Every cyclo-cross world champion faces questions about their desire to ride Paris-Roubaix one day. The Hell of the North is the most iconic one-day race thanks to its pavé-spiced course routed along farm roads; the terrain which suits cyclo-cross riders' skills.
On Sunday, three-time cyclo-cross world champion Wout van Aert, 23, will have his first go at Paris-Roubaix. After a long cyclo-cross season, he rode his first-ever spring Classics campaign with several strong performances; the third place in Strade Bianche was his top result.
Many cyclo-cross world champions have ridden Paris-Roubaix, but few have been as successful as Roger De Vlaeminck, also known as Monsieur Paris-Roubaix. The now 70-year-old Belgian dominated the race during the seventies and shares the record of four Roubaix wins with Tom Boonen.
De Vlaeminck is the only rider to have won Paris-Roubaix as the cyclo-cross world champion, in 1975. His brother Erik De Vlaeminck was a seven-time cyclo-cross world champion and lined up once while holding the Belgian and world titles, showing his class with a ninth place in 1971.
Adrie van der Poel was third in 1986. Mario De Clercq's best result was 14th in 1994 before he focused mainly on 'cross. Much later, Sven Nys tried but fell short between 2001 and 2003. Lars Boom was fifth in 2015 and won the pavé Tour de France stage in 2014. Zdenek Stybar twice finished as runner-up in 2015 and last year. Others with a cyclo-cross background that performed well in Paris-Roubaix are Johan Museeuw, Roger Hammond and Enrico Franzoi.
When Van Aert walked up the Place du Général de Gaulle in Compiègne on Saturday afternoon, he didn't know what to expect. He has attracted a lot of attention, even though road world champion Peter Sagan was showing up at the same time.
"I'm not a big fan of having the team presentation on the day before the race. You can't feel at ease around here. It's part of it. There's good attendance though, so that's good," Van Aert said.
The press asked if he feared Paris-Roubaix. "Fear is not a good sentiment. I'm not afraid. I'm excited to ride Paris-Roubaix. It's a mythical and tough race, I think. I had the same sentiment when I was for the first time at the start line of Strade Bianche and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. I feel good, the weather is good, so I'm looking forward to racing tomorrow," Van Aert said.
The weather on Saturday can't be comparable to a few weeks ago at Strade Bianche or the Tour of Flanders. The cold and the rain are gone, and riders were showing up wearing t-shirts. It's been ages since the last wet Paris-Roubaix, and it is not expected to rain on Sunday.
That's not a benefit for Van Aert. "It was muddy during the recon. It wasn't easy. It was actually quite dangerous at the Trouée Arenberg on Wednesday," Van Aert said and started to laugh as to indicate that it was a major challenge.
"It'll dry up though with today's sun." During a dry edition of Paris-Roubaix, riders depend less on their technical abilities. For a rider like Van Aert, who lacks experience racing on the road, it's often a good tactic to join the early breakaway move. Van Aert explained that he was aware of this tactic, but he didn't believe that it would prove successful.
"They forecasted a tailwind for tomorrow so there's not a big chance that there'll quickly be a breakaway up the road. It’s probably the most difficult race to be good as a debutant," Van Aert said, perhaps more focused on the classic battle for position ahead of the Trouée Arenberg late in the race.
"At the World Championships, you've got to be good straight away. Here, you're relaxed at the start, and you've got three to four hours before the first critical point. If I sleep well the night ahead of the World Championships, then it'll certainly be good tonight."
Van Aert is looking forward to his first Paris-Roubaix but played down high expectations. "Maybe I need to be older to go well. We'll found out about that tomorrow. The past few races went well so tomorrow we'll know more. I would be very happy with similar results as my previous races, but I'm aware that Paris-Roubaix is the race where bad luck can be a major factor. I've got to hope that things go my way and I can ride the finale because when I run into too much trouble with punctures etcetera, then it's impossible to get back to the front."
After Paris-Roubaix, Van Aert will take a long break. He planned a trip to the US and hadn't decided on his race schedule after that. Belgian national coach Kevin De Weert suggested that the European Championships course in Glasgow suited him as it was something for punchers, saying he might select Van Aert for the event in August.
"Today was my final training ride. Tomorrow my final race. It's weird to see that the cyclo-cross riders are starting back up, while the road cyclists don't really stop. I'm the only one who goes on holiday," Van Aert said, with a big smile.