The cobbled Classics are almost at an end, with Sunday's Paris-Roubaix – the second edition in six months – drawing a close to one of the most frantic and exciting periods of the season.
Those famous cobbles of northern France will be traversed for the 119th time this weekend, as 175 riders battle to add their name to an honour roll which includes names such as Maurice Garin, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Sean Kelly, and Tom Boonen.
Few among the peloton realistically have a chance to emulate those Paris-Roubaix legends, though, with the vast majority of the riders lining up in Compiègne set to be consigned to historical footnotes, though all with their own unique stories of 257km in 'hell'.
For a select few, the chances of hoisting aloft the famous cobblestone trophy on the infield of the Velodrome André Pétrieux in Roubaix are far greater. Four past winners will be hoping to repeat the feat, while a score of contenders, pretenders, and outsiders will race for their first triumph.
Here, then, are our five favourites for the 2022 Paris-Roubaix, and our five outsiders.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
While many of his Paris-Roubaix rivals are perhaps tired and over-raced, Mathieu van der Poel is still fresh, fit and so the natural favourite to add victory in the Hell of the North to his win at the Tour of Flanders.
The Alpecin-Fenix leader's back problem forced him to rest in the New Year, carefully ramp up his training in February and March and then return to action at Milan-San Remo. He has only raced nine days so far, yet he has won three races and scored two other top five placings.
His alternative road to the Classics has worked out so well that it could be copied in future years, with quality training and spells in an altitude hotel arguably a better way to prepare for a spring peak than travelling around the world for a series of uncontrollable races.
Van der Poel was beaten by Sonny Colbrelli and Florian Vermeersch last October in the rain but his cyclo-cross bike skills means he will be just as impressive in Sunday’s dry, dusty and warm race.
The combined strengths of Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma and QuickStep-AlphaVinyl may leave van der Poel exposed to a tactical race but he is likely to go on the attack early, isolate his biggest rivals and then try to finish alone in the Roubaix velodrome, though a tactical finish and a sprint can also work to his favour, as we saw in Flanders. (SF)
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
The Belgian national champion only trained with his Jumbo-Visma teammates on the cobbles for the first time on Friday and has been tipped to just play a supporting role at Paris-Roubaix after missing the Tour of Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race due to an untimely COVID-19 infection.
However, such is Van Aert’s class and ambition, it is difficult not to imagine him in the thick of the action on Sunday.
Van Aert will apparently have a free role in the race, alongside teammates Christophe Laporte, Mike Teunissen and Nathan Van Hooydonck. He is ready to switch to a support role if he is unable to compete but will surely struggle to resist going after Mathieu van der Poel if his long-time rival attacks.
The Jumbo-Visma team have said they have followed strict medical advice before allowing Van Aert to race again so soon after his infection, with the Belgian undergoing a string of medical check-ups and tests before and after a short secret training block in Spain.
Van Aert has not raced since Gent-Wevelgem on March 27 and spent a week off the bike in isolation. Resurrection and victory at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday would be a legendary comeback (SF)
Kasper Asgreen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl)
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl have endured a dire spring Classics campaign by their own high standards, with Fabio Jakobsen's Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne victory the only triumph they've enjoyed so far. They've won Roubaix six times in their 20-year existence, and a seventh on Sunday would render what the illness, injury, poor form, and bad luck of the past month or so obsolete.
The team will head to Compiègne with several riders capable of leading, but it's Kasper Asgreen who looks the man most likely. The Dane finished a strong sixth place at Amstel Gold Race last week, the biggest indication of form shown by him and fellow leaders Yves Lampaert, Florian Sénéchal and Zdenek Stybar in recent times.
Lampaert has said that the Belgian squad will ride on the front foot and attack on Sunday as they hope to re-take the mantle from the teams of the spring, Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, while the team has indicated that the collective performance at Amstel was more promising than what has gone before.
It's rare that the powerhouse squad – which, depending on your definition of Classic, has 60 of them on the palmarès over the past two decades – heads to Roubaix as something of an underdog, but they can never be counted out. Former Flanders winner Asgreen looks the man most likely. (DO)
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ)
As Marc Madiot and Frédéric Guesdon know, the Groupama-FDJ team has a special history with Paris-Roubaix, the two Frenchmen winning the race in 1985, 1991 and 1997.
Küng has gradually taken over as Groupama-FDJ’s next potential Paris-Roubaix winner and seems at his very best this spring, grabbing top 10s at Flanders, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Amstel Gold Race as well a finishing third at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic.
He is joined in the team by Valentin Madouas, who was second at Flanders, and British Junior Paris-Roubaix winner Lewis Askey to form a fascinating trio of riders for the French squad.
Paris-Roubaix is about power, speed and bike skills, and Küng has all of them. His run of top ten placings in the Classics indicate victory is within reach. Imagine Madiot’s joy and celebrations if he pulls it off. (SF)
Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers)
By his own admission, Filippo Ganna has been somewhat confused over his anointment as a major favourite at Paris-Roubaix this year. The Italian won the under-23 version of the race, though that 2016 triumph has largely faded into the memory behind the packed palmarès he has built up as a pro over the past three seasons.
He's trained specifically for Roubaix this year, though, simulating high-intensity efforts on the track, and being a big, strong time triallist, he certainly fits the archetype of a rider who can excel at Roubaix. From two appearances so far, though, he has racked up a DNF and a finish outside the time limit.
If listing Ganna alongside the likes of Van der Poel and Van Aert seems a touch far-fetched based on that record, it's important to remember the team he's on. Ineos Grenadiers' have shone at recent Classics, with team strength in the finals playing a major role in Michał Kwiatkowski's and Magnus Sheffield's triumphs at Amstel Gold Race and Brabantse Pijl.
The pair will join Ganna on the start line, while veteran cobbled campaigner Luke Rowe, Flanders runner-up Dylan van Baarle, and the mightily impressive Ben Turner are also racing. While all of them are likely more of an outsider than a favourite, it's their team strength which elevates them – realistically this spot could just be dedicated to Ineos as a collective. (DO)
Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious)
Mohorič stunned the sport when he used a dropper seatpost to distance his rivals on the descent of the Poggio and snatch victory at Milan-San Remo last month, and the Slovenian is always a threat in the longest Classics.
He has failed to impress since his Milan-San Remo victory, though, but he can never be ignored and has the physique needed to survive over the cobbles of northern France.
In the absence of 2021 winner Sonny Colbrelli and veteran Heinrich Haussler, Mohorič will share team leadership at Bahrain Victorious with Dylan Teuns. The Belgian is on form and so a threat for Sunday but his lighter build may mean he could struggle on the cobble during his Roubaix debut. (SF)
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)
The Dane appeared lean, nervous and ambitious when he spoke to the media on Friday afternoon, insisting he has the form to lift the cobbled trophy in the centre of the velodrome.
Pedersen has won four sprints in recent weeks, including two at the recent Circuit de la Sarthe. He was sixth at Milan-San Remo, seventh at Gent-Wevelgem and eighth at the Tour of Flanders; always in the race but just never in the decisive moves.
He hasn't yet impressed in four rides at Paris-Roubaix but there is a real sense he could finally do a big ride on the dry, dusty and fast cobbles of this year’s race.
He will again team up with Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns, and Trek-Segafredo hope they can place riders in the right moves that could come at any time during the final 100km.
Pedersen’s fast sprint finish is a clear tactical advantage. He can mark and control his rivals, knowing he can surely beat everyone, including Van der Poel and Van Aert in a sprint finish in the Roubaix velodrome. (SF)
Ben Turner (Ineos Grenadiers)
It's a big call to list a neo-pro among seasoned Paris-Roubaix veterans, and even past winners, but if any neo-pro deserves to make our list this year it's Turner. The tall 22-year-old followed Tom Pidcock in joining Ineos from Trinity Racing and has impressed over and over by the side of his fellow Yorkshireman this spring.
Turner has been notable in playing a team role over the past six weeks, often sighted putting in big turns on the front and chasing moves during his first spring campaign as a pro. In recent weeks, he's been strong enough to play his cards in race finals, too, finishing eighth at Dwars door Vlaanderen after tirelessly assisting Pidcock during the hectic run to the finish.
Last week's Brabantse Pijl saw him take fourth place, his best result yet, with him and Pidcock celebrating Magnus Sheffield's stunning solo win as they finished. Once again, that Ineos collective is expected to be the 'leader' on Sunday, with any one of several – mostly young – men able to take the reins.
Ganna, Kwiatkowski, Sheffield and Turner have just five Roubaix participations between them, while Van Baarle has seven but has never made the top 15. As a result, they haven't a collective glittering palmarès at the race, but it's easy to imagine any one of them – or several – in the lead group during the final. Turner might just be up there. (DO)
Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert)
It seems like a surprise to pore through Alexander Kristoff's palmarès and find that his best result at Paris-Roubaix is a ninth place all the way back in 2013, but it's the truth. The Norwegian has started 11 editions of the race but hasn't yet finished within 30 seconds of the winner.
He may have Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and more on his win list, but the 34-year-old just hasn't yet been able to put it together at the Hell of the North. He's in good form this year, though, having soloed to victory at Scheldeprijs earlier this month – a first for the sprinter.
The win was his second of the year, and together with Biniam Girmay's Gent-Wevelgem triumph means that Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert have already enjoyed a dream spring. After four years at UAE Team Emirates, Kristoff looks to be revitalised at his new squad, and in his own words can count on a team built for the Classics rather than Grand Tour GC ambitions.
A career-best result on Sunday wouldn't be a surprise to anyone. The same can be said about another Monument victory for a rider of Kristoff's pedigree. (DO)
Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën)
It's strange to list a past winner of the race among the outsiders for victory on Sunday, but we round out our list with one of them in Van Avermaet. While QuickStep's travails have made the headlines through the spring, his AG2R Citroën have quietly endured a similarly troubled campaign so far.
The Belgian and Classics co-leader Oliver Naesen are, on paper, among the strongest cobbled forces in the peloton, but they have failed to make an impact at the front of the cobbled Classics since the pair finished third and fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the end of February.
Sunday is their last chance to score a result, but you can't say that a spring-redeeming victory for the team looks to be particularly on the cards. The pair have suffered bad luck and crashes on multiple occasions this spring and will hope to avoid any repeats at Roubaix. Should they do so, there's no question that Van Avermaet and Naesen represent real threats for the podium – or more. (DO)
Aside from our five favourites and five outsiders, there are plenty of other major names lining up at the start on Sunday, and they're all worth a mention here.
Lotto Soudal come with three top riders, including former champion Philippe Gilbert. The Walloon has said he ideally wouldn't be racing due to breathing issues, though, while Victor Campenaerts has said he'll work for his teammates. That leaves Florian Vermeersch as team leader six months on from his debut second place. The 23-year-old will hope to avoid the bad luck that has hit him so far in the spring.
Matteo Trentin leads UAE Team Emirates. The Italian showed some solid form at the start of the Classics and won Le Samyn, though in recent weeks he hasn't looked to be at that same level. 2019 runner-up Nils Politt leads Bora-Hansgrohe. The German's best result of spring so far is fifth at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Israel-Premier Tech showed themselves as a cobbled force at last year's race, taking two top 10 spots. Ninth-place Guillaume Boivin is back this time, though Tom Van Asbroeck and Sep Vanmarcke sadly miss out due to illness and injury.
Former winners Niki Terpstra (TotalEnergies) and John Degenkolb (Team DSM) are both racing on Sunday, and while they may not be as strong as they were when they triumphed in 2014 and 2015, you can never count out veteran cobbled riders at Roubaix.
Finally, EF Education-EasyPost come with Sebastian Langeveld and Stefan Bissegger, though like their team, neither man has shown much in the way of top form so far this cobbled season.
Major names missing the race include Sonny Colbrelli, Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain Victorious), Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech), Gianni Moscon (Astana Qazaqstan), Max Walscheid (Cofidis), and Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies).
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.
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