Paris-Roubaix is a rare one-day race that presents teams to the crowd on the day before the actual race. It's a tradition for the Queen of the Classics and they're not likely going to break with it any time soon after this 115th edition.
All the teams arrived at the sunny Place Général de Gaulle in Compiègne in their buses on Saturday, more or less following the requested timing. French team Direct Énergie was the first squad on the podium, with Orica-Scott and last year's winner Mathew Hayman closing out the show.
The early introductions mostly saw teams with outside contenders taking the podium before Bora-Hansgrohe was announced, with world champion Peter Sagan. As usual, he wasn't offering up any lengthy answers during interviews. The Slovakian rider hopped through the mixed zone with Bora's press officer indicating a steady pace. When first asked about his injuries after Flanders he was hopeful. "I hope everything is okay. Day by day, it's going better," Sagan said.
When asked about how it would be to reach the vélodrome in Roubaix with Tom Boonen, he sighed. "It's hard to predict the future. We will see tomorrow," Sagan said.
When asked if he felt it would be a special race because of the Boonen retirement, he acknowledged the significance of the event. "It's a special race for him. It's a special race for me too because it's Paris-Roubaix. It's a special race for everybody but for him maybe much more special," Sagan said.
Paris-Roubaix? "It's historic. It's a race with a lot of story. It's different. We ride over the cobblestones. It's a really hard race. There's no climbs but I can guarantee to you that the cobblestones sections take all the energy that you have. It's very unpredictable. It's very special to ride here. It's different from other races. Anything can happen. We are happy it's good weather," Sagan said, and disappeared towards the podium where he pleased the crowd with a 'bonjour', ‘merci beaucoup' and ‘vive Paris-Roubaix'.
Shortly thereafter, up came Tom Boonen. He was swarmed by fans when stepping off the team bus. Fans were dying to get an autograph or a selfie, to encourage him or thank him for his career.
"I'm here now. Tomorrow there's the race. Once the race is finished, it's over. Up until now, it's alright. I don't know how I'll feel about it tomorrow. It's also the reason why I decided to stop at Paris-Roubaix, because I know that I can focus on the racing in this time of the year. Tomorrow it'll certainly be a factor during some moments in the race. Especially after the race it'll be special," Boonen said.
"It's very strange to be here for the last time as a rider. The moment I took the decision to stop after Paris-Roubaix I wasn't really aware of all the consequences, like starting in Antwerp last week and having the Scheldeprijs in my home town. Now I'm here for my last Paris-Roubaix.
"I wasn't really aware of how big everything would be and how much extra attention and pressure it would bring. In the end, it's been a fun ride so far. It's been super busy and I'm actually happy that tomorrow we can start Paris-Roubaix. I did everything possible to be in this condition. We aim for the win and we'll see where it'll bring us."
On the podium, Boonen received some vintage wines from ASO director Christian Prudhomme, who thanked him for his career. The mayor of Compiègne awarded Boonen with the city's golden medal, though not before complaining that the race is still not named Compiègne-Roubaix, despite starting in their ‘imperial' city for 40 years now. From the podium, Boonen started a difficult mission to make it back in the team bus without disappointing too many fans.
BMC showed up with in-form Greg Van Avermaet. He missed out on the win in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen in no small part due to a crash with Sagan and Oliver Naesen (AG2R). Van Avermaet feels the climb-stacked races suit him more than the cobbles in France.
"I'm most suited for the climbs in Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race. Paris-Roubaix is for the big engines. That's not me. I have my chance but it's difficult. Boonen is the top favourite. He's a great rider and it's possible we'll be riding the final part of the race together. That's like a dream for me because the last few years he wasn't in top form at the classics," Van Avermaet said, who added that he did some track training to perfect his sprint.
Hayman was the last of the contenders to speak, 12 months removed from his thrilling 2016 win. "It is a great race. I'm happy to be back and happy to be on the cobbles again, happy to be part of such a special race. In some ways, my career has been justified. If that's the only thing anybody ever remembers me, by winning Paris-Roubaix, then I'm pretty happy with that," Hayman said.
The Australian rider didn't regret that riders like Boonen draw more attention. "I've had the pressure on for a week now. I can't imagine what it must be to go through this through your career. We're totally different riders," Hayman said.
When asked if he was ready for the double, he laughed. "I'd be up for that. It's taken me 15 years to get to that point. This race is so hard. It can be so cruel and it can be over so quickly. I'm going into it pretty positive. I haven't got bad form. I've got experience behind me. I know how to do it now. I'm looking forward to another great day in hell," Hayman said.
With Boonen retiring at the age of 36 and Hayman turning 39 in a few weeks time, he one might expect him to feel like he's running out of time for another win, but the Australian remains optimistic as ever.
"Look at Duclos-Lasalle, he won it at 37-38," Hayman said.
The winning tactic from last year was to be in an early breakaway move. That might not be the case this year. "You don't always have a choice in this race. I'll be looking. Hopefully I can be active. I don't need to wait around. Being on the front foot seems to be rewarded," Hayman said.
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