Paris-Roubaix may be the Hell of the North, but it all starts a little closer to heaven, in the tranquil environs of the Chateau de Compiègne, 70km north of Paris. With 258km and 27 sectors of pavé ahead of them, however, the peloton had little mind to soak up their ambient surroundings.
As the Classics bandwagon shifts southwest out of Belgium, the size and the sheer intensity of the crowds at the start line dropped accordingly, but the French fans were still out in numbers to applaud the 197 hardy souls setting off on the cobbled pilgrimage to Roubaix.
Last year’s winner Fabian Cancellara’s Leopard Trek team bus attracted much of the attention at the start in Compiègne, and the Swiss rider naturally lines up as favourite. His defeat in the Tour of Flanders last weekend will have given a number of his rivals heart that he can indeed be defeated on his privileged terrain, however, and chief among them is the Quick Step tandem of Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel. The latter received the most raucous cheers of the morning when he went to sign on, with speaker Daniel Mangeas doing his best to whip the home crowds into a frenzy.
Thor Hushovd and Garmin-Cervélo are desperate for a big result to salvage their Classics campaign, and the world champion was in a determined mood before riding to sign on in Compiègne. Although he failed to make an impact in Flanders last weekend, the Norwegian was looking forward to a race better suited to his characteristics.
Another man in search of a result is Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), as he battles internal strife in his team as well as the cobbles themselves on the road to Roubaix. Although the Italian has struggled for form in 2011 to date, he has a history of coming to life in the Hell of the North and he will be hoping his panache on the pavé is telling today.
Meanwhile, Alessandro Ballan signed on as anticipated as part of the BMC line-up. He was accused of undergoing a blood transfusion during his time at Lampre in the Italian newspapers on Saturday but unlike last year, when news of his involvement in the Mantova anti-doping investigation first broke, his team decided not to pull him from its Paris-Roubaix line-up.
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Barry Ryan is European Editor 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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.