Paris-Roubaix: 12 top contenders

Paris-Roubaix is as unpredictable as any race can be, and luck can play just as big a part as form and strength of teams in attaining a victory here. But it is always the best riders who enter the Roubaix velodrome at the head of the race, and any rider who wins here has achieved the pinnacle of one-day racing. Cyclingnews looks at a dozen of the riders with the best shot at being the one atop the podium on Sunday.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)

Repeating his 2017 exploits was always going to be a near-impossible task. That said, Van Avermaet can only be frustrated with his return on investment this spring. Even during the 'peak Van Avermaet' years, when he would consistently place but never win - see 2015 Flanders and Roubaix - were better than this. The Belgian has been lacking in several departments. Firstly, and most significantly, he hasn't had the same form as 12 months ago when he made winning, and winning in style, look easy. Secondly, his team have not been as formidable, and last but not least, luck and momentum have not been on BMC's side. Take nothing away from Quick-Step's utter domination, but their principal rivals have not turned up. Sunday offers Van Avermaet a final shot at cobbled redemption but victory would really suffice. As with last year, his best chance will be if he arrives in the velodrome with a small group, and on paper, he's still faster than any of Quick-Step's leading options.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Even at 85 per cent of his capacity, Peter Sagan can do things most other pro-riders can only dream of. However, the consensus this spring is that the world champion has not been at his all-conquering best, with Flanders providing the perfect illustration. When Vincenzo Nibali and then Niki Terpstra drifted off the front Sagan had a front-row seat. A top-form version of the Bora leader would have matched both riders, from which point on the podium places would have been sealed with only BMC in a position to then chase. However, Sagan didn't accelerate at that moment. Instead, he turned to look at the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski do to the work. He remains a perennial threat, and unlike Van Avermaet, he has his win due to a classy display in Gent-Wevelgem for confidence.

Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors)

For three years between 2012 and 2013, Niki Terpstra was one the most consistent Paris-Roubaix riders, with a first, third and fifth to his name. The two DNFs that followed in 2016 and 2017 only illustrate the luck needed to succeed on the cobbles, but when Terpstra is good – and as Glenn Miller would say he's 'oh so good' right now - there are few better Paris-Roubaix riders around.

The Dutchman has everything a flat cobbles expert needs; skill at picking the right lines, the necessary horsepower, experience and a team around him brimming with confidence. Recent talk of a weight-loss programme being the reason for his new-found form seems questionable unless the entire team have collectively joined Weightwatchers. Terpstra is just flying.

The retirements of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara also leave Terpstra among the best Monument riders in the world. He's won as many Classics as Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb and Damiano Cunego, and he's one ahead of Van Avermaet and even Sagan. Sunday's race, however, offers him the chance to establish himself among the new tier of the elite. No Dutchman has ever won Flanders and Roubaix in the same season – Raas missed out by a year – and while Cancellara and Boonen made somewhat of a habit of 'doing the double' it remains a bit of a Holy Grail.

Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)

His one and only Paris-Roubaix start came in 2007 in FDJ colours but that lack of experience will not be a factor come Sunday. Gilbert, as Marc Madiot wrote this week, is Quick-Step's 'decision maker', and on the road, it's the 2012 World Champion who calls the shots. His path to Roubaix has been one of the most interesting subplots during the Classics, too. Again, as Madiot pointed out, Gilbert has often put himself into strong a position before covering for his teammates when they've needed him most. The foil could become Quick-Step's primary weapon this Sunday, and few would be at all surprised if Gilbert provided everyone with a long-range assault for good measure.

Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac)

It was tempting to copy and paste the passage from our corresponding Flanders feature, such as been Vanmarcke's consistency this spring. That statement is both a compliment and an indictment on the Belgian's position, given that he always seems to be strong yet always seems to fall down, have bad luck or even worse timing. Strong, agile, durable and hard-as-nails, he has everything in his locker but until he wins a major race, question marks will always surface as to whether he has the killer instinct of a winner. A back catalogue of three top-five finishes justify Vanmarcke's pedigree, he just needs a race to fall his way.

Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ)

He has the form, he has the team, but Demare really makes the list because we're desperate to see how close Marc Madiot comes to combusting should his rider win on Sunday. Demare winning, in the tricolore, to end a 21-year-drought for France in Paris-Roubaix… who, other than the riders on this list and their associates wouldn't appreciate that? On a more serious note, Demare rightly starts as a genuine contender. He won the sprint from the second group last year to take sixth, and while his form this season has been just shy of spectacular he has been a consistent force throughout the spring. His team look solid too, and if they can figure out when to move and when to sit back, they could be Quick-Step's closest rivals. Having ended France's long wait for a Monument with his Milan-San Remo win in 2016, the responsibly of doing the same in Roubaix lies on Demare's shoulders.

Dylan Van Baarle (Team Sky)

Like Quick-Step Floors, Team Sky came into the Classics without a focal point or single leader. Instead, they stacked their ranks with reliable riders, who on their day could compete with the best. That plan looked fine on paper back in February at the opening weekend but in reality, the British team have been found wanting. Ian Stannard hasn't been on a significant podium since Roubaix two years ago, Gianni Moscon hasn't had the punch many expected, and Luke Rowe is still coming back from a serious injury. In fact, it's been neo-pro Chris Lawless who has picked up their best result with third on Wednesday. Step forward Van Baarle. The 25-year-old was 12th in Flanders but the result didn't reflect the work he carried out in the dangerous late move that included Mads Pedersen and Sebastian Langeveld. Had Terpstra only made contact after the penultimate climb, rather than on it, the Team Sky rider could have been looking at a podium. His previous Roubaix experiences haven't been great, and unlike Moscon, he wasn't contesting the win last year. However, with an eye for the right move, Van Baarle remains Team Sky's best chance to rescue a disappointing Classics campaign.

Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale)

Naesen has been underwhelming in his three Paris-Roubaix starts, with 13th his best result in 2016. That said, like others on this list, he has been consistent throughout the spring without ever really reaching the heights many predicted after last year. In 2017, the Belgian crashed and then punctured before cruising home in 31st place but his ability and form should see him compete for the top places on Sunday.

Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors)

No one seemed to bat an eyelid when we named four Quick-Step riders in our list of favourires for Flanders, and while that number drops by one for Roubaix, it's not Stybar who misses out. Top 10 finishes in E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen all point to a rider in quality form, but he's also been an attacking presence in several races since the start of the campaign. In the Volta ao Algarve he almost won the final mountain stage, in Strade Bianche he finished seventh, and in Tirreno, he also played a part. At some point, the Czech is going to win another significant race. His record in the race is also incredible. In five starts he's only been lower than sixth on one occasion and has finished second twice.

Wout Van Aert (Willems Verandas-Crelan)

It's a measure of how far Van Aert has come in recent months that his ninth-place finish in the Tour of Flanders was met with a measure of acceptance. He is an incredible talent, a cross-racing rock star whose natural ability has helped his transition to the road appear seamless. A third place in Strade Bianche, followed by that ride in Flanders illustrate that the 23-year-old can handle the distance, and while team support will be lacking come the latter stages of Paris-Roubaix, a podium ride is not out of the question.

Jasper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo)

'All in for Stuyven' appeared to be the message emanating from the Trek camp in the build-up to this weekend. The 25-year-old has been a persistent presence in the top 10 for almost a month, with strong rides in Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders. And while Pedersen may have stolen the show last weekend it's his Belgian teammate who has the experience, with fourth in last year's Roubaix as proof that he can play a significant part in the finale. It's fair to say, however, that Stuyven has ghosted through some recent races, always making important splits but never really deciding the outcome. Perhaps it's a question of showing more authority rather than missing the last bit of form, but the 2016 Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne winner should be in the mix.

Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)

The moment Trek-Segafredo realised that they had to sign Pedersen came during the 2016 Three Day of De Panne. Riding in Stolting Service Group colours, he made the top 10 and won the white jersey but it wasn't just the result that stood out. On one of the stages a gap opened and in order to protect his position, Pedersen needed to respond and fast. With Trek's management watching on, the then-20-year-old eliminated the danger, rescued his GC hopes, and quickly sent Trek into overdrive to sign him. The last two years, give or take, have seen Pedersen cut his teeth in the Classics, with last weekend's Flanders result the culmination of all that work. He is, as many experienced team bosses and riders pointed out, the real deal. And he's just 22. Last year he made his Roubaix debut, finishing 95th after doing the early work for his team. This time around he starts as a protected rider, and while Jasper Stuyven could prove just as dangerous all eyes will be on Pedersen.

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