It’s back and it’s bone dry. The cobbles of Paris-Roubaix this weekend will be dusty and the roadside verge baked hard, making it the first ever dry edition for the women… and for the men a return to almost normal with sunny conditions again, seemingly like every time each spring.
The Route: 257km from Compiègne to Roubaix. Social science academics joke about graduates sitting exams where the questions are the same every year, the difference is that it’s the answers that change every year and Paris-Roubaix evokes this, the route is almost set in stone and instead it’s the approach that changes given the weather conditions and the state of the pavé.
To get to the cobbles there’s almost 100km on regular roads, including a few gentle climbs. It’s always worth remembering that in this 257km race, 92% ranges between tarmac and 3-star cobble sections, only 8% is the dream-destroying four or five star sections.
Sectors are rated by difficulty and length is a key determinant for the organisers, so a short sector with stones jagged enough to puncture tires and hopes alike may not merit a fearsome rating, think the second section near Templeuve, it’s a brute but short so only two stars.
The Arenberg Forest is one of those self-fulfilling strategic areas as riders rush to be at the front in case of a crash… which heightens the crash risk. Riders will know from here on if they’re on a good day or not. Now the sectors come thick and fast as the route twists and turns across Le Nord. With 20km to go the crucial sectors of Camphin and then the Carrefour de l’Arbre arrive.
The Finish: Held in the old velodrome, riders enter the 500m concrete track for one and half laps. The banking can be exploited by a rider lucid enough to remember how to sprint on a track, harder than it sounds after 250km.
The Contenders: Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is a safe pick but comes with questions. He didn’t look full of fizz in the Amstel last weekend although he still salvaged third place and this is why he’s an easy pick, he can win the sprint from a group. He’s also on harder terrain this weekend, the dry weather means his cyclo-cross agility counts for less, he can’t turn on the power and force others to slip and slide. Plus his team won’t have strength in numbers later on, they’re strong but it’s down to ten riders, unlikely to have three in the mix. So if another team fires riders up the road, he’ll have to share in any chase.
Which brings us to Ineos which bring a fleet of diesels. Dylan van Baarle, Magnus Sheffield and Ben Turner are outsiders, the latter two in their debut Roubaix but both have a cross-background and the team is bound to function best if they have riders who can take turns to attack. Michał Kwiatkowski is back to ride Roubaix after trying it for the first time last autumn but can count on plenty of experience. Magnus Sheffield’s impressed this spring, he’s taken two wins as a teenager and each time with power in the tank when others have faded away. Filippo Ganna is the big interest because he’s looked like a candidate since his Lampre team days, now add on his TT skills. Then remember he had a good debut showing in 2016, normal given his U23 win here too. The weather’s on his side, the dry conditions help and if anyone gives him a ten second gap, they might as well give him a stand or cabinet to place the cobbled trophy in. But it’s all or nothing, to get to the front and then to leave the rest for dust.
Are Jumbo-Visma more a strength in numbers story now? The paradox is collective force ought to appeal, but here it’s because Wout van Aert might not be their clear leader and therefore Mike Teunissen, Christophe Laporte and Nathan van Hooydonck aren’t all riding in service of their Belgian champ. Van Aert’s been ill and missed Flanders and while there’s an air of “they would say that, wouldn’t they” in downplaying his chances but he will miss time off and lack of racing. Laporte is a good double, you might remember the sight of him having to brake with his shoe on the back wheel last year; he actually finished sixth as well.
Now for all the others. You’d imagine every other preview cites van der Poel, Ineos and Jumbo-Visma first, and then it’s a matter of examining the rest…
It’s almost now or never for Mads Pedersen. He’s had a strong start to the year but has got more results in stage races than classics so far this spring – he’d have won the Circuit de la Sarthe overall were it not for being felled in crash on the last day – and that’s because of his long sprint and that’s exactly what’s needed to win here. He might prefer it a bit colder but otherwise has all the attributes to win, including a good Trek-Segafredo support team with Jasper Stuyven and Daan Hoole too.
Stefan Küng is having a strong classics campaign with repeat top-10s. He’s been floating up the hills but his thing is raw power and he’ll like the dry conditions here although some of his best wins have been in the rain. His problem is one of alchemy, we know he can place but how to turn bronze into gold as his sprint isn’t so searing? Groupama-FDJ team mate Valentin Madouas is one to watch because it’s his debut on the pavé. He won’t want for advice given the team management’s affection for this race (past winners Madiot and Guesdon, plus the soon to retire Gayant is almost a local and finished fourth).
Quick-Step are arguably Belgium’s fourth strongest classics squad in terms of results behind Intermarché, Alpecin and Lotto this year. It’s possible too, as Roubaix often smiles on some longer shots. Kasper Asgreen is their obvious leader, Florian Sénéchal is the local who dreams of this race, Zdeněk Štybar is past his prime but Roubaix can suit older riders and Yves Lampaert can have his moment but because he’s not a fast finisher it’s hard to imagine him going clear by himself to take the win. A lot of their results are contingent on the “wolfpack” racing of having several riders in the kopgroep and that’s been the problem this year.
Alexander Kristoff and Roubaix have never hit it off. The Norwegian excels in tough races so he ought to have done better but his forceful style seems to have been his undoing at times, he’s tried to smash the cobbles only they smashed his wheels back. The move to Intermarché’s paid off and his Scheldeprijs win showed he can go solo rather than lurk for the sprint although he’s won Flanders by going in the moves too.
TotalEnergie’s team looks good on paper that every single rider could win, or should have won this race, if the stars aligned. Anthony Turgis has had rotten luck with crashes but is still a strong rider, Dries Van Gestel is one of the younger revelations and Edvald Boasson Hagen comes off a strong Paris-Camembert.
Bahrain’s best bet could be Matej Mohorič because if he’s not thrived in this race if he can get a gap he’s hard to bring back. Fred Wright had a solid Ronde and Johan Price-Pejtersen’s got the build for a race like this.
Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe) has all the qualities for a Paris-Roubaix winner too but will he win a cobble trophy in his career? Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal) was second last year, what chance now? Before you could ex post see a pattern in his results showing form and power, less so now. Victor Campenaerts might be Lotto-Soudal’s best bet but probably for a solid result rather than the win.
Alas EF Education are like Astana, they’ve been almost invisible this spring although don’t dunk on them, it’s partly down to viral bad luck. But the pink team’s ahead of the baby blue lot today thanks to veteran Sebastian Langeveld who knows this race well, Stefan Bissegger who ought to be able to do anything Ganna does, only with a faster sprint at the end and the towering Jonas Rutsch.
As Philippe Gilbert remarked this week to L’Equipe the race is flat and actually not that hard physically. Riders who would be out of the picture in almost any other spring classic can pop up here and this helps explain some long shot wins. Wilder picks are Stanisław Aniołkowski (Bingoals-Pauwels) as he’s a tough rider with a good kick, Conor Swift (Arkéa-Samsic) has won the Tro Bro Leon so a longer shot but not so wild. The iron man of Ishigaki Yukiya Arashiro (Bahrain) who is often deployed to ride on the front but could try a long move and Mads Würtz Schmidt (Israel) as he’s a tenacious rider and won this as a junior too. Lastly a nod to Imano Erviti (Movistar) who starts his 16th Roubaix and the last rider who lined up for their 16th was an Aussie called Hayman.
|Mathieu van der Poel
|Wout van Aert, Kasper Asgreen, Filippo Ganna
|Pedersen, Küng, Kristoff, Laporte, Kwiatkowski, Štybar
|Swift, Politt, Turgis, van Baarle, Sénéchal, Sheffield, Lampaert
Weather: sunny, a top temperature of 20°C and a 15km/h breeze from the NE which is gentle but enough to count as a factor as the course zags and zigs. The ordinary weather matters because it makes the race less of a lottery, less rather than not of course. It’ll come to brute force and who has something left for the final 20km.
TV: live from start at 11.00am CEST to finish at 5.20pm CEST. Normally it’s on the same channel you watch the Tour de France on so France Télévisions for locals and VPN and Eurosport/GCN in most other countries.
Paris-Roubaix Femmes: it’s this Saturday and the first ever dry edition of course. This blog’s picks are Lotte Kopecky (SD-Worx), Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) and Grace Brown (FDJ-Futuroscope) but you’ll find a better informed and proper preview over at procyclinguk.com. It’s on from 12.25pm-4.00pm CEST.