Alexander Kristoff’s remarkable winning run over the past fortnight has seen the Norwegian afforded a Paul Bunyan-like status by some of his peers ahead of Paris-Roubaix, though Giant-Alpecin's John Degenkolb, it seems, is not among their number.
Although Kristoff has never placed higher than ninth at Paris-Roubaix, his show of force at the Tour of Flanders last week has been enough to install him as the pre-race favourite and there is a groundswell of opinion that he would be all but unbeatable in the event of a group sprint.
It is just three weeks, however, since Degenkolb out-sprinted Kristoff on the Via Roma to deny him a second successive Milan-San Remo, proving that no man is invulnerable. It’s no surprise, then, that the German is one of the very few riders – the only one, perhaps – who would not be daunted by the prospect of approaching the gates of the velodrome alongside Kristoff.
“He’s a really good rider and he has done some great results in the last weeks but I don’t need to be scared of him if it comes down to a sprint on the velodrome,” Degenkolb told reporters in Compiègne on Saturday. “I beat him in Milan-San Remo, so if it comes to that I’m pretty confident. But definitely he’s in great shape and we have to make a smart race. I certainly can’t only focus on one rider because there are maybe 10 riders who can win the race.”
While most of the other contenders dutifully told reporters that they were keen to make the race as difficult as possible in the hope that Kristoff might be shaken loose ahead of the denouement, Degenkolb admitted that he felt no such obligation. “Basically I’m not in the position that I need to attack,” he said. “As long as I can follow the best guys, I don’t need to take action. But everything is possible. This is a unique race, so anything can happen.”
For the past decade, the road to victory at Paris-Roubaix has gone through Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, who between them have accounted for seven of the past 10 editions of the race, but their absence through injury this year divests the other contenders of their normal reference points.
“I think it’s really hard to predict at the moment what kind of scenario will be in the final. Every Roubaix is a little bit different and especially now with Fabian missing in the end, it will be a different race,” Degenkolb said. “Everybody was concentrating on Fabian last year and looking to him [to attack] but this year the race is more open I think.”
Degenkolb wondered if a situation similar to 2011 might ensure, when Cancellara was the overwhelming favourite but backed by a relatively lightweight Leopard Trek team, while Boonen was eliminated early on by crashes and mechanical problems, meaning that there was no unifying force in the group of favourites. To borrow from American football parlance, Cancellara had outkicked his coverage and earlier escapee Johan Vansummeren slipped through to win.
“It could be that already before Mons-en-Pevele there is a breakaway at the front at it makes it all the way to the finish,” Degenkolb said. “When I did my first Roubaix in 2011, I was in the breakaway there and finally Vansummeren won the race. We’ll see, there could be something like this or then again it could just be controlled all the way to the Carrefour de l’Arbre. But definitely there the final split will be made.”
Team Sky fulfilled the controlling brief normally held by Boonen and Cancellara’s teammates last weekend at the Tour of Flanders, though it remains to be seen if they will adopt a similar approach this time around. Degenkolb is confident, however, that he will have at least some allies of circumstance. “A race like this is never easy to control with one team but I expect a couple of teams will have the same strategy and want to have a controlled race, and I think that’s also to my advantage,” he said.
Twelve months ago, Degenkolb placed second at Paris-Roubaix, winning the sprint in the chasing group behind Niki Terpstra. If he goes one better this time out, he will also complete a rare double. Not since Sean Kelly in 1986 has a Milan-San Remo winner gone on to win Paris-Roubaix in the same season.
“It would be pretty unbelievable and I’m really motivated to do this,” he said. “I’ve heard that only Sean Kelly has done this before and he’s one of my biggest idols, so I really hope I can repeat that.”
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