When does a contest threaten to become a procession? That’s the question being posed ahead of this weekend’s Paris-Roubaix with Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) labelled as the clearest of favourites.
The RadioShack rider’s domination in E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders in recent weeks has been highly reminiscent of his 2010 campaign and with Tom Boonen – his closest rival on paper – watching Paris-Roubaix with his feet up at home, Cancellara’s task this weekend has the possibility of bordering on formality.
Of course he’s been the out-right favourite before and come up short (2010), but that year he appeared concerned with taking Thor Hushovd to the finish. This year there’s no Hushovd – in terms of form anyway – and a dearth in genuine pedigree threatens to make Cancellara’s race a coronation of his superiority. Luck and tactics may well play their part and Roubaix after all can be the cruellest of arenas but baring misfortune this is one fight Sparticus should well and truly survive
The route itself is largely untouched from last year with 27 cobbled sectors defining the course and few minor alterations here and there.
The first five sectors remain unchanged, but then the course takes a different route, avoiding the Capelle-sur-Écaillon à Ruesnes, Aulnoy-lez-Valenciennes - Famars and Famars-Quérénaing, which were sectors 22, 21 and 20 last year.
Troisvilles a Inchy, the first sector, is certainly not the most demanding on the legs but with 200 riders hurtling towards the first cobbled section at over 60 kilometres an hour, even in dry conditions there’s almost always a crash. If a leader is caught behind at this stage, there’s still time to come back but vital energy will be unnecessarily used.
After the first five sectors the race will divert after Vertain, giving the riders a 10km break before sector 22 in Verchain. The course then briefly picks up the 2012 route on the Quérénaing-Maing sector, which is number 21 this year.
The Trouée d'Arenberg makes his grand entrance at kilometre 158, making it sector 18, rather than 16. The riders will have 3,600m fewer of pavé and 14km less of racing in their legs when they reach the first five-star set of cobbles in the Arenberg forest.
Haveluy, the sector which comes before the forest is often just as crucial as the forest itself as the fight for position starts well before the entrance to the Arenberg.
Exiting the Forest is also a treacherous stretch. The road is wide, open and flat but having pushed the pace through Arenberg riders tend to ease off, turn their heads as they assess the damage they’ve inflicted on the rest of the field. Looking backwards can lead to riders weaving over the road and crashing.
The peloton will again divert from last year's course, exiting the forest to head south toward the Wallers sector, which returns after a five-season absence. The three-star sector, also known as Pont Gibus, cost Sylvain Chavanel his maillot jaune in the 2010 Tour de France.
What follows is a difficult portion of the course which lumps in four lengthy sectors: Hornaing (3.7km), Warlaing (2.4km), Tilloy (2.4km) and Beuvry-la-Foret (1.4km), in the space of 20km.
The riders will then be on familiar roads, with the route following the 2012 course straight through to the finish on the Roubaix velodrome.
The second five-star section comes at the Mons-en-Pévèle after 205km of racing (sector 10), and the third is the Carrefour de l'Arbre which has been the traditional launching pad of the final selection. It comes with 20km to go and is 2.1km in length.
Despite the building anticipation there’s a growing sense that the race is starting to lose its shine.
Cancellara and Boonen aside, very few of the best riders in the world take on the pave. Perhaps that’s why the Tour de France stage through the Arenberg in 2010 was so special: it brought together the guile of grand tour specialists with the brute power of the experienced cobble stars.
Those days are now a rarity. There are no Hinaults or Mosers who mix their season with a blend of one-day races and stages outings, and the specialisation for want of a better word means that a rider can base almost an entire career off the fact he can secure a top ten place in Roubaix each year.
Eddy Merckx remarks, ans sums up the situation perfectly in Les Woodland's new book on Roubaix, saying "It's a shame to say it, but Paris-Roubaix is losing more and more of its value because the great riders aren't there. I've always said that to win without risk is to win without glory."
This year, especially, the race is bereft of star-quality. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will lack excitement, but with Ballan and Boonen out, Pozzato and Hushovd struggling, Cancellara’s main threat could come from a raft of riders riding below his radar.
Sylvain Chavanel (Omega), Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto) may not be afforded too much room but Steve Chainel (AG2R), Lars Boom (Blanco), Taylor Phinney (BMC), Yoann Offredo (FD), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), could offer up a surprise or two.
Based off the results at Flanders where Lotto’s aggression and belief secured them a step on the podium, the best option for many teams will be launch riders up the road in a hope that Cancellara is either cornered or too confident of a catch.
Perhaps the lack of heavy hitters is just what the race needs this year.