just has to hang on and even though he hasn’t any track experience, he will always be the favourite in a sprint on the velodrome.

 

Sep Vanmarcke moved into the elite category of classics contenders when he finished second behind Cancellara in Roubaix in 2013. Since then he has been one of the very best on the cobbles but the big win is still missing. This year he has had a different approach to the season. He has always been flying in the opening weekend but this year he skipped the first cobbled races to be fresher for the monuments. That has definitely worked well as he has been the best of the rest behind Sagan and Cancellara in both Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders.

 

The results are made even more impressive by the fact that he has been marred by bad luck which has been the case so often for him. In Gent-Wevelgem, he had to chase after having been caught out in the crosswind but despite spending lots of energy early in the race, he could still go with Sagan and Cancellara in the finale. In Flanders, he crashed early in the race and had to spend energy to get back. This came on the back of frustrating 2015 when he had mechanicals in all the big classics apart from Flanders.

 

Paris-Roubaix suits Vanmarcke even better than Flanders and he is obviously riding extremely well. Apart from last year when he had bad luck, he has been one of the very best in Roubaix every year since his breakthrough and in fact no one has ever been able to distance him on the cobbles since that marvelous second place. Like Cancellara, he benefits from the wet conditions and he excels at the end of long races.

 

Vanmarcke’s big challenge will be the level of team support. None of his teammates can be expected to be there in the finale and he could be in the same situation as Sagan and Cancellara. Maarten Tjallingii and Maarten Wynants could be there late in the race but Vanmarcke could be caught out in a tactical battle. However, we expect Cancellara to attack from far out and if it is a race decided on pure strength, Vanmarcke will be there. He no longer wastes the energy as he once did and seems to have become tactically better. Furthermore, he has a pretty fast sprint and can create a surprise in the velodrome.

 

Lars Boom has mostly flown a bit under the radar but it will be dangerous to underestimate the Dutchman. Boom has always been one of the biggest talents for Paris-Roubaix but different circumstances have always prevented him from delivering the results that he deserved. This year he claims to be better than ever and that’s a pretty frightening prospect for his rivals. Already last year he was one of the strongest and everybody will remember how he won the rainy Tour de France stage on the cobbles in 2014.

 

As a former cyclo-cross rider, Boom likes the wet conditions in which he excelled on that memorable Tour de France stage. He proved his form in Flanders where he was one of the strongest even if he suffered an unbelievable four punctures. Without those incidents, he claims that he would have been able to go with Cancellara and he could very well be right in that assessment. This race suits him even better and he has a pretty strong team at his side where he can count on both Laurens De Vreese and Lieuwe Westra in the final. He will not be afraid of going on the attack and he will be less marked than the biggest favourites. Hi main problem is the fact that most of the favourites are faster than him even though he is actually pretty fast in a sprint.

 

As said, Etixx-QuickStep can win this race with almost anyone of their 8 riders but their best card is probably Zdenek Stybar. Ever since his heartbreaking near-crash on the Carrefour de l’Arbre in his debut at the race in 2013, he has always been one of the strongest in this race. On paper, one would expect the Tour of Flanders to suit his explosiveness better but for some reason, he has always done better in Roubaix.

 

As a former cyclo-cross rider and an amazing bike handler, Stybar will relish the wet conditions. Unfortunately, he has not been as strong in the Flemish races as he was last year when he was runner-up in Roubaix. To win the race, he has to be back at 100% for the Hell of the North and it is hard to know whether his form is on the rise or whether he is on the decline after a long spring season. His biggest asset is of course the fact that he is part of the best team which will have numbers in the finale. That will allow the team to attack in turns and Stybar is the rider with the biggest chance to finish it off. He may not be the fastest of the favourites but as he proved by sprinting to second last year, his final kick can allow him to win the race.

 

For some reason, Alexander Kristoff has never had much success in Roubaix. With his powerful riding style and excellent ability to handle long races, one would expect the race the Norwegian to excel here but he has always been better in Flanders. This year things could be different though. Last year he was unable to hold the amazing form all the way to Roubaix but this year his illness at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem means that his form is still growing. We expect him to be better in Roubaix than he was in Flanders and then he will become a real threat.

 

Kristoff will of course have a conservative approach. He has proved on numerous occasions that he is almost impossible to beat in a sprint at the end of a hard race. Hence, he will just try to keep up with the best and we won’t rule him out as he tries to hang onto the likes of Cancellara and Sagan. The wet conditions will make it a harder race and this should suit the Norwegian well. He excels in the longest races and has never really been a contender in the 200km semi-classics. If this race becomes brutal, Kristoff’s chances will improve and if he is still there in the velodrome, the outcome will no longer be in doubt.

 

Niki Terpstra is a former winner of this race but he has never been the strongest rider in the race. In 2014 he benefited from team tactics and that’s what he has to do again in 2016. The Dutchman is always very competitive at the end of a long race of attrition and he will be one of the many Etixx-QuickStep riders that can attack in the finale. Unfortunately, his form has not been at its best in 2015 and he doesn’t seem to be as strong as he was in 2015 and 2014. On the other hand, his form is clearly growing and he could be stronger in Flanders. In any case, he should be there in the end and then team tactics will have to be his card more than excellent legs. His main problem is that most are faster in a sprint.

 

Tom Boonen has a chance to make history in what could be his final appearance in the race. However, the Belgian is no longer the rider he once was and even though he was better than expected in the Flemish classics, he was a far cry from the rider that dominated these races a few years ago. On the others hand, Paris-Roubaix is the race that suits him the best and it is by far the biggest goal of his season. He has a vast experience and should find the wet conditions to his liking as it will turn it into a race for the really tough guys. He knows that he can’t win a direct battle with Cancellara and Sagan so we expect to move early as part of an Etixx-QuickStep strategy that is all about aggression. The main problem is that his name is Tom Boonen so he will always be a marked man. We expect him to be much closer to the best than he was in Flanders but to win the race, he will need a solid amount of luck.

 

Edvald Boasson Hagen seemed to be on track for a great classics season but again it seems that it will all end in disappointment. He was still strong in Sanremo but after he fell ill before E3, he didn’t have the same strength in Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders. However, as he rebuilds his condition, he should be better here and in fact he has had his best results on the cobbles in this race. It’s a bit of a mystery that he has not had better results in the cobbled monuments as his great performances at the 2012 and 2015 Worlds prove that he can handle the distance. He has been flying since last year’s Tour of Britain so hopefully his poor showing in Flanders was due to the illness. If he is back at his best, he will be a contender in this race which suits him really well. With his fast sprint, he can allow himself to ride pretty conservatively but he will have to play his cards wisely as he is likely to be isolated in the finale.

 

Team Sky go into the race with a two-pronged attack of Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe. While the former seems to have troubles in the very long races, Rowe is constantly improving. This year he has been one of the very best in the Flemish classics and it is still hard to say how far he can get. This race should even suit him better and he proved his potential by finishing in the top 10 last year. To win the race, he has to ride aggressively but he is never afraid of making moves from the distance. He is reasonably fast in a sprint – he has even won bunch sprints in the past – and as he seems to have built the engine to handle the long races, the big breakthrough could come on Sunday.

 

One of the most exciting elements of this year’s race is that Tony Martin will make his debut. The German has had a taste of the cobbles in the Tour de France stages in 2014 and 2015. Two years ago he rode an impressive race on the front all day and was a key support for Michal Kwiatkowski in the finale and last year he even won the stage, albeit by attacking after the cobbles. However, it has always been evident that he has the engine to do well here.

 

For the first time ever, Martin has been part of the Etixx team for the Flemish classics where he has worked for the team but he has done nothing to hide that he has personal ambitions in Roubaix. He has gained experience on the cobbles in the first races and has learned how to handle the difficult positioning. If he can survive the first crucial selection and is still there in the finale of a race of attrition, he has the engine to win the race. As he can go the distance, he will probably be the first Etixx rider to attack and he will be very hard to catch if he gets an advantage. As the big favourites have pretty weak teams, it is the perfect year for Martin to make a long-distance attack.

 

BMC go into the race without Greg Van Avermaet and this opens the door for the lieutenants to take their chance. Daniel Oss is their best card and he is capable of delivering a surprise. Last year he was one of the best on the cobbles and finally proved the full extent of his much overlooked potential. This year he has not been at the same level but he has still been up there. For the first time, he doesn’t have to play a support role and we are very curious to see what he can do as a team leader. If he can find those extra percentages that he had last year and anticipate the favourites, he has the strength to deliver a surprise.

 

Finally, we will mention a joker. France has not had much success in Roubaix in recent years but they have a very exciting talent knocking on the door. Florian Senechal rode to 17th last year and he is destined to greatness in this race. This year he has been much stronger and in fact he was one of the best in the early Flemish classics. He claims that this race suits him even better and last year he proved that he can go the distance. He won’t be a marked man and if he can anticipate the favourites, he may be the French surprise that Sebastien Turgot was in 2012 and Damien Gaudin was in 2013.

 

***** Fabian Cancellara

**** Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke

*** Lars Boom, Zdenek Stybar, Alexander Kristoff, Niki Terpstra

** Tom Boonen, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Luke Rowe, Tony Martin, Daniel Oss

* Florian Senechal, Jurgen Roelandts, Tiesj Benoot, Matteo Trentin, Bert De Backer, Ian Stannard, Damien Gaudin, Lieuwe Westra, Jempy Drucker, Dimitri Claeys, Sylvain Chavanel, Dylan van Baarle

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