Rating the riders in Hell, April 10, 2009
After a tumultuous start to the 2009 season, the game of predicting the winner has been made more difficult. The Cyclingnews staff used its collective Classics crystal ball to tackle the heady task of analysing who may come out on top in the 107th edition of l'Enfer du Nord.
With the absence of big hitters Stuart O'Grady and Alessandro Ballan, the 'semi-retirement' of Magnus Backstedt and the bad luck Fabian Cancellara has been experiencing lately, the Paris-Roubaix game has changed in 2009.
Perennial contender Steffen Wesemann has retired and won't be around this year, and Silence-Lotto's Leif Hoste is somewhat struggling with his form leading up to the big day. It leaves the door open to emerging Classics rider Martijn Maaskant and the irrepressible 'Australian' Heinrich Haussler.
Many people have said it's Quick Step's race to lose, and with Stijn Devolder scoring another emphatic win in last weekend's Ronde Van Vlaanderen, they may have a point.
Don't be fooled by the voices around you, however; we certainly try not to, which is why we've brought you a line-up of those who could provide a shakeup on the 28 sectors of pavé throughout Roubaix's 259 kilometres.
Tom Boonen - Quick Step
P-R History: Boonen burst onto the scene back in 2002 with his third place behind Johan Museeuw and hasn't looked back. His quiet 2003 was followed by ninth in 2004, then victory in 2005 as part of a spectacular Flanders-Roubaix double. He was a controversial second behind Cancellara in 2006 (Peter Van Petegem, Vladimir Gusev and Leif Hoste were disqualified from in front of him after they crossed a closed railway crossing). Victory last year cemented his place in the race's history.
RVV Performance: He finished 20th, with Italian Filippo Pozzato glued to the Belgian's wheel, Quick Step's tactics quickly switched to Stijn Devoder.
Mud or Dust? Both. 'Tornado Tom' can blow the rest away on either. He was second in the last real mudfest here in 2002, and has won in the dry.
Pros: If this was basketball, we'd be saying, 'You the man, Tom...' Born for this race; the fastest sprinter likely to get to the track in the front group. He's the defending champion, and likely to add another victory in this event to his palmarès.
Cons: There's always a weight of expectation that may be heavy on his shoulders; they are pretty broad shoulders, however.
Stijn Devolder - Quick Step
P-R History: Not much history here. Has only finished inside the time limit once in a lowly 18th place last year. He's worth mentioning though because anyone who can win the Ronde has a chance here.
RVV Performance: Took a second consecutive Ronde crown in similar fashion to last year's victory. In better form than 2008, if that's possible, and very capable of taking the Flanders-Roubaix double.
Mud or Dust? He's proven himself in either, and he's Belgian, so the tougher the better.
Pros: If you can win the Ronde, you can win Roubaix; Part of super strong Quick Step team.
Cons: Boonen will be Quick Step's number one; Devolder hasn't been on the Roubaix podium before.
Martijn Maaskant - Garmin-Slipstream
P-R History: Total surprise packet - one participation, one fourth place. Impressive stuff from this young Dutchman.
RVV Performance: After a quiet buildup to the Classics season, Maaskant burst into reckoning for a Roubaix crown by finishing fourth in rainy, windy and generally disagreeable conditions.
Mud or Dust? Like his 'predecessor', Magnus Backstedt, Garmin-Slipstream's Classics man can handle both
Pros: Seemingly fearless and uninimidated by the occasion, Maaskant has smarts beyong his years and the legs to match.
Cons: Hasn't proven himself over a longer period, which is necessary when it comes to this race, although he proved otherwise last year.
Fabian Cancellara - Team CSC
P-R History: Winner in 2006 by nearly two minutes, which by modern standards is an absolute age. A podium spot in last year's edition increased interest in the Swiss strongman before the Spring had even begun. This year's campaign hasn't gone to plan, however.
RVV Performance: A broken chain on the Koppenberg meant the Saxo Bank star registered a DNF.
Mud or Dust? His fourth place finish in 2004 was in a less-than-dry race, and his win in 2006 came in a dusty duel. If it's dry, he's still a smart money bet for at least a podium.
Pros: Pedigree, strength, teamwork and character. The reigning Olympic TT champion is capable of massive bursts of speed, and his run of bad luck may have ended.
Cons: He's definitely not in premium condition, and doesn't seem to be able to avoid misfortune in '09.
Juan Antonio Flecha - Rabobank
P-R History: After an anonymous 23rd in 2002, the Spaniard has been right up there every year without actually managing to win it. His second place in 2007 improves on his previous bests of third in 2005 and fourth in 2006, and you wouldn't put it past him to improve on that this year. His Achilles heel may be his sprint, though.
RVV Performance: No love for the Spaniard on a tough day in Flanders, and he finished well down in 30th.
Mud or Dust? Dust would suit him better, as he proved in the 2007 edition.
Pros: Rabobank is banking on the affable Spaniard to come through on Sunday, and the conditions should favour him. A lack of spectacular form means he may slip under the radar, which will suit him well.
Cons: Mixed form thus far in 2009 may mean he won' be at his peak.
Heinrich Haussler - Cervélo TestTeam
P-R History:This will be his first.
RVV Performance: Couldn't match up against Quick Step and Devolder, but escaped at the end of a long and gruelling race for second place.
Mud or Dust? He doesn't mind adverse weather, because he has the mind to handle it. The Australia-born can obviosuly deal with the sun, too.
Pros: Had a fantastic spring with second places in Milano-Sanremo and the Ronde, plus three wins so far.
Cons: Starting to get tired. He admitted that in the Ronde he didn't have the same legs he had in the weeks before.
Sylvain Chvanel - Quick Step
P-R History: Never really featured in this race, although given his form this year that may change on Sunday.
RVV Performance: Incredible team work could have see him win rather than his 31st place finish if the final would have developed differently.
Mud or Dust? Maybe the toughest French rider going round at the moment, Chavanel can handle the cold and wet, and is fast enough to stay with the rapid pace when the roads are dry. Like Nuyens, look out for a gutsy move from him in either conditions.
Pros: Great form, a move to Quick Step and under the watchful eye of Patrick Lefevere, the former Cofidis rider will be one to watch.
Cons: Hasn't got the Roubaix pedigree as such; unproven by virtue of his palmares.
Filippo Pozzato - Katusha
P-R History: Pretty unspectacular, although like Nuyens he has worked for Boonen in previous editions. A 15th place in 2006 is the high point of his Roubaix experience so far.
RVV Performance: Having shadowed Tom Boonen all day (much to the Belgian's understandable chagrin), Pozzato finished fifth.
Mud or Dust? Hmm, well…this is a toughie. The mud might mess up his pretty shoes, but then the dust could ruin his beautiful golden locks. Seriously though, despite appearances, Pippo isn't afraid of a bit of rain or dirt.
Pros: Harder than he looks; has had good form all spring and would do well in a sprint in the velodrome.
Cons: Lack of aggressiveness to initiate the decisive move.
George Hincapie - Columbia-Highroad
P-R History: You name it, George has done it here…except win, that is. He's rarely outside the top 10, but has only been on the podium once: second behind an unstoppable Tom Boonen in 2005. Luck doesn't follow George to this race, and he's been cruelly denied on many occasions. The most memorable times have been his exhausted tumble into a ditch in the closing stages of the 2002 race, and a broken steerer tube causing him to fall and break his shoulder in 2006.
RVV Performance: After a tough day at the office, Hincapie crashed in the group sprint for second, ending the day in 34th. It was a game of chance last Sunday, and the American didn't get a slice of the good stuff.
Mud or Dust? Either. Both. Whatever. George doesn't care; he'd race through boiling oil to get hold of that cobblestone trophy.
Pros: No one knows this race better than him; can go well in the predicted muddy conditions; Columbia-Highroad wants him to secure this crown and it'll move heaven and earth to help give it to him.
Cons: Bad luck seems to follow him to this race every year; years aren't on his side, although beware the experienced American with nothing to lose.
Leif Hoste - Silence-Lotto
P-R History: Not too bad, but nothing spectacular. His only real threat in the race came in 2006 when he was second across the line behind Fabian Cancellara, but was later disqualified (along with Peter Van Petegem and Vladimir Gusev) for going through a railway crossing when the gates were down. Otherwise he's just failed to get into the top 10.
RVV Performance: Having suffered several setbacks this season, Flanders was a bit of a turnaround. He was in a promising move, but Quick Step reduced the quietly-spoken Belgian to finishing in a larger group behind Devolder, in 27th place.
Mud or Dust? Has gone well in the dust, but this guy's from Flanders so the mud should be no problem.
Pros: Silence-Lotto has been criticised for lack of results, and this strong rider has a point to prove to many.
Cons: A lack of form could hold him back, unfortunately.
Wild Cards - the best of the rest
No review of the likely contenders would be complete without mentioning the last Frenchman to win in Roubaix: Frederic Guesdon (Française des Jeux). That win was way back in 1997, but Fred has the invaluable experience for any challenge from his teammates - but who they might be, we couldn't say.
Other names worth a mention include former winner Servais Knaven (Milram) and – barring team tactics – the Columbia-Highroads Edvald Boasson Hagen and Marcus Burghardt. Also watch out for Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil), who may create a surprise.