Dylan van Baarle produced an impressive ride to finish fourth at last Sunday's Tour of Flanders and in the absence of Sep Vanmarcke and Taylor Phinney – who both crashed hard in the Flemish race – the 24-year-old Dutchman will lead the Cannondale-Drapac team at Paris-Roubaix.
Vanmarcke was ruled out due to a fractured finger and multiple cases of road rash, while Phinney was diagnosed with a concussion. In their absence, Van Baarle will have race number 31, with support from Pat Bevin, Will Clarke, Sebastian Langeveld, Ryan Mullen, Thomas Scully, Tom Van Asbroeck and Wouter Wippert.
The US-registered argyle team has won just one race so far this season but Van Baarle's result took the pressure of the Cobbled Classics squad and raised hopes of a repeat performance on the French pave. Van Baarle was just behind Peter Sagan's group when he crashed on the Oude Kwaremont and then teamed up with Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Nikki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) to chase after Philippe Gilbert. They failed to catch the Belgian national champion, finishing 29 seconds back, but Van Baarle rode his heart out for a chance of victory rather than sitting on to conserve energy for a better placing.
Van Baarle is hoping for a similar performance on Sunday as he rides Paris-Roubaix for a fourth time.
"I feel good and I've gained some confidence after last week at the Tour of Flanders. I think the form is still there so let's see what the race brings," he said after getting a cheer of respect at the official team presentation on Saturday afternoon.
"I feel really sorry for Sep after his crash. I'd prepared to have him here but with Sebastian Langeveld, we still have a strong couple."
Deciding on the stones
Like many teams, Cannondale-Drapac did their recon ride for Paris-Roubaix on Thursday, giving the riders a reminder of the rougher French pave and highlighting the difference between the rolling hills of the Tour of Flanders and the long cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix.
"It's different because it's totally flat and so the way you ride the cobbles makes more of a difference," Van Baarle explained.
"We have a different bike for it, with wider tyres and a longer wheelbase. It kind of makes it comfortable, if that's possible on the bike. With it being dry, I guess the race will be really fast but we have to see how it develops. Something can happen anywhere, you have to be focused all day and that's what I'll do."
"In my first two years I didn't have a good feeling on the cobbles, but I did last year and I was 16th. If the form is there I think you can do well in Flanders and Roubaix. I hope so."
Van Baarle makes a simple but fair prediction: "The race is going to be decided on the stones."
"You just have to ride over them fast. The faster the better. You have to survive the crashes and the flat tyres. If you don't have any bad luck, you can be close to the front. Then in the end, not everyone can handle 260km of racing and so people will drop out the back, while others will attack for sure."