Going into the 2017 edition of Paris-Roubaix, the Trek-Segafredo team is no longer entering the race with triple winner Fabian Cancellara as their leader but with 28-year-old John Degenkolb, the winner of the 2015 edition.
Last year, Degenkolb missed out on defending his title after a training crash in January nearly severed his finger. This year, he says he's back on par with the other favourites such as Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) after a spring classics campaign that included a seventh in Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, and a fifth in Gent-Wevelgem.
"Roubaix definitely closes the gap and brings me on the same level. There are no climbs in Paris-Roubaix. I have the power and the experience," Degenkolb said on Friday.
Degenkolb will be supported by a strong Trek-Segafredo line-up, with young Belgian rider Jasper Stuyven taking a step back in the team's pecking order after disappointing results in the preceding spring classics.
Dirk Demol, the team's director sportif, is highly ambitious for Paris-Roubaix despite the departure of Fabian Cancellara. "With John, we've got a good favourite in our ranks. Fabian was in our team for five years and always rode for the win when he was fit. He had different qualities. John is a leader, too. He's straight-forward. I like to work with him. He was going very strong on the cobbles this morning," Demol said during a sit down in the Weinebrugge hotel in Bruges.
"I knew that Paris-Roubaix was the race that suited us the most. I'd be happy with a podium result but the goal is a victory. Before the season, we had high ambitions but that didn't work out just yet. The team is good, the form is good but there are a few guys a level above the others in those races," Demol said.
Friday was the team's final reconnaissance of the cobbles, and they stopped at Demol's house for coffee and cake: "It's a yearly habit," Demol said. "The recon was good. It's good to ride there because that's where the real cobbles are, not in Flanders."
Part of the reconnaissance was an equipment check, which he said went well. "We tested the bikes. There were no changes made after the tests in December. Back then there were only two riders, now we were complete."
The ride on Friday was also some last-minute intensity before the Hell of the North for some of the riders. "We have to do a good ride in between Flanders and Roubaix," Demol said. "Our team leader wasn't in the Scheldeprijs, nor was Jasper, so this was a good training. John went really strong on the cobbles ... [and] is very motivated. It's a race that suits him really well."
In addition to Van Avermaet and Sagan, the Quick-Step Floors team have Tom Boonen as sole leader and a strong team to support him. "Tom Boonen and the entire team are one of the favourites. They showed in Flanders that they are super strong," Degenkolb said during the press-conference. Later, he added a remark about Boonen being the sole leader. "It's to our advantage that they're riding for Tom, I think. Then again, maybe it's a trick."
Degenkolb's only victory this season came in the Dubai Tour, where he won the bunch sprint on stage 3. His sprint is usually his main weapon but everything is different in Paris-Roubaix, Degenkolb explained.
"Two years ago, I showed that I can take the initiative. I proved to myself that I can ride away from a group too," Degenkolb said. "The conditions will be very fast, super hot and with lots of dust. You need to be in front, otherwise you don't see anything and risk even more to get in a crash.
"I prefer a fast race. When I won it was pretty fast too. We hope to ride a strong race as a team, riding an offensive race, always attentive. If situations change, we always have to be there," Degenkolb said.
Stuyven relegated to support role
One of the men who needs to mark the moves in Paris-Roubaix is Jasper Stuyven. He was regarded as a team leader for the northern classics but he has not had a great run so far. When asked why Stuyven wasn't next to him during the press conference, Degenkolb laughed. "I'm the last man standing. From the beginning, we said I was the leader. We did a good race in Flanders and he plays a very important role. He's a key factor to be successful," Degenkolb said.
Stuyven showed up in the lobby a few minutes later. "It's my favourite race," Stuyven said about Paris-Roubaix. He won the Men Juniors edition of Paris-Roubaix in 2010. He's not the team leader on Sunday and that was clearly not to his liking. "Apparently I'm not. I'm not performing like I want to and it seems like I'm quickly being judged upon it."
After taking second in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Stuyven has failed to crack the top 30 in the more recent one-day races.
"There's no clear indication of what's wrong. I have to do the race. My blood values are OK. Just before the E3 Harelbeke I broke a few records during short efforts. All was going well at the Omloop, Kuurne, Tirreno… Normally, I'm speaking out my ambition but not now. I'm not expecting a top result in Paris-Roubaix," Stuyven said.
Demol knew the 24-year-old rider wasn't feeling great. "It's logical. We believe in Jasper. We talked this morning. Last year he said he wanted to be the team leader while I said he ought to wait until he's 27 years old. It's tough as an athlete. He received the liberty to work towards the period from E3 Harelbeke to Roubaix. Mentally, he must've gotten a knock. He put the pressure on himself. That's dangerous. He wasn't ready to lead the team," Demol said.
"Why he wasn't next to John at the press conference? Last week he was there and there were no questions for him so what's the point of having him there," Demol said.
Edward Theuns twice finished Paris-Roubaix before sustaining a serious back injury. He was upbeat when providing his view on the race. "It's been a while since I raced on the those cobbles. I was prepared for the worst but it was OK. The Carrefour de l'Arbre was harder than the Arenberg forest, to me. My goal on Sunday is to survive as long as possible. Maybe, from 150 kilometres out, I can go in a breakaway group. Physically I'm content. Last week I struggled more with my back. Physically, I'm stronger than previous years. Mentally, the crash is still on my mind. That bothered me the most at Dwars door Vlaanderen and that got me angry. Gent-Wevelgem was much better," Theuns said.
Demol was confident the team would go well in Paris-Roubaix. He added that he had high ambitions for next year too. "There are a few riders who are coming back from injury. Edward Theuns crashed in the Tour de France. Degenkolb had his crash and Fabio Felline had a horror crash in the Amstel Gold Race. Felline lacks knowledge of the course in the Flemish races. He lost a lot of energy because of that. We're going to bring him in for ten days next year and improve it. Hopefully we can keep this group together. I'm already looking forward to next year but first, we're going to come up with a big fight on Sunday," Demol said.