Mixed emotions on eve of descent into Hell

Feared and revered, no race evokes emotion among the riders like Paris-Roubaix. For the contenders,...

Pre-Roubaix vox pop, April 8, 2006

Feared and revered, no race evokes emotion among the riders like Paris-Roubaix. For the contenders, it's 259km of battle royale, while for domestiques, it's just a matter of surviving long enough to make a contribution to your team leader's victory bid. As riders made last-minute preparations on the eve of the race, Brecht Decaluwe and Hedwig Kroner spoke to them about the coming Sunday in Hell.

Paris-Roubaix's pre-race team presentation and the atmosphere is electric. It's a mixture of excitement at the imminent biggest one-day race of the year, and nervous anticipation at the suffering all riders will undergo tomorrow and the glory that will accrue to the winner and the other protagonists in the day's tale.

Phonak's Uros Murn doesn't have good memories about his last passage of the forest of Arenberg, two years ago. "I fell at that passage, so the race was over for me," he said. "There is a large amount of luck needed for a good performance in Paris-Roubaix. You need to be up front all the time and that's hard." The Slovenian rider reflected on his performance in Gent-Wevelgem on Wednesday. "Just before the race I got a new bike because my other one was stolen after my fall in the Tour of Flanders. Probably because of the new position, I got cramps. That's why I dropped away from the first group after the Kemmelberg. I remember from that race that I was strong enough to be in front after the most difficult sections."

The winner of that race, Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) should have plenty of confidence coming into Paris-Roubaix. The queen of the CLassics fits the Norwegian bear from Grimstad like the race is made for him alone. "I'm big and strong. Maybe the race isn't made for me, but more probably I'm made for this race," he said.

The powerful sprinter described the effect of his Gent-Wevelgem win. "I'm more relaxed after Wednesday," he said. "That's good because I've got excited about Paris-Roubaix ever since I was a little child."

Paris-Roubaix is a race where strong pacing from your team-mates can make all the difference. "My team mates will be there to assist me as much as they can," said Hushovd. "From about 60 kilometres from the finish line, I might have to do it on my own."

What about the big favourite, Tom Boonen? Could a group of riders from other teams work together against Boonen so someone else has a chance to win? "I am not riding against Boonen," said Hushovd. "In the end everyone just wants to win, so we don't help each other."

As for Hushovd himself, "I feel good," he said. "I feel strong and confident with a victory that close to Paris-Roubaix. We rode the course on Friday, and did a few sections of the pavé like the Arenberg. I hope to have a race without bad luck, without punctures or crashes; then, as I have good legs, I'll be there for sure in the finale."

At the Quickstep press conference on Friday, Boonen himself named Kevin Hulsmans as one of his big rivals on the road to Roubaix. As they're on the same team, that's one of the gentle, self-deprecating gags that pepper Boonen's public statements. So what did Hulsmans himself think about it?

"I'm riding very well over the cobbles," Hulsmans told Cyclingnews. "Last year I was also very good in Roubaix. Apparently this is a race that fits me more than the Tour of Flanders. Those climbs in Flanders don't suit me that well. It's a totally different race."

Hulsmans takes inspiration from Quick Step's team coach Wilfried Fitte Peeters. Like Hulsmans, Peeters was mostly a team worker who came into his own for Paris-Roubaix. Peeters was second in 1999, third in 1998 and in 2001 was one of four riders from the team (then sponsored by Domo) to make the top five in Roubaix after a 180km solo breakaway.

"[Peeters] is a big example for me," said Hulsmans. "I'm also not sufficiently explosive to make a difference on the hills. This is the most important race of the year for me."

Tactics are difficult to discuss before a race, yet so easy afterwards. Hulsmans aims are straightforward. "If there is an early escape, I want to be there," he said. "You never know if you're going to succeed but I will try. A big group is not allowed to escape without a Quickstep rider in it. We don't want to lead the peloton right from the start."

It seems that everybody is talking about how and where Quickstep is going to win Pris-Roubaix. It seems that nobody considers that they also could lose. "Of course, it is always possible to lose the race," said Hulsmans. "That would be a disappointment. But then we will try to win the next one, the Scheldeprijs in Schoten."

Hulsmans team-mate Nick Nuyens did a reconnaissance ride with the team on Saturday. "I suffered a bit on the cobbles," he said. "There are some serious blisters on my hands. Last year, I didn't suffer as much from it. But I don't think it will bother me too much."

Peter Van Petegem (Davitamon - Lotto) won Paris-Roubaix and remains a rider to watch. "Depending on people's opinions I am a favourite," he said. "I'm hoping to end up on the podium."

Van Petegem's team-mate Gert Steegmans had a strong start to his classics season but his form has dropped a little since. "There is a lot of pressure on our team but we feel confident," Steegmans told Cyclingnews. "Peter [Van Petegem] is our one and only team leader. We will try and see how we can get rid of Boonen. How we're going to do that is something for tomorrow." Steegmans is riding well on the cobbles himself but will he be strong enough? "I finished fifth in the espoirs race in 2000. Two weeks ago I suffered a shortage of sugar. That was frightening because suddenly you just can't move on anymore."

Last year, Aart Vierhouten moved from Davitamon to the Skil-Shimano team. The Dutchman has ridden Paris-Roubaix nine times so he knows how to master the Hell of the North. "I was always just behind the leaders. That delivered some top 20 results, but never anything better than that."

Vierhouten finished 18th in 1997 and 2002 but in his new role as team leader he hopes for a better result this year. "Well, I'm surely going to try this," he said, "but it's easier to say that than to do it. For the team, we got a unique chance to compete here since we got a wild card. We are eager to do well."

Gent-Wevelgem was the last race where the Dutchman figured before Paris-Roubaix, finishing 25th. "I had a good race since I was in the first group," he said. "In the sprint I chose to race at the left side. Sadly enough, most riders decided to do so too. This locked me up a bit so I didn't have a great result."

Bernhard Eisel (Francaise Des Jeux) has rather less lofty ambitions than the riders who hope to contend for the win and podium places in Roubaix. "I just want to finish this race; that's my big dream," he said. "It's Roubaix, you know: it can be over in the first feed zone or even before. We did the reconnaissance of the first sector two weeks ago, and the last sector three days ago, so now I know it really well. I've heard that they made some improvements to the Trench of Arenberg now, and that it's really good. But like the Koppenberg, Arenberg is part of the Classics, and you can't do anything about it. It's part of the race, they've fixed it, so I don't think it's a big problem. If it rains tomorrow it's like at stage races: there's always rainy days!"

Eisel's team is using specially-modified bikes from sponsor Lapierre with cantilever brakes instead of the usual calipers. "We got them from cross-country bikes, and they work really well," he said. "We shouldn't have a problem with them, as we've been racing with them here in Roubaix for the last three years. There were small problems last year, but we changed them again this year and tried them out during the last couple of weeks. If it rains, they give us an advantage; and if it stays dry, it's the same as with the normal brakes."

Retired pro Rolf Sörensen was also at the team presentation. The Dane preferred Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race he won in 1993 but often featured in Paris-Roubaix, with a sixth place in 1997 as a highlight. Who did he think would win in Roubaix? "If you have to pick one name it's logical you choose Boonen. He's not going to change his career if he loses."

Sörensen was sanguine about the return of the Arenberg. "Great champions know they shouldn't crash or puncture. If you pick out ten favourites, eight or nine will be there in the finale. Even with some punctures, they will be there."

Every race has good and bad memories for Sörensen. "I was really close in 1997," he said. "Guesdon won, but I was there sprinting for victory too. That surprised me because usually I was aiming for Liège. I did this race mostly in the latter stages of my career. The worst moment was when I crashed at Arenberg forest. I needed fourteen stitches at my head."

Some big names in cycling don't show up for Paris-Roubaix because of the danger. "You can understand the guys," said Sörensen. "They want to do the Tour of Italy. But I reckon most of them are here."

One who is definitely missing is Alessandro Petacchi, even though he started the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem. "I would've tried if I was him, he's got nothing to lose," said Sörensen.

More photographs from the team presentation

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Brecht Decaluwe

Images by AFP Photo

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