With Paris-Roubaix just days away, teams are solidifying their rosters and riders have already headed out to the Arenberg forest to get their bones accustomed to the jarring which will be inflicted upon them on Sunday. The race organisers have also reconnoitred the route, and have found almost all of the pavé sectors to be up to the task.
Christian Prudhomme and Jean-Francois Pescheux previewed all 28 sectors on Thursday. "Apart from the end of the first sector (of pavé) at Troisvilles, which should be cleaned up ahead of Sunday, all of the cobblestones are raceable," Pescheux told AFP.
Whether the cobbles hold up to the rain which is expected throughout Sunday remains to be seen, but this year's edition will most certainly not be a repeat of 2007's hot, dusty and dry race which proved perfect for the Australian winner, Stuart O'Grady.
O'Grady, who suffered severe injuries in the 2007 Tour de France, admitted that he is not up to the kind of form which won him the race last year, but his team-mate, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo winner Fabian Cancellara, who won Paris-Roubaix in 2006, will be up to the task. Cancellara previewed the cobbles of the Arenberg forest on Thursday.
Silence-Lotto bands behind Hoste
Silence Lotto team director Marc Sergeant announced the squad for Paris-Roubaix at a press conference on Thursday. The squad will have Leif Hoste as its leader, with Greg Van Avermaet also being a protected rider. Hoste was full of confidence after a 200-kilometre training ride on Wednesday, and barring mechanical problems, has high hopes for Paris-Roubaix.
The Silence Lotto squad did its reconnaissance of Sunday's parcours, beginning with the first pavé sector at Troisvilles through the Bois de Wallers (kilometre 170) on Thursday afternoon, while some riders went up to Roubaix.
Hoste, who had bad luck in the Tour of Flanders, is hoping to find himself in the group of favourites and then let fate take its course. "It is more a race of attrition," he told Sporza.be. "The most important thing I can do is hang with the best. Winning depends on the details."
Hoste's team-mate Johan Vansummeren will be on support duty, but hopes to do so by getting in an early move. "It would be nice to make the early breakaway on Sunday, but in a large group," he said, but continued that the team had not yet discussed its tactics for the race.
Silence-Lotto for Paris-Roubaix: Wim De Vocht, Leif Hoste, Jürgen Roelandts, Roy Sentjens, Maarten Tjallingii (Ned), Greg Van Avermaet, Wim Vansevenant, Johan Vansummeren.
High Road shouldn't be underestimated
With many reports leaving off the High Road team from the list of favourites, the team's directeur sportif Brian Holm warned that his team should not be so easily discounted. "We've got riders like [Bernhard] Eisel, [Andreas] Klier, [Roger] Hammond and [George] Hincapie who are born to ride the cobblestones," said Holm.
Klier, Eisel and Hincapie made the lead group which finished just 21 seconds behind winner Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) in last Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen, while Hammond was 10th at Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem. But the team has another weapon up its sleeve. "People seem to have forgotten but Servais Knaven is a former winner of Paris-Roubaix [in 2001]," Holm observed. "Maybe he's no longer in his prime as a bike rider, but he's pretty close to it."
"I can safely say, too, that Andreas [Klier] is in the form of his life. He did a very strong ride in Flanders, and only lacked a little luck to finish in the top five," Holm continued, explaining that his American Classics rider is still the team's best hope.
"George [Hincapie] is our biggest weapon. You could see when he climbed the Kemmel that easily on Wednesday [in Gent-Wevelgem] how good his form is. We're very confident about his chances."
"All we need is a bit of luck, because luck is a key factor in Roubaix. I always spend the whole of the race with my fingers crossed, hoping that nobody will puncture at the wrong moment or crash. It's an incredibly tense race."
High Road for Paris-Roubaix: Bernhard Eisel (Aut), Bert Grabsch (Ger), Roger Hammond (GB), George Hincapie (USA), Andreas Klier (Ger), Servais Knaven (Hol), Vicente Reynes (Spa), Marcel Sieberg (Ger).
Rojas to lead men in black
José Joaquín Rojas will be the leader for the Casisse d'Epargne team on Sunday. The Spaniard is part of a growing cadre of riders from sunnier climes who are excelling in the cobbled Classics. The 22-year-old was seventh in the Gent-Wevelgem, and is hoping to become the first Spaniard ever to win the "Hell of the North".
Team director Jose Luis Jaimerena has surrounded the Murcian with a "army of protectors " including José Garcia Acosta, Ivan Gutierrez, Luis Pasamontes, Imanol Erviti, Nicolas Portal, Mathieu Perget and Arnaud Coyot.
Lampre to wait for Friday to recon
Team Lampre will wait until Friday morning to head down to the Paris-Roubaix parcours, leaving its Belgian base in Kortrjik at 9am by bus to France, where the riders will take in the toughest cobblestones sectors. Starting from the Querenaing - Maing (kilometre 141) and going through the sector in Mons-en-Pévèle (kilometre 210.5), the route will take in the Forest of Arenberg.
Fabio Baldato, Alessandro Ballan, Marco Bandiera, Paolo Bossoni, Paolo Fornaciari, Massimiliano Mori, Christian Murro and Danilo Napolitano will use the ride to test out their special bikes for the race. Baldato and Ballan will use carbon frames, while the other Lampre riders will use steel. Murro and Bandiera will be on special cyclo-cross frames, while all riders will use carbon forks and special Vittoria tyres.
This edition is of special meaning to Baldato and Fornaciari, who will both get their last chance to take in the pavé before retiring at the season's end. "I will give my best, I will save no energy," Fornaciari said. "In my 12th Roubaix I want to realize an outstanding performance for me and for the team". After racing 14 editions of Paris-Roubaix, Baldato will find it hard to say goodbye to the race. "I'm in a very good form, I will ride at the front. Sunday will be an emotional day."
Milram led by Grabsch
The German Milram team will count on its countryman Ralf Grabsch as its top contender for Paris-Roubaix. The rider, who just turned 34 on Monday, will be supported by veterans Christian Knees, Enrico Poitschke, Markus Eichler and Martin Müller, as well as young riders Fabio Sabatini (23), Martin Velits (23) and Dutch rider Niki Terpstra (22).
"We have a number of options, depending on how the race develops, to be at the front in the final," said Milram's General Manager Gerry van Gerwen. "Last year Ralf Grabsch showed that he can do well in a race like this. Niki Terpstra is in outstanding form right now. Overall our team is doing well. Basically, every one of our riders is good for a surprise on Sunday, if we build on our performance in Gent-Wevelgem and continue to work together as a team."