At Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, AG2R Citroën line up with one of the strongest leadership duos on paper, as Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen partner up at the Hell of the North for the first time.
Neither man is among the absolute top favourites for victory in what should be the first wet race in almost two decades, though, with Naesen having suffered from overtraining this year, and Van Avermaet himself admitting that a top 10 would be a good result for him.
The pair spoke about the race in a press conference on Friday afternoon, with Van Avermaet, who sprinted to victory on the velodrome in 2017, saying that he's not in the form to win this year.
"My form is getting better. The road doesn't go down anymore but up a bit," the Belgian said. "I'm not good enough to win. It's strange to say that but I can't hope for more. I have to be realistic.
"Based on my body's signals and the results I have achieved, a top 10 would be ideal. I will have to count on a very good day and race with my experience.
"In a Roubaix in spring after a good Tour of Flanders, you know you are ready. Now there are a lot of question marks around my name. I didn't do a race at this level or over that distance beforehand."
His co-leader Naesen, meanwhile, has endured a tough season as a result of overtraining in order to be in the best condition possible for the recent World Championships in Flanders. The 31-year-old said that he was logging massive 28-hour training weeks earlier this year which led to burnout and missing selection for the Worlds, a race he said was "the goal of his career."
In the past week, Naesen has put in a six-hour training session, a kermesse, and the GP Fred de Bruyne, which he won, but he said that he expects those contenders who rode the Worlds to be at an advantage on Sunday.
"Some riders have done the World Championships and I think it's an advantage to have done a big effort like that a week before Paris-Roubaix. But there is always the possibility of a 'decompression factor' for some who had made the Worlds a big goal and could suffer the consequences on Sunday. [What I have done] was certainly not a World Championships."
Naesen admitted that he's not a favourite on the level of the much-talked about Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel this Sunday, but he noted that Paris-Roubaix can throw up surprise winners. He's hopeful, then, that he can follow the likes of Johan Vansummeren and Mathew Hayman into the record books.
"I see this race as the Classic where everything is possible, where some winners are not expected at all," Naesen said. "I personally had some great races in Roubaix, despite the crashes and mechanical problems. You can hope for everything, but you can also go home with nothing. At Paris-Roubaix, everything is open.
"On Sunday, ninety percent is about position and ten percent is about condition. What is impossible in any other Classic, is still possible here: every year there is someone unexpected on the podium. Well, let me be that man on Sunday."
The expected bad weather will be a major factor during the race, with heavy rain expected overnight and showers coming throughout the day on Sunday. Van Avermaet said that a wet Roubaix is only going to be an increase in stress from the highly stressful dry editions of the recent past.
"I have never raced it in the rain before," he said. "Now they are definitely saying rain in the morning and the night before. In the preceding races - the women and juniors – the cars will throw up a lot of mud, too.
"I know the stress of a dry Roubaix, and this will be even worse. When it's really wet it becomes very important to make the right decisions. We're going to have an incredible race in the rain because the tailwind will also make it very fast, which of course also brings risks."
Naesen added that the potential for crosswinds will also make things tougher.
"I think the course is comparable to the Paris-Roubaix in spring, except that at this time of the year the cornfields are low, and the areas are open and you can feel a lot of wind," he said. "But what will change everything, even compared to the recon, is the rain because the cobbles on Sunday will be different from what we saw.
"In the dry it is the most dangerous race of the year, but in the rain it is something else. In all those who know the race, there is nobody who wants to ride on the cobbles in the rain, but that is part of the game. Anyone who wants to ride in the rain doesn't know the race."
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content on Cyclingnews and takes on live race text coverage throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche, and the Vuelta a España.
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