No Classic smiles upon the outsider with quite the same regularity as Paris-Roubaix, which only makes the ill fortune it doles out seem all the more cruel. Perhaps as many as a third of the 175 riders who retire to their hotel rooms in the hinterland of Compiègne on Saturday evening will privately allow themselves to think, "Maybe, just maybe," only to be jarringly disabused of the notion by some mishap or another on Sunday afternoon.
The road to Roubaix is paved with broken dreams, but Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida) has more reason than most dreamers to believe in his chances in the Hell of the North. The Australian's pedalling has drawn admiring glances from his peers in the peloton over the past two weeks in Flanders, and, despite all his injury and bad luck over the years, he has a real pedigree in this race.
As a debutant in 2005, Haussler rode nonchalantly to 25th. He took 7th in his Cervélo pomp in 2009, and 11th four years later at the end of another solid Spring. On Haussler's last appearance two years ago, he won the sprint for 6th, a minute after Mat Hayman, had upset Tom Boonen to win the race.
Small wonder, then, that Haussler is upbeat about his prospects. After losing almost all of 2017 to a knee injury, he asked only for a clear run at the current campaign, and he performed solidly in Belgium in support of Sonny Colbrelli and Vincenzo Nibali. At Paris-Roubaix, by contrast, he will ride for himself.
"I have super legs. I noticed in Flanders that I could be there, the distance wasn't affecting me," Haussler said. "I didn't have the big, big power on the Kwaremont or the Paterberg to follow but Roubaix is a different race. Roubaix suits me better than Flanders. I'm here to do the best race possible and if I'm there, I know I'll be in the top group.
"It's just about getting through the race without crashes or flat tyres. I don't want to talk about it because when you talk about it, it happens, but it's just the thing: in Roubaix anything can happen. Just look at the winners of the past five or six years, it's always a different group of riders in the final. When you believe you can do it, it's possible.”
On the eve of Paris-Roubaix, everybody has an opinion about the state of the cobblestone sectors relative to years past, but now facing into his 12th Sunday in Hell, Haussler's view carries more weight than most. He reconnoitred the course on Friday, and believes the dry conditions and gentle tailwind will make for a less infernal Roubaix than normal.
"It could even be a 10-12 guy sprint because the conditions are that good," Haussler said. "I noticed on the recon yesterday there's a lot of mud but it's dried out, so it's a lot smoother than normal. It depends on Quick-Step. I don't think they'll want to keep it together but if they do, a big group is possible because there's no real major parts where the wind will kick up from the side where you can split it. But every year is a different situation."
With Tour of Flanders winner Niki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert in their ranks, together with Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert, Quick-Step Floors have multiple options at their disposal on Sunday. The men in blue have dominated the cobbled Classics to this point, but Paris-Roubaix, Haussler noted, is a race apart.
"Paris-Roubaix is different because it's flat, so if you're doing 600 watts on the front, it's 400 watts or 450 to sit the wheel," he pointed out. "In Flanders if Niki is doing, say 700 watts on the climb, then the guy following him also has to do 700 because it's on a climb. You can save a lot of energy in this race just by sitting on a wheel or hiding yourself all day."
It was put to Haussler that his dream scenario would be to reach the old velodrome bracing himself for a group sprint with Paris-Roubaix on line. In this race, he warned, nothing is quite as it seems.
"A Roubaix sprint is a different sprint to a normal sprint," Haussler said. "It's just the guy who has the most power in the end. Look at Boonen and Mat Hayman. Any other day, you'd say Boonen would smash Mat Hayman in a sprint but it's about who has the most energy, who can still push the 53x11 in the sprint."
Anything, it seems, can happen on this particular Sunday.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.