Jens Keukeleire and Tiesj Benoot will head up Lotto Soudal's hopes at Sunday's Paris-Roubaix, with both riders claiming good form and clear ideas about what it takes to win the one-day cobbled Classic.
Keukeleire is the more experienced of the two riders, boasting nine previous starts at Roubaix, and a best-placed finish of sixth in 2015, while it will be only Benoot's third 'Hell of the North', with the 25-year-old having ridden the race back in 2015 and 2016, without having finished inside the top 100.
However, Benoot took an impressive ninth place at last weekend's Tour of Flanders, and has had a highly successful cobbled Classics campaign so far, taking fifth place at the Dwars door Vlaanderen, 13th at Gent-Wevelgem and 16th at the E3 BinckBank Classic, as well as fifth place as the defending champion at Strade Bianche in early March.
"My shape certainly won’t be the problem, as I still feel fresh," Benoot said on his team's website.
"If I can avoid bad luck and if everything falls into place, a podium spot will be amongst the possibilities. The Tour of Flanders maybe suits me a little better thanks to the climbs, as Paris-Roubaix is of course less about explosive racing. But a really hard race will certainly play to my advantage. I have to try to attack from a little further out and hope for some hesitation behind, or that some strong riders join me."
Benoot skipped last year's Roubaix to instead rest ahead of the Ardennes Classics, after a busy spring campaign that saw him take the win at Strade Bianche. But despite having only ridden Roubaix twice before, he knows enough about what to expect, and has done his homework when it comes to the cobbled sectors.
"It'll be important to always stay near the front," he continued. "Once we've ridden through the Forest of Arenberg, a new race begins, so to speak.
"The wind always plays an important role at Roubaix. During the recon, I noticed that on the sector prior to Mons-en-Pévèle, and on the five-star section itself, the wind will be favourable to really start racing. We'll have to deal with a headwind for a lot of the cobbles, but not out there.
"I expect riders like Oliver Naesen [AG2R] and Wout van Aert [Jumbo-Visma] to be up there," he added, "but during an event like Paris-Roubaix, it's not a good idea to base your race on other riders."
Keukeleire: I've never been in better shape at the start of Roubaix
Similarly, while reconnoitring the course this week in the build-up to the race, Keukeleire has spent much of his time considering where the wind is forecast to be coming from on the key cobbled sectors, and will try to keep his powder dry for as long as possible as a result.
"There is no race in which experience is more important than at Paris-Roubaix," the 30-year-old said. "It will be my 10th participation, but I'm still learning every year.
"Contrary to the Tour of Flanders, the Roubaix course is only ridden once a year – except when the Tour de France uses part of it. The recon and the race itself are one of the few moments you're able to feel the cobbles. The more experienced you are, the more you can read how the race will unfold.
"Because of the headwind that's being predicted, I expect the race to be closed a little longer than usual," Keukeleire continued. "But once the racing kicks off, it will of course be all hands on deck. On the tough sections like Bersée, Mons-en-Pévèle and the Carrefour de l’Arbre, there'll be a tailwind, and that's exactly when the differences can be made.
"It's one of the first years that I don't need to attack from afar. Moreover, joining an early break is always a gamble – certainly this year because of the predicted headwind during the run-up to the cobbled sectors. You can waste a lot of energy, which you'll need during the finale."
Keukeleire's content that his 2019 season so far has put him in the best position yet to be in contention at the velodrome in Roubaix. Eleventh place at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in early March, and then seventh at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne the next day, followed by 14th at the E3 BinckBank Classic, 15th at Gent-Wevelgem, 11th at Dwars door Vlaanderen and 12th at Flanders last weekend shows the kind of consistency that comes with experience at the northern European Classics.
"I've never been in better shape at the start of Paris-Roubaix," said Keukeleire. "In 2015, I was already close to victory when I finished sixth. Back then, I'd become ill just before Paris-Nice, and I only felt at my best again at Paris-Roubaix.
"Now, I've had a nice spring season, which brings some peace of mind. Of course, my performance at the Tour of Flanders gives me a lot of confidence, and I've been performing consistently at the spring Classics, but I'm still waiting for that one top result.
"In previous years, I've missed that little percentage to stay with the best," he admitted, "but the past few races have shown that I don't need to fear other riders during a finale. Now, I'm able to make the selection myself during key moments of the race, and I feel that winning is a possibility on Sunday."
Lotto Soudal for the 2019 Paris-Roubaix: Tiesj Benoot, Stan Dewulf, Frederik Frison, Jens Keukeleire, Nikolas Maes, Lawrence Naesen, Brian van Goethem
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