It is clear that Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Leopard) is the man to beat in Paris-Roubaix, but if the two-time Hell of the North champion hopes to add a third cobbled trophy to his mantle then the support of lieutenant Stijn Devolder may prove critical. Last week at the Ronde van Vlaanderen it was Devolder who kept the breakaway move under control by leading the peloton on his own for about 10 kilometres until the decisive ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Devolder aims to repeat his excellent performance from Flanders at Paris-Roubaix. The former Belgian champion and double winner of the Tour of Flanders was confident the team would perform well.
"For our team it's looking great. Two important wins (E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders) are already in the pocket and for Sunday there's no plan B scheduled," Devolder said. It was clear the team was only banking on Cancellara to win the race and nobody else.
Following his emphatic Tour of Flanders victory last Sunday, Cancellara became the heavy favourite to win Paris-Roubaix, although his chances of success were perhaps tempered by first a crash on Wednesday during the Scheldeprijs and then another crash during a reconnaissance of the cobbles on Thursday.
"When he crashed we were all worried. It was a loud knock on the ground. Besides the crash from Cancellara the reconnaissance went well. The course was dry now and I prefer it to stay like that. I actually like the dust that comes along with that," Devolder said.
While it'll be his job to help Cancellara out in the finale, Devolder will face a major obstacle earlier in the race: making it safely through the hellish pavé passage of the Wallers-Arenberg forest.
"It will be very important to make it safely through the first pavé sectors and then the forest of Wallers. My legs are full of scars of Wallers forest crashes from the past few years. The forest is like the Koppenberg in the Tour of Flanders. They both are monuments that belong to the race. Everybody fears the forest. There's no cobbled road there, they're everywhere. It's like somebody threw them out his truck. You can't compare it with any other section.
"It was probably 2008 when I rode my last good Paris-Roubaix. I was seventh back then. The year before I was good, too. From then on I always ran into bad luck," Devolder said.
A well-known trick to avoid the havoc of the Arenberg is to infiltrate a breakaway group which doesn't need to fight for positioning that much, but Devolder ruled that option out. "I don't see myself getting into a long breakaway move, certainly not before the forest."
If he makes it through the 2km long Wallers-Arenberg stretch it'll be Devolder's task to assist Cancellara until the latter unleashes his forces once again.
"I hope I can support Fabian again as deep as possible into the finale. In the Ronde van Vlaanderen it was the goal to deliver him at the Oude Kwaremont. I don't know where it'll be in Paris-Roubaix. That could be at 40km from the finish but also at 20km from the finish. It worked out well in the Tour of Flanders. I didn't expect it to go that well. In the Tour of Flanders everybody wanted to anticipate the big moves but only one group succeeded to get away."
Part of the history of Paris-Roubaix are the showers and when asked by Cyclingnews the 33-year-old Belgian rider started laughing. "Actually I thought about the showers this week. In the past I always took a shower in the team bus but I really want to go through the experience of showering there one day. The winner gets his own shower...That would be beautiful."
When reviewing his Spring season so far Devolder has been pleased with his performances, particularly his Ronde van Vlaanderen ride which had to be referred to as his resurrection on Easter. "I was good before Flanders, too, but I agree it was a good story. It's not from one day to the others I came back. Already since November I've been working to get back at a good level.
"For a few years I was going really bad. Now it's completely different. My Spring season has already succeeded. After the Tour of Flanders we had champagne on the bus. Then afterwards we also had some frites. They tasted really good."
The pressure will be off his shoulders after Paris-Roubaix and from there he'll aim for the Belgian national championships. "I'm scheduled to race the Brabantse Pijl, too, but that'll be without the usual nerves. After Sunday the most important races are behind me."