Paris-Roubaix 2011: the top contenders

1. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek)
Despite fluffing his lines last week in Flanders, he remains the rider to beat in Paris-Roubaix. The big question is just how much losing Flanders has affected him in the intervening days. His dismissive comments regarding Nuyens – Cancellara claims that they were out of context but they were reported by several media sources – suggest that he’s still bitter. If by Sunday he’s regained his focus on the task in hand, he will be hard to beat. Cancellara’s tactic in Flanders was simply to try to blow everyone away. Sometimes doing the easy things well can get results. Just ask Nuyens.

2. Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Perhaps not the rider he once was but the three-time winner of ‘The Hell of the North’ is Cancellara’s main challenger and has been in decent form recently, winning Ghent-Wevelgem and coming fourth in the Tour of Flanders. With the support of a strong Quick Step team, he should push his Swiss rival all the way. Depending on how he has recovered from the Tour of Flanders, Sylvain Chavanel’s role could be pivotal to Boonen’s race. Chinks in Cancellara’s armour will have given him and his team further motivation.

3. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo)
Hushovd has failed to make any sort of impact in the Classics and he will be desperate to shake off any talk of the curse of the rainbow jersey. He needs a win to get his season on track and where better than Paris-Roubaix? History may be against him – Bernard Hinault was the last world champion to triumph in Roubaix, all of twenty years ago – but Hushovd has been 3rd and 2nd in the past two seasons, and showcased his strength on this sort of terrain by winning stage three of last year’s Tour de France to Arenberg. Nonetheless, he’ll start as an underdog on a team desperate for a result.

4. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)
The Frenchman was extremely impressive at Flanders and illustrated his considerable Paris-Roubaix potential by coming eighth in last year’s edition. Whether he can raise himself for another ride after the heartbreak of last Sunday and, more to the point, whether he’ll be given the same room to manoeuvre as he was in Flanders remains to be seen.

5. Alessandro Ballan (BMC)
The Italian seems to be coming into his best form and after placing fourth in Milan-San Remo, he was very active again at the Tour of Flanders. The last time Ballan looked this sharp in spring was in 2008, when he was third in Roubaix behind Boonen and Cancellara. He ought to be the strongest of a number of potential podium finishers at BMC, and if the team’s Flanders showing is anything to go by, he will have strong support on the pavé on Sunday.

6. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky)
The Argentine-born Spaniard has performed strongly in recent weeks and is a consistent top 10 finisher at Roubaix, including finishing third last year and in 2005, and second in 2007. He’s been racing under the radar somewhat of late but he’s guaranteed to be in the mix come Sunday. Boasson Hagen’s absence will alter team tactics somewhat, but in Hayman he has one of the top three Roubaix domestiques in the world. Meanwhile British champion Geraint Thomas was one of the revelations of the Tour of Flanders and after his second place at Arenberg in last year’s Tour de France, he knows that he can perform on the pavé.

7. Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)
Stricken by cramps in the finale of the Tour of Flanders, Pozzatto’s only significant performance this season was 5th place in Milan-San Remo. Increasingly desperate for a result, the Katusha man simply has to be in the thick of the action this Sunday. He showed that he has the potential to win the race in 2009, when he finished second behind Boonen but his no-show in Flanders when the hammer went down was not encouraging, and the internal problems that are clearly boiling over between him and Tchmil could disrupt him.

7. George Hincapie (BMC)
It’s difficult to see him winning the race but no-one will take lightly a man who has finished in the Top 10 in seven previous editions of the race and who showed great form in coming sixth in the Tour of Flanders. With just the 2001 Gent-Wevelgem and 2005 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne to show for his efforts on the cobbles over the years, Hincapie is fast running out of chances to win a monument.

8. Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM)
Sixth last year as part of a consistent albeit unspectacular spring campaign, Leukemans is looking on course for something similar this time around. 7th in the Tour of Flanders last weekend, the Belgian will be at least in the mix on the rocky road to Roubaix. However, it’s hard to pinpoint any single thing that he does better than any of his rivals for the top step of the podium, and much like his mercurial teammate Stijn Devolder, his best chance of glory will come from a gridlocked, tactical race.

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