We’ve been here before. Just 12 month’s ago, on the eve of the 2013 edition of Paris-Roubaix, Cyclingnews posed the question as to whether anyone could stop a rampaging Fabian Cancellara from winning his third edition of the Hell of the North.
Once again we find ourselves in the exactly the same position, having witnessed the Trek Factory rider deliver one of his most commanding and complete performances in last week’s Tour of Flanders. If anything, Roubaix should provide more of the same, with the record books showing that Cancellara has gone on to win Paris-Roubaix after each of his first two Flanders crowns.
However no two races are ever the same, new challengers emerge and luck, the variant no rider or team can plan for or do without, can be just as crucial as any attack or any favourite’s pre-race standing. Who can forget that ten years ago Johan Museeuw saw his chances of victory go up in smoke after an untimely puncture dropped him out of the leading group?
Unlike the Tour of Flanders, the Paris-Roubaix route has been relatively untouched this year, with just a few small modifications made with two sections of pavé - the Vertain à Saint-Martin-sur-Ecaillon and Quérénaing a Maing - replaced with new sectors. The those slight alterations shouldn't affect the main make-up of the race with the Trouée d'Arenberg (161.5km), the Mons-en-Pévèle (208km) and the crucial Le Carrefour de l'Arbre (240km) all featuring and holding onto their five star rating from the ASO.
The first sector at Troisvilles comes after 97.5km of racing, at which point it’s likely that a break will have already rolled clear. If Flanders is anything to go by, the likes of QuickStep, Trek and Cannondale will hold their men in reserve, however Taylor Phinney and BMC's brave antics last weekend could inspire and provide a blueprint for what is capable if a team is willing to race aggressively.
It’s the Arenberg Forest - or rather the approach to it - where the true action begins. It’s a full-tilt sprint into the sector. Think Cavendish and Kittel going head-to-head at the Tour and you get the impression of the speed and intensity as the favourites jostle for the best position. The best place is inside the top two and anywhere else means an immediate disadvantage for those behind. It’s a sector that has seen innumerable pre-race favourites crash or lose too much time, and again Museeuw springs to mind, but the road out of the forest can be just as dangerous. Yes, it’s flat, and it’s well surfaced, but it’s also where the surviving peloton sits up, looks back, and drifts all over the road, creating a high potential for crashes.
Hornaing, Tilloy - Sars-et-Rosières, and Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée provide further ‘four star’ challenges with the Mons-en-Pévèle just around the corner. It may be that Orchies, two sectors before, and where Cancellara drew out his main challengers last year, is just as critical this time around. It’s also where Boonen broke free in 2012 and soloed clear to take his last win.
Cysoing – Bourghelles, where Museeuw caught Frankie Andreu in 2000, could equally be as important, before the final sector of note at the Carrefour de l'Arbre where QuickStep saw their race fall apart last year.
The top 10 favourites
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The pave sectors for 2014
The 28 cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix are rated between one and five stars
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