This weekend is a race that evokes more powerful images than any other on the WorldTour calendar. It is, of course, that old war of attrition, Paris-Roubaix. Running for 250km across industrial northern France, it takes in 27 sections of cobbles which quickly sort the men from the boys – or, perhaps more fittingly, sorts Fabian Cancellara from everyone else. After his win at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, who can beat the Swiss to the velodrome in Roubaix?
What kind of race is it?
It isn’t nicknamed ‘the Hell of the North’ for nothing. The most brutal pavé race in professional cycling, crossing the finish line at all is an extraordinary achievement for a cyclist. Last year only 86 of the 196 finishers reached the Roubaix velodrome, having fought their way through historic battlefields in a war of their own, across terrain so rough it seems impossible to ride a bike over at all.
It is a race for the strong men, but the strongest doesn’t always win. Not only does brute strength play a part, but riding technique and strategy are crucial, as well as luck – with this latter possibly more pertinent than in any other race. With the pavé multiplying the risks of crashes and punctures, races can be lost in an instant. Fortunately this year the weather forecast suggests the cobbles should stay dry, though come the 27th cobbled section on Sunday this will be of little comfort for the battered riders.
Winners in the last five years:
2008: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
2009: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
2010: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
2011: Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Cervelo)
2012: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
What happened last year?
Tom Boonen made up for the absence of Fabian Cancellara by emulating the Swiss powerhouse on his way to his fourth Paris-Roubaix win. With 55km remaining he found himself alone at the front of the race, having quickly cracked everyone else with an attack. It was a brave move and it seemed like he had gone too early with other favourites massing in a group behind. But he wasn’t reeled in, taking advantage of the hesitations and divisions amongst the others to come across the line over 1½ minutes up on Sebastien Turgot and Alessandro Ballan.
1. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 5:55:22
2. Sebastien Turgot (Europcar) +1:39
3. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) same time
4. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) s/t
5. Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
6. Lars Boom (Rabobank) +1:43
7. Matteo Tosatto (Saxo Bank) +3:31
8. Mathew Hayman (Sky) s/t
9. Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda) s/t
10. Maarten Wynants (Rabobank) s/t.
This year’s race
The 27 sections of cobbles – which are counted in descending order from 27 (the first cobbled section, 98.5km in) to 1 (the last) – are all given ratings, with one star being the least difficult and five the most. There are three five-star sections on this year’s parcours, starting with the famously brutal Trouée d’Arenberg after 158km, followed by Mons-en-Pévèle just under 50km later and the Carrefour de l’Arbre after 236.5km.
There are some adjustments for this year’s edition, with one of them being the shifting of the Trouée d’Arenberg section 14km earlier in the parcours than it was last year, possibly meaning the big favourites may make their moves a little earlier too. Another change is the reintroduction of the Hornaing section just over 10km after the riders pass through the Trouée d’Arenberg, with it being the longest section of them all at 3.7km.
Who to watch
With Tom Boonen‘s spring classics campaign over after a fall at the Ronde van Vlaanderen last weekend, there is one man so strong it is his race to lose. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) won the Belgian classic in his typically dominating fashion, and there’s not much to suggest he won’t do the same here. He did crash at Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs, as well as when out reconnoitring the Paris-Roubaix route, though he has only sustained minor injuries. Let’s just hope the falls aren’t omens for Sunday!
Unfortunately Cancellara’s nearest competitor over the classics campaign so far, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won’t race Paris-Roubaix, leaving it up to other riders to try and challenge the Swiss. After picking up a podium behind Cancellara and Sagan at the Ronde, Lotto Belisol’s Jurgen Roelandts will be hoping for a good result, and has to be considered one of the best of the rest.
In the absence of Boonen, Omega Pharma-Quick Step will leave their leadership up to Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, who demonstrated his cobbled prowess with a top ten finish in this race in 2009. He finished in the peloton just outside the top ten in this season’s Ronde, though with the team fully focused on the former French national champion, he will be hoping for better.
IAM’s Heinrich Haussler seems to be finally showing something like his best form after years of disappointment, and he’ll be podium-hunting again after a sixth-place finish at the Ronde. Sebastien Turgot (Europcar) who picked up second place here last year will ride again, while 2011 winner Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Sharp), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil) and a so far subdued Pippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) will be looking to cause an upset.
FDJ’s Mathieu Ladagnous and Yoann Offredo look in good form, while BMC duo of Taylor Phinney and Thor Hushovd have the talent – if not the shape – to be riding near the front. Sky are bringing a strong outfit, with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard all capable on the classics terrain, though it’s unlikely that any of the trio will be challenging for the victory.
Paris-Roubaix is Sunday 7th April. Live coverage will be shown on Eurosport. For other options check cyclingfans.com.
Link: Official website