For a supposed lottery, Paris-Roubaix has had an increasing tendency to run very much according to the form book in the last decade. There have still been occasional surprise winners, such as Stuart O’Grady (2007) and Johan Vansummeren (2011), but by and large, one tenet has consistently held true – the strongest man at the Tour of Flanders is still the strongest man seven days later on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.
To illustrate the point, Peter Van Petegem’s Flanders-Roubaix double of 2003 was the first since Roger De Vlaeminck’s 26 years previously and just the eighth in history. Since then, however, Tom Boonen (2005 and 2012) and Fabian Cancellara (2010 and 2013) have helped themselves to two Flanders-Roubaix doubles apiece, a trend that has often left the Queen of the Classics divested of the same suspense that accompanies the build-up to the Ronde.
With Boonen and Cancellara both ruled out of this year’s Paris-Roubaix through injury, however, the build-up has taken on a rather different guise, despite Alexander Kristoff’s show of force in winning the Tour of Flanders last week. Although his Ronde win was sandwiched between domination of the Three Days of De Panne and victory at Scheldeprijs, Kristoff’s uneven back catalogue on the Roubaix pavé means that while he is the bookmakers’ favourite, he offers none of the guarantees provided by Boonen and Cancellara in yesteryear. In theory at least, the most open and unpredictable Paris-Roubaix of the past decade awaits.
Kristoff’s progression in the classics has been constant during his time at Katusha but so far Paris-Roubaix is one that he has struggled to master. His best result to date was his 9th place finish in 2013 but he has never reached the finale still in the shake-up for the win. By his own admission, he is better suited to explosive efforts on the cobbled hills of Flanders than longer, steadier accelerations on the flat pavé of northern France.
Yet the Norwegian showcased his ability to operate at that kind of threshold during the time trial at the Three Days of De Panne and furthermore seems to be living a Philippe Gilbert in 2011-style state of grace. Kristoff has seemingly forgotten how to lose and, fearful that he is unlikely to remember the feeling in time for Sunday, most other teams will build their races around shedding him from the front group. As ever, Luca Paolini’s sangfroid and support will be crucial.
Even in the absence of Tom Boonen, Etixx-QuickStep has the strongest collective unit in the race, though, with manager Patrick Lefevere insisting that this race suits his charges better than the Ronde. Last year’s winner Niki Terpstra was impressive in Flanders even if he was inevitably overpowered by Kristoff in the finale and, unlike many other contenders, his condition seems to have improved since Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke. Stijn Vandenbergh and, particularly, Zdenek Styar, also have the ability to win, though, as ever, it remains to be seen whether the Etixx triumvirate are all on the same page.
Team Sky also possesses a trio of potential winners, though all eyes will be on Bradley Wiggins in his final outing with the squad. His 9th place finish of a year ago means that his aspirations have been taken more seriously by his peers this time around, and his preparations have been more precisely targeted. One senses that in order to win, however, he will need to find a way to enter the velodrome alone.
Although Wiggins is nominally team leader, Geraint Thomas’ form means that he should have plenty of latitude and the Welshman will be eager to bounce back from his Tour of Flanders disappointment. Ian Stannard’s Milan-San Remo crash has hampered him in recent weeks, but he remains a threat particularly if he manages to get up the road ahead of the denouement.
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Lars Boom (Astana) are perhaps the two most graceful exponents of the art of pedalling on the cobbles, and the former teammates arrive at Paris-Roubaix from very different places. Vanmarcke was among the favourites for the Tour of Flanders but surprisingly fell flat, and will look to rebound at least as well as he did two years ago when he finished second to Cancellara. Boom will have taken heart from his 6th place finish in Flanders, which shows that he has recovered from his Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke crashes.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), so impressive in winning Milan-San Remo, has enjoyed little in the way of good fortune on the cobbles so far but Paris-Roubaix is the perhaps the race that suits him best. He took second place a year ago, and nobody – not even Kristoff – will want to risk bringing him all the way to the velodrome. For Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), Paris-Roubaix is the last opportunity to salvage a disappointing spring by his lofty standards. He finished a mixed Ronde in 4th place – “I had no legs in the last kilometre,” he said – and will look to replicate the defiance he showed at last year’s Paris-Roubaix, if not necessarily quite the same level of aggression.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) managed fourth at Paris-Roubaix two years ago, and even if he is patently better-suited to the Tour of Flanders, an open and attacking race would suit him and teammate Daniel Oss. Lotto-Soudal will doubtless approach the race in a similar frame of mind. Jürgen Roelandts, André Greipel and debutant Tiesj Benoot should all be on the offensive, though it’s hard to picture any as a potential winner.
Elsewhere, Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) performed respectably at the Tour of Flanders despite an illness-interrupted build-up and he ought to be more of a factor here. Stijn Devolder leads for Trek in the absence of Cancellara, Sebastian Langeveld is on hand for Cannondale-Garmin, while Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) lead the home challenge, and seek to become the first French winner since Frédéric Guesdon’s surprise win back in 1997. It could be that kind of year.
After the start in Compiegne on Sunday morning, the first 100 kilometres or so amount to little more than a (high-speed) preamble before the peloton hits the first of 27 sectors of cobblestones at Troisvilles. Conventional wisdom has it that Hell proper begins at the Arenberg Forest some 60 kilometres later, but the beckoning antechamber beforehand always has a whittling effect on the peloton, with the four-star sections at Quievy and Haveluy particularly demand.
The jutting cobbles of the Arenberg Forest, 2,400 metres in length, always provide the first major shake-up of the contenders, however. Like the first mountain stage of the Tour de France, the sector won’t tell us who will win Paris-Roubaix but it certainly provides a fair indication of who won’t. Seventeen sectors of pavé still remain, and the beauty of Paris-Roubaix is that, even in Boonen and Cancellara’s pomp, it was never obvious when the decisive move would form – unlike say, an Ardennes Classic or even the revamped Tour of Flanders.
The trio of sectors around Orchies lead in neatly to the tough, five-star section at Mons-en-Pévèle, a perennial favourite of Cancellara and so often the beginning of the race’s endgame. The novelty this year, however, is that the pavé on the final five-star sector, the gruesome Carrefour de l’Arbre, has deteriorated to such an extent that ASO’s Thierry Gouvenou has rated it on the same level of difficulty as the Arenberg itself.
Just 17 kilometres separate the Carrefour de l’Arbre from the finish, giving it the feel of a final launchpad, though like twelve months ago, it would be no surprise if the winning move didn’t come until significantly closer to the Roubaix velodrome – or even on it.