Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will arrive at the start of the 2019 Paris-Roubaix in Compiègne, France, without the same air of 'unbeatability' that surrounded him 12 months ago, and likely to face credible challenges for the 'Hell of the North' crown from the likes of 2017 winner Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), 2015 champion John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), twice runner-up Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and the healthy-again Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale).
Although form shown at the Tour of Flanders counts for a lot – and we've included five of the same riders from our 'riders to watch' at Flanders last week in the following list – Roubaix is an entirely different kettle of fish, with precious few hills and cobblestones that are considerably more severe than those found in Flanders.
If Flanders is for the hard men, Roubaix is for the hard men with luck on their side. Crashes and mechanicals are par for the course. As unexpected 2016 winner Mat Hayman wrote in his retirement letter, "Always keep riding," as the bad luck that befalls you along the way is just as likely to happen to your rivals. You just have to keep battling on towards the famous velodrome in Roubaix, where a lap-and-a-half of the smooth surface of the banked track will decide the winner after more than 250 kilometres of rough northern French roads, with over 50 kilometres of those on cobbles.
Here, then, are our riders to watch at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. Will a winner come from among them, or will a lesser-known rider spring a surprise in Roubaix, à la Alberto Bettiol at Flanders last weekend?
Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
We're not ones to blow our own trumpet too often, but our decision not to include Zdenek Stybar in our '10 riders to watch' for Flanders was vindicated with Stybar's well-off-the-pace 36th place at a race where his best-ever finish has only been eighth, in 2016.
Saying that, our pick to lead Deceuninck-QuickStep home – Philippe Gilbert – didn't fare much better; in fact, the 2017 winner didn't even finish the race, having been sick in the last couple of days before the race.
Stybar's chances for Paris-Roubaix, however, are a whole different matter. The former cyclo-cross star – and three-time world champion – has twice finished second at Roubaix (to John Degenkolb in 2015 and to Greg Van Avermaet two years ago), and has been back to something approaching his best in 2019, following a fallow couple of seasons.
Wins this year on a stage of the Volta ao Algarve, at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and at the E3 BinckBank Classic have thrust the 33-year-old Czech back into the limelight at a Deceuninck-QuickStep team where he was in danger of being overshadowed, and almost forgotten, thanks to a new generation of capable race winners.
However, Stybar now stands to be top dog on a seven-man squad on Sunday that also includes Gilbert, Yves Lampaert and Flanders revelation – and runner-up – Kasper Asgreen, and, should mechanical or misfortune not strike, we'd expect him to at least make the podium again.
Zdenek Stybar wins the E3 BinckBank Classic (Getty Images)
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
If Julian Alaphilippe is the new Peter Sagan, then... Well, where is Alaphilippe? Not lining up at Paris-Roubaix, that's for sure. In fact, he's currently recovering from a crash at the Tour of the Basque Country.
Have Sagan's powers really waned, though? Or has he just had a bit of an off-period having been ill ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico? He nevertheless took second place on stage 3 of the Italian stage race, and then took fourth at Milan-San Remo a week later.
And he was still there in the main group of favourites at the Tour of Flanders last weekend, although he could only manage 11th place in the end, perhaps not being overly motivated in the sprint for third place at a race he won in 2016. Not bad for a not-in-top-form rider.
And let's not forget that he'll be the defending champion when he lines up in Compiègne on Sunday for the start of Paris-Roubaix, where he out-sprinted the valiant Silvan Dillier (AG2R) on the famous velodrome 12 months ago. As ever, he'll have the full support of his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates, and should be able to count on trusted lieutenants Daniel Oss and Marcus Burghardt to be in attendance for as much of the race as possible to help in any crash situations or with any mechanical moments.
Sagan's past his best? We don't believe a word of it.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team)
While the Tour of Flanders continues to elude Greg Van Avermaet – and it's difficult to put a finger on exactly why – the Belgian is nevertheless showing the kind of form that could win him his second Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, having taken the title in 2017, when he out-sprinted Zdenek Stybar, Sebastian Langeveld, Jasper Stuyven and Gianni Moscon.
While the favourites were left watching, and marking, each other while EF Education First' Alberto Bettiol rode off into the distance at Flanders, with Van Avermaet just creeping inside the top 10, Roubaix's cobbles favour a relentless diesel with a bit of luck on their side – at least until the cat-and-mouse games on the lap-and-a-half of the velodrome at the finish.
Flanders remains the monkey on Van Avermaet's back, and regardless of whether he ever shakes it off, Roubaix is a race that he's already won, knows how to win and would like to win again.
The reigning Olympic road race champion has only one win to his name so far this season – a stage of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February – but a slew of podium places in recent weeks, including second at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and third at the E3 BinckBank Classic, prove that the 33-year-old is a long way from finished yet.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo)
Trek-Segafredo need this, and John Degenkolb needs this – and this is his territory. Winner of the 2015 edition of Roubaix, Degenkolb was then thrown a backwards step when he and five Giant-Alpecin teammates were hit by a car while training in Calpe, Spain, in 2016.
Taking an emotional win on stage 9 of the Tour de France last year – the cobbled stage from Arras to Roubaix – went a long way to setting the German back on track, but he and his Trek-Segafredo teammates have struggled to perform this season.
While 2018 Flanders runner-up Mads Pedersen failed to fire last weekend, and Jasper Stuyven at least animated the race to take the team's best result, just inside the top 20, Degenkolb finds himself shouldering much of the responsibility of the team's hopes as the final cobbled Classic heaves into view.
His second place at Gent-Wevelgem the week before Flanders had given the team a glimmer of hope, but Degenkolb's stage win at the Tour de La Provence remains one of just three wins for Trek this year.
The team needs to turn its fortunes around, and they'd do well to put most of their eggs in Degenkolb's basket, with Stuyven also waiting capably in the wings after his fifth place at Roubaix last year, and fourth the year before.
John Degenkolb climbs the cobbles at the Tour of Flanders (Getty Images)
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First)
At this point last week, EF Education First's Sep Vanmarcke didn't even know if he was going to be able to line up for the Tour of Flanders after injuring his knee in a crash at the E3 BinckBank Classic, and now here he is among the contenders for Paris-Roubaix.
Vanmarcke was rightly thrilled for younger teammate Alberto Bettiol's surprise Flanders victory, but the 30-year-old Belgian must have been left wondering what might have been, having twice finished third at Flanders, back in 2014 and 2016.
Even better, though, is Vanmarcke's Roubaix record, with a second place back in 2013, when he was beaten in a 'two-up' sprint against Fabian Cancellara, and two fourth spots – the following year and in 2016.
Add to that sixth place at last year's race, and it's clear why Vanmarcke has to be among the favourites once more, with an enviable record that puts him among the most consistent finishers never to have won 'The Hell of the North'.
As he did at Flanders, Vanmarcke will be looking to animate the race rather than sit in the wheels just hoping to be in the mix come the end, but his knee injury, and Bettiol's win last weekend, mean that the pressure is off both him and the team.
"I'll do the best I can and get the best out of it, and the benefit I have is that there's no pressure on me," he told Cyclingnews at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday.
Taylor Phinney (EF Education First)
Taylor Phinney's eighth place at Paris-Roubaix last year gave the American a firm goal to work towards in 2019, and he told Cyclingnews earlier this year that his EF Education First team had given him a degree of freedom to train in the way that suited him best across the off-season, with the goal of being ready for Roubaix in mind.
"Everybody says this every year, but I think I'm coming into this year, at least for me personally, much more comfortable with where I am and what I'm doing," he said in February.
Phinney's previous best finish at Roubaix had been 15th back in 2012 – his first attempt, although he'd won the under-23 version of the race in both 2009 and 2010 – and he rode the elite race three more times ahead of last year's result, always placing inside the top 50.
His season so far this year hasn't been much to write home about, although it did begin with a win in the team time trial at the Tour Colombia 2.1. But he's been all-in for Roubaix from the beginning, and although he was a 'DNF' at the Tour of Flanders last weekend, he finished Scheldeprijs on Wednesday in 57th place, and now has Roubaix's cobbles firmly in his sights.
After Alberto Bettiol's victory at Flanders for the team last Sunday, EF Education First now have belief on their side: Bettiol won the Tour of Flanders; why can't Taylor Phinney win Paris-Roubaix?
EF Education First have the dual threat of Sep Vanmarcke and Taylor Phinney (Getty Images)
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates)
Let's just say that we've got a good feeling about UAE Team Emirates sprinter Alexander Kristoff's chances for this year's Paris-Roubaix. After his win at Gent-Wevelgem a couple of weeks ago, and third place at Flanders last week, he's a bona fide contender. And yet it seems somehow preposterous that his best finish at the Roubaix velodrome is only ninth, in 2013.
The Norwegian's 57th place at Roubaix last year is hardly a story for the grandchildren, but his 11th place on the 'Roubaix stage' at last year's Tour de France – Arras to Roubaix, on stage 9 – and another top-10 finish at Roubaix in 2015 – 10th, in fact – only help to prove again what he's capable of on the rough stuff.
While the new generation of sprinters – including Kristoff's own UAE teammate Fernando Gaviria – are regularly showing the old hands a clean pair of heels in the bunch sprints, the cobbled Classics are an opportunity for seasoned campaigners like Kristoff to demonstrate that experience often counts for a lot when it comes to Monuments like Paris-Roubaix.
That's perhaps doing him a bit of a disservice when he's still only 31, but what Kristoff may be losing in out-and-out sprinting, he may be gaining in Classics wiles, saying after Flanders that he felt as though he was almost back to the level he enjoyed in 2015, when he took 20 race wins, including that year's Flanders, Scheldeprijs and the GP Ouest France-Plouay.
Kristoff will certainly be one to watch on the cobbles on Sunday.
Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale)
Sickness put a dampener on Oliver Naesen's performance at last weekend's Tour of Flanders, but with his course of antibiotics for bronchitis now finished, and with a week to recover, Naesen will surely be in the mix this Sunday – even if, as a proud Flandrian, the Ronde was the one he really wanted.
Naesen has yet to crack the top 10 at Paris-Roubaix, and this will be only the fifth time at the race for the 28-year-old, but this is a star on the rise, with a win at a Monument surely not far away, as his second place at Milan-San Remo three weeks ago proved.
Since then, eighth place at the E3 BinckBank Classic, third at Gent-Wevelgem and his seventh place at Flanders indicate excellent form, even in the face of illness. Fully recovered, Naesen should be a rider to be reckoned with at Roubaix, and with his AG2R team also boasting last year's runner-up in Silvan Dillier, the French outfit should be in the hunt for at least a podium once again.
AG2R La Mondiale's Oliver Naesen (Getty Images)
Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida)
Heinrich Haussler's come a long way since the 21-year-old who listened to music on his iPod for the entirety of his first Tour of Flanders in 2005.
On Sunday, 14 years later, he finished 33rd at the same race, having once finished second there, in 2009, to Stijn Devolder. That same year, Haussler finished sixth at Paris-Roubaix, which remains his equal-best finish there, along with the same position in 2016.
The Australian's adopted more of a domestique's role in recent years, but had the opportunity to ride for himself at Flanders, and will get that chance again at Roubaix. While many eyes were trained on his Bahrain-Merida teammate Matej Mohoric for Flanders last Sunday, and will be again for Roubaix, the Slovenian hadn't even ridden on any cobbles before racing (and winning) the BinckBank Tour last August.
The 24-year-old Mohoric will no doubt take heart from his 41st place at his first Flanders last week, and will surely relish the opportunity to learn how to take on Roubaix's fearsome cobbles. He'll be one to watch in the future, but perhaps in the meantime, with his domestique hat on, Haussler could lend young Mohoric his old MP3 player while he concentrates on the job at hand.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
There's no Mathieu van der Poel (Correndon-Circus) at Paris-Roubaix this weekend – which is a shame – and so the 'burden' of the young-cyclo-cross-star-turned-road-phenomenon role rests entirely on the shoulders of Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert this weekend.
How capable those shoulders prove to be remains to be seen. Is the Belgian capable of winning Roubaix? It's a resounding yes from us, with the 24-year-old proving at Flanders that age is but a number as he rode strongly among a sea of mostly older and certainly more experienced riders, with 14th place far from doing him justice.
Van Aert already has one Paris-Roubaix under his belt, having taken an extremely impressive 13th place on his debut there last year, riding for his then-team Veranda's Willems-Crelan, so he knows exactly what to expect.
Already this season, having made the jump to Dutch WorldTour team Jumbo-Visma a year than originally planned, Van Aert has scored a second podium finish in as many years at Strade Bianche, a frankly astounding sixth place at Milan-San Remo and second at the E3 BinckBank Classic, and will be able to count on strong support from his Jumbo-Visma teammates, including Mike Teunissen and the experienced Maarten Wynants.
Van Aert could win Roubaix. To say that he and Van der Poel are the future of Classics racing is nothing short of an understatement.
Jumbo Visma's Wout van Aert (Getty Images)
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