By Brecht Decaluwé
The visions of a hot, dusty day in April when Stuart O'Grady snatched the Paris-Roubaix win in the Roubaix velodrome will be a distant memory this weekend when the venue hosts the cyclo-cross event, Grand Prix Lille Metropole.
As O'Grady enjoys the summer sun in Australia, where he is preparing his defense of last year's title, the mud-addicts in the North of France will descend upon the historic locale, courtesy of the Veloclub de Roubaix organisers. The famed track where the cobbled road classic Paris-Roubaix has had its finish for so many years now hosts the UCI-C1 cyclo-cross race, which was organized for the first time in 2006 when world champion Erwin Vervecken won the race.
In 2007 the Belgian was beaten in a close sprint against Dutchman Gerben De Knegt, bringing back memories to similar sprints in the road classic like the clash between Belgian Eddy Planckaert and Canadian Steve Bauer back in 1990.
This year the 'cross race in Roubaix is once again organized one day ahead of the ninth round of the UCI World Cup in Liévin this year. The ambition of the organizers is to take over the status of World Cup in 2009. The bunch that will line up for the start in Roubaix consists mostly of international cyclo-cross riders, but without the most expensive Belgian stars. An exception was made for former winner and three times world champion Erwin Vervecken who will want to build on his current raise of form.
The local favourite for the win on Saturday is area hero John Gadret, who is still a member of the organizing cycling club. Other favourites are Italian champion Enrico Franzoi, Americans Jonathan Page and Ryan Trebon, Czech ace Radomir Simunek Jr. and last year's winner Gerben De Knegt. They will have to make sure that Belgian elite without contract champion Jan Soetens or Ben Berden don't grab the victory in front of their wheels.