As riders took the stage for the Paris-Roubaix team presentation on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in Compiègne, the crowd favourites were four-time winner Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors), world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and home rider Arnaud Démare (FDJ).
The latter carries the hope of the French nation in the 'Queen of the Classics'. It's been twenty years since the last French winner of Paris-Roubaix, Frédéric Guesdon.
"It would be good if Démare would win, not only for him but also for French cycling," Guesdon told Cyclingnews on Saturday afternoon. Whether Démare will be able to live up to the hopes of his fans remains a question. The 25-year-old rode rather anonymously through Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders, and skipped the bunch sprint in Wednesday's Scheldeprijs to avoid the risks of a crash. Démare's best result so far in Roubaix was a 12th place in 2014.
The 2016 winner of Milano-Sanremo is determined for a good result in his fourth Paris-Roubaix participation.
"My goal is to have fun and hunt down a good result. Anything is possible. Right now I would be happy with sixth, seventh, 15th or the podium," Démare said on Saturday afternoon. "It's really the race circumstances that decide the outcome. Last year I was really happy with my race, even though I cracked at 20 kilometres from the finish. I had my share of bad luck in the last two editions.
"I think I've got a chance. John Degenkolb wasn't the big favourite when he won the race. I've got a good sprint in my legs when we arrive in a small group. It'll be about hanging on to the maximum and push until the line."
He's clearly inspired by the fast German rider because just like Degenkolb, Démare feels the Paris-Roubaix course suits him more than the Ronde van Vlaanderen course with it's short climbs.
"Sunday's a different race with fewer attacks," Démare told L'Alsace. "I was where I wanted to be [in Flanders] physically. I didn't make tactical mistakes. You just run into very strong riders. Roubaix will be different because the course is different. Compared to Flanders, there's generally fewer attacks and that suits the rouleurs. I'll try to follow as long as possible and survive the first selection."
Regarding tactics, Démare had two goals: survive the first selections and maybe go with a big early move. "This year, at the classics, the attacks always came very early, sometimes more than a hundred kilometres from the finish," he said. "The Quick-Step team is collectively very strong. They'll try to make the race explode, trying to isolate Sagan. Much depends on the positioning at the actual moment in the race. If a move goes like in the Tour of Flanders, then I'll follow. It's good to get a bit of a bonus."
Regarding the strong riders he mentioned earlier, Démare was clearly much impressed by Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet but not Tom Boonen, although he emphasised he looked up to the Belgian star. "My favourites are the usual suspects. Sagan and Van Avermaet. I'm not adding Boonen but Terpstra. He went really well last week," Démare said.
Though Démare is regarded mostly as a sprinter, Paris-Roubaix turns out to be his favourite race. His love for the cobbles dates back from 2009. "It's a race that is a legend on its own. It compels respect. It's the legend most of all, the fans, when we're riding through the Carrefour de l'Arbre most of all. It's something magical that I got to know early on, when I rode the junior Paris-Roubaix only a couple of hours before the professional riders. It's a race many want to race, even the climbers want to come. It's the myth, the legend," Démare said.
In fact, it's his motivation when there's foul weather during winter training, he told L'Alsace during the press conference on Thursday.
Form-wise, Démare seems to be going well this year. He's already managed three wins this season with two stages in Etoile de Bessèges and a stage in Paris-Nice. In the Classics, he placed sixth in Milano-Sanremo and sixth in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne before registering more distant results in Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Scheldeprijs.
"I've got good legs. The weeks are going by quite fast. I'm hoping that I can keep holding on to this form just a little bit longer. I did the GP L'Escaut [Scheldeprijs] and I felt alright so I'm confident," Démare said.