By Les Clarke
The 'Queen of the Classics', Paris Roubaix, is the race every one-day specialist wants to win, and every fan wants to see his or her hero triumph in the Roubaix velodrome. In 2005 it's the Belgian contingent and their fans that have most reason to be hopeful, with their men winning last Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem (Nico Mattan) and last Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tom Boonen), and both carrying great form into Sunday's race.
The 103rd edition of the 'Hell of the North' promises to be a monumental battle, with most of last year's top ten back for another crack on the pave; Bäckstedt, Hincapie, Cancellara and Boonen all come into the event keen to perform. Roger Hammond, after standing on the third step of the podium in 2004 was looking to step up a notch with his Discovery Channel team in '05 but injury has probably forced him out after a crash at Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem
Last year's winner Magnus Bäckstedt is back in an attempt to take successive Roubaix victories. Injury as a result of a recent crash means that he'll be riding bruised and a little battered, but the big Swede is likely to overcome this. 2003 winner Peter van Petegem rode well to take third in de Ronde, and appears to be hitting top form at the right time.
Tom Boonen is the obvious favourite - a third place in 2002 (at the remarkably tender age of 21), and wins in last year's E3 Prijs and Gent-Wevelgem, and this year's E3 Prijs and Ronde have established the 24-year-old Belgian as a strongman of the classics, taking the place of three-time Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw in the hearts of Belgian cycling fans, and surely the man to beat in the big-distance races.
Cyclingnews will be providing live coverage of the 103rd Paris-Roubaix starting from 11:00 CEST (Europe)/5:00 EDT (USA)/2:00 PDT (USA)/19:00 AEST (Australia) .