Kasper Asgreen never had the chance to take his Tour of Flanders-winning form into Paris-Roubaix this spring but the Dane is feeling confident ahead of the rescheduled race, despite being hampered by sickness at the recent World Championships and despite the threat of rain and mud on Sunday.
Asgreen, who beat Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) in a two-up sprint to win Flanders in April, is vying to become the 11th rider in history to do ‘the double’, albeit in wildly different circumstances.
"I’m in a completely different stage of my shape right now," Asgreen said during a Deceuninck-QuickStep pre-race press conference on Thursday.
"Had it been week apart, like normal, you could use the confidence that your shape was where it was supposed to be, but now it’s been so long, it’s like starting over."
After that Flanders triumph, Asgreen won a stage at the Volta ao Algarve and the Danish time trial title before riding the Tour de France and placing seventh in the Olympic Games time trial. More recently, he has prepared for Paris-Roubaix and the recent World Championships, where he was fourth in the time trial but did not finish the road race despite being amongst the favourites.
He did play a role in firing Michael Valgren across a gap to the crucial selection, with his compatriot going on to take the bronze medal, but later revealed he had fallen ill the night before the race.
"I don’t think it will affect me," Asgreen said on Thursday. "I had a bit of a stomach bug and it hit me on Saturday night ahead of the race on the Sunday. Since Tuesday, I felt fine again, and it hasn’t affected me this week, so I think my preparation has gone as it should be. I don’t expect it to influence Sunday’s race.
"I tried to approach the race the same way I do any other race. I’ve not done anything different than what I know works," he added. "Obviously it’s a completely different part of the season. A lot of time has passed since then [Flanders]. I rebuilt may shape again and think I am where I want to be, so I’m looking forward to Sunday."
One of the major talking points ahead of the weekend revolves around the weather, with forecasts for rain in the days leading up to Sunday, if not on the day itself. The cobblestones have been dry and dusty for the past 20 years, with the race last ridden in wet and muddy conditions all the way back in 2002. The forecasts will cause apprehension in some, but not it seems in Asgreen.
"I’ve only done Roubaix in the dry so I don’t know which I prefer, but normally I don’t care too much if it’s wet or dry. I’ll try to adapt to the conditions that are there and make the best of it," he said.
"If it’s wet, it’s going to be a lot slower. You have to relaunch the bike from a very low speed a lot of times, whereas in the dry you can carry the speed a bit more through the corners. The weather will of course make it a lot harder and you also have the element of crashes, which will be much much higher in the rain, so that’s something you have to stay clear of as well."
Deceunink-QuickStep always head into Paris-Roubaix with a wealth of options and, even in this unique edition of ‘The Hell of the North’, that’s still the case for this Sunday. Asgreen lines up alongside two-time runner-up Zdenek Štybar, 2019 podium finisher Yves Lampaert, in-form and local lad Florian Sénéchal, and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad champion Davide Ballerini, as well as support riders in the form of Tim Declercq and Bert Van Lerberghe.
Štybar, a former cyclo-cross world champion, has always looked at home at Paris-Roubaix since switching full-time to the road, placing sixth on his 2013 debut, fifth in 2014, then runner-up behind John Degenkolb in 2015. He was out-sprinted again on the velodrome in 2017, this time by Greg Van Avermaet (now with AG2R Citroën Team), and went on to place in the top 10 in the two subsequent editions.
"Honestly, very often I was thinking back to the Roubaix I did. For the first one, I learned something when I lost against Degenkolb, then thought I would do it better when I was against Greg [Van Avermaet] two years later, but it didn’t work out. I learned again something and hope this won’t happen again. Maybe I have to arrive alone," he said.
Štybar had the spring of his life in 2019, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3-Harelbeke, but he didn’t have much impact in the rescheduled 2020 Classics and this spring was derailed by illness. He was fifth at E3 but was diagnosed with a heart rhythm issue after Gent-Wevelgem, and was forced to miss the Tour of Flanders and sit out until June. He went on to ride and finish the Vuelta a España, but before suddenly announcing himself as a Roubaix contender with seventh in the World Championships road race.
"It took me a long time to get to where I am. Also, I think a lot of people didn’t believe me that I would come back to my level after the surgery I had, but I am back on my best level," Štybar said.
"After last weekend I am confident again I can compete with the best ones. I think I’m in good shape to race again for the victory."
In terms of the conditions, it has been assumed that a wet and muddy course would lend an advantage to a former cyclo-cross world champion, and there will be two others in the field in Van der Poel and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). Štybar, however, doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
"It’s difficult to say. I think the biggest advantage you get is if you have strong legs, so I mainly hope the legs will be there," he said. "In the end, in Paris-Roubaix there are not that many corners where you can really take some advantage, but I hope for a good day and good legs."
As for the age-old question mark over the QuickStep leadership hierarchy, the general consensus was still that it doesn't matter who wins, as long as it's a blue jersey.
"We try to put as many riders as possible int he final, then we play the game like we always do," said Lampaert. "We try to attack and never be in defence mode."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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