It is 17 years since Frédéric Guesdon became the last Frenchman to win Paris-Roubaix, surprising an elite group including Andrei Tchmil and Johan Museeuw in the sprint on the velodrome, but home hopes are slowly blossoming once again in the Queen of the Classics.
It's not quite a record drought - France famously went a quarter of a century without a Paris-Roubaix winner between Louison Bobet in 1956 and Bernard Hinault in 198 - and the arrival of Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr) in the professional peloton has heightened expectations of a home winner before that unwanted landmark is surpassed.
After making his debut in Paris-Roubaix and impressing at the Tour of Flanders last season, Démare showed further signs of progress this spring when he landed second place at Gent-Wevelgem, although he suffered a setback when an untimely fringale saw him abandon the Tour of Flanders last week.
Speaking to reporters in Compiègne at the Paris-Roubaix team presentation on Saturday, Démare smiled when asked if he was aiming to win the race - "One day," he said - and said that he was realistic about his prospects for Sunday. Moments before, incidentally, Filippo Pozzato had come through the mixed zone and tipped Démare as an outsider for the podium, describing him as "maybe the biggest talent out there in the peloton."
"My goal is to gain experience and stay in contact as best I can and for as long as possible with the strongest riders, people like Cancellara and Boonen," Démare said. "I'll fight to stay up there for as long as I can."
A native of Beauvais, not far from the start of Paris-Roubaix, Démare also has close ties with the finale. He raced as an amateur for Team Wasquehal and CC-Nogent-sur-Oise and regularly trained in the covered Roubaix velodrome (adjacent to the race finish) during the off-season, as his girlfriend is a student in nearby Lille.
Démare also competed in the junior and under 23 versions of Paris-Roubaix, but in spite of his ease on the pavé, he pointed out that he is still lacking the experience of the two principal favourites, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.
"I think they have good experience behind them. They're 30 years old or more, and I'm still only 22. They have years of experience at Paris-Roubaix whereas it's only my second attempt," said Démare. "We'll see how the race goes and how I feel too. The length of the race is a factor, too."
Démare is part of an FDJ.fr team that always places a particular emphasis on the cobbled Classics and Paris-Roubaix in particular, thanks in no small part to having a two-time winner, Marc Madiot, as manager. Yoann Offredo and Johan Le Bon also line up as part of a solid FDJ.fr team that, up until last Sunday, had been enjoying a fine Classics campaign.
One of the team's directeurs sportifs for Sunday, of course, is Guesdon himself, and the 1997 Paris-Roubaix winner was to the point when asked for his formula to conquer the pavé. "You need a bit of everything - a bit of luck, a bit of strength and you need to know how to race," he said. "With riders like Boonen and Cancellara, you can't afford to make an error."
Gaudin and Turgot
French hopes for Paris-Roubaix are not limited to Madiot's team. During the off-season, Ag2r-La Mondiale raided Europcar's classics unit by picking up France's best finishers in each of the past two editions of the race - Sébastien Turgot, second in 2012, and Damien Gaudin, who finished fifth last year.
"The form is there and I just hope I have a bit more luck than last year when I punctured at the wrong time," Turgot told reporters in Compiègne. "We've got a decent team and they'll do everything to get us into the finale and then it's up to us to fight it out."
Turgot's second place finish came as a surprise, but after following it up with 10th place last season, he is bullish about his prospects this time around. Mindful that few have the strength to match Cancellara and Boonen à la pedale, he has vowed to go on the offensive on Sunday. "You have to anticipate, you have to attack. You have to take the race on before the big favourites start to make it hard," he said.
Turgot's thoughts were echoed by his friend Gaudin. Illness ended his Tour of Flanders prematurely last weekend, but he sounded an optimistic note when he told Cyclingnews, "You're going to hear about Turgot and Gaudin on Sunday, for sure."
Gaudin explained that the objective for Ag2r would be to try and anticipate Cancellara's expected attack in the finale, although he acknowledged that it was inherently difficult to enter Paris-Roubaix with a precise tactical plan.
"As Cancellara showed on Sunday, you can't wait for him to attack because very few can follow him, just one or two. But we won't base our race purely around him. We'll do our own race, aiming to win," he said. "Roubaix is different to Flanders, and it's harder to drop riders on the flat than it is on the climbs. Even so, the best thing to do is to anticipate Cancellara - but where, how and when? We'll just have to see."
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