The 2021 Spring Classics may be six months in the rear-view mirror but Sunday finally sees the return of Paris-Roubaix after a two-and-a-half-year absence.
The 'Hell of the North' has been buffeted around by the pandemic, cancelled in 2020 and postponed this year, but riders and cycling fans will be rewarded for their patience with a unique autumn edition of the race.
This late-season spot on the calendar could have a big impact on the eventual outcome of the race and the winner in the Roubaix velodrome. We don't have the usual Spring Classics narrative that runs from Milan-San Remo, through Belgium, and then onto these flat, brutal cobbles of northern France.
We have just come from a World Championships that brought a number of Classics riders to the fore but it's also late in the season, and some will be running on fumes.
The autumn weather will also be a factor, with forecasts suggesting we could see wet and muddy conditions for the first time in a generation.
With all that in mind, Cyclingnews has picked out 10 riders to keep a close eye on this Sunday.
Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma)
- Age: 27
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Two finishes but nothing to write home about
Statistically speaking, Paris-Roubaix has been one of Van Aert’s weakest links in the Spring Classics, with two finishes but not even a top-ten to speak of. That said, the Belgian heads into the race as a legitimate contender due to his unquestionable pedigree, his current form, and expert bike-handling skills.
He is a front runner for the victory but, at the same time, his season is on something of a knife-edge. That’s because of the World Championships and much will depend on how the versatile rider adjusts to the failure of missing out a rainbow jersey on home roads.
This has been a brutally tough year, with Van Aert enjoying his fair share of ups and downs. Is Paris-Roubaix one final chapter in which he makes up for some of those second places and near misses? Or is it the final embers of a campaign that switched off after the finish line in Leuven and sparked the inevitable come-down?
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
- Age: 26
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Paris-Roubaix first timer.
Van der Poel might have been a shadow of his prime-time best at the World Championships but, given his problematic build-up to the race and back problems, the 26-year-old still outlasted most of his rivals before securing a solid eighth place.
With those invaluable racing kilometres in his legs, the theory suggests that the former Tour of Flanders winner is about to really hit his stride and, if we’re indeed in for wet Paris-Roubaix, Van der Poel – like Van Aert - could find himself front and centre in a mud-fest of a race that could come down to who can remain upright.
This will be Van der Poel’s first ever Paris-Roubaix tilt but given he won Flanders at just his second attempt - as well as frankly everything he’s achieved at this level over the last couple of years - a victory should be well within his remit.
Like Van Aert, he’ll have an excellent team devoted his needs.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
- Age: 29
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Six starts with a fourth and fifth place to his name
Stuyven came forward when Van Aert wilted at the Worlds and, but for a hard chase and close-fought sprint, almost ended up with a silver or bronze medal.
It was a ride full of grit and determination and although it ultimately ended in sorrow, the Trek-Segaredo rider displayed the top-end form he’s carried since the Tour de France.
With slight question marks over Mads Pedersen’s health after his crashes, it’s Stuyven who will most likely fly the flag for Trek-Segafredo in the final Monument of the season.
With an eclectic squad around him, the Milan-San Remo winner has an excellent chance of bookending his Classics campaign with a second major win of the season.
Florian Sénéchal (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Age: 28
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: 6th in 2019
Almost any of the riders at Deceuninck-QuickStep have the talent and calibre to win Paris-Roubaix but it would be rather boring if half our list was taken up by Patrick Lefevere’s merry men.
We’ve decided to pick just two riders from the Belgian team and the first of those is the underrated Sénéchal.
The Frenchman might not be the most obvious candidate but the was sensational at the Worlds and still secured a top-10 finish after burying himself for Julian Alaphilippe.
He was also sixth in the last edition of Paris-Roubaix back in 2019 and, with a recent stage win in the Vuelta a España, and victory in the Primus Classic, he’s clearly on an upward trajectory.
Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Age: 29
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Six starts and three top-20 finishes
The Dutchman took a well-deserved second place at the UCI Road World Championships with a performance that underlined both his class on the bike and the fact that he’s been knocking on the door of major Classics for some time.
His Paris-Roubaix record is relatively modest – with Flanders more to his liking – but, with wet Paris-Roubaix winner Servais Knaven driving the Ineos Grenadiers team car and a robust squad around him, the 29-year-old has genuine hopes of being in the mix.
It’s a shame that Filippo Ganna isn’t on the start list because the former winner of the U23 version of Paris-Roubaix would have been one of the first riders on our list. Ganna has focused on time trial and track racing in recent weeks and will end his 2021 season at the track worlds later in October.
Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain Victorious)
- Age: 37
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: 13 participations, best result being 6th in 2016 and 2009
If we were putting together a list of riders based on their motivation for a wet Paris-Roubaix then Heinrich Haussler would be well clear of the opposition.
The harder the race, the more severe the conditions, the more the Australian seems to thrive and there’s something rather romantic about a Classics rider widely considered outside the realms of the top-tier favourites who relishes the first wet Roubaix in a generation.
Fairytales aside, the likely scenario is that Haussler – who was inexplicably left out of the Australian national team for Worlds – will start the race in the aid of Sonny Colbrelli and Matej Mohoric. However the Italian has never raced Paris-Roubaix and the Slovenian doesn’t exactly have an excellent track record, with just a 70th place to his name in 2019.
Will Haussler win? Well, the odds are against him but there’s no doubt he’ll be the most fired up rider at the start on Sunday morning and, at this point in the year, with riders thinking about off-seasons and holidays, that desire can take you an awfully long way.
Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe)
- Age: 27
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Second in 2019
After a spring devoid of results, it looks as though the German is finding some form at Bora-Hansgrohe, with a stage win in the Tour de France followed by an impressive ride and overall victory in the Deutschland Tour.
He was just off the pace at the World Championships, missing a key move in the finale, but overall the 27-year-old looks in fine fettle. With Peter Sagan to bounce off, Politt is likely to have a free and so more dangerous role over the cobbles this weekend.
His second place two years ago feels like an age ago but it was proof of his talents, and while he won’t be backed by many to win in a sprint from a small group, his win in Nimes at the Tour demonstrated that, if given an inch he’ll take a mile.
Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Age: 35
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Second twice
Yves Lampaert and Kasper Asgreen could easily make this list given their talents and current condition, but Stybar gets the nod based on his two second places and his potential advantages should the conditions on the cobbles drastically deteriorate due to the weather.
The now 35-year-old Czech has finished inside the top-10 on every one of his seven appearances and, with such depth and riches at Deceuninck-QuickStep team, the race could simply be determined by how many riders they can flood the lead group with.
It’s true, he hasn’t won a race since E3 in 2019, and Asgreen looks like both the present and the future of this team on the cobbles, but there’s enough mileage still left in Stybar’s tank to suggest that his maiden Monument is still a possibility.
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ)
- Age: 27
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Finished 11th at the last edition in 2019
The Swiss powerhouse leads strong Groupama-FDJ squad that includes Arnaud Démare and the high-flying Jake Stewart, who was eighth in the U23 version back in 2019.
It’s Küng that leads the line, though, with his form clearly in check after a win in the European Championships time trial and a string of other results.
His Paris-Roubaix record isn’t exactly stellar and he’s yet to crack the top-10 but he’s got the skilset and team around him to make it into the finale.
Like Politt, he probably can’t arrive in the velodrome with faster rivals but Küng is the sort of rider who can anticipate the final attacks and if he gets even the smallest of gaps he could time trial to victory.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hangsrohe)
- Age: 31
- Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Winner in 2018
Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert, Mads Pedersen, Michael Valgren, Sep Vanmarcke, Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet all deserve mentions but our final spot goes to Peter Sagan.
The 31-year-old has enjoyed a relatively successful season with win in the Giro d’Italia, Tour of Romandie, his home Tour, and Catalunya but he will always be heavily judged by his record in the Classics. Despite his consistency in recent times, he’s not looked like a winner for quite some time but he cannot be written off due to his record and his qualities as a rider.
Sagan was off the pace at the World Championships but Paris-Roubaix is an entirely different race. Whereas he has been heavily marked in Classics races of the past, he heads into this weekend with virtually no pressure on his shoulders.
This will also be one of his final outings in Bora-Hansgrohe kit, with his move to TotalEnergies confirmed for 2022.
The key is whether Sagan is going through the motions or whether he’s fired up and able to remind everyone of the rider he was two or three years ago.
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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