This year’s Paris-Roubaix takes a familiar shape as previous editions; softening the riders up with 100km of flat racing before the cobbles appear on their radar. Overall, the peloton will need to tackle the 253.5km which leads to the historic finishing line at Roubaix’s velodrome; while also surviving the 27 sectors of bone rattling pavé. In order for favourite to succeed here, they will have to sustain their luck and strength over a total of 52.7km worth of race deciding cobblestones.
Like many crucial one day races, the desperation to be represented in the day’s early breakaway will result in a thundering pace until the peloton concedes and allows one to form. The aftermath of this will be a lull in tensions; this is probably the only time in the race the peloton will experience something resembling a breather. The first sector on the agenda strikes after 98.5km, igniting the fuse to every subsequent sectors hell for leather approach. The three star ranked Troisvilles is the first challenge; followed by Quievy (3700m), Saint-Python (1500m) and Verchain-Maugré (1600m). Ranked at 4 stars, Haveluy is a tough sector which will give some insight as to who is looking most nervous when jostling for position on the best part of the road.
As iconic as it is infamous, the next sector is Trouee d’Arenberg and its 5 star ranked cobblestones which can break a rider’s hopes of winning in Roubaix. The peloton’s approach to this sector is notorious for its speed and intensity; hitting the first row of cobblestones at speeds akin to a sprinter’s leadout. Chaotic crashes have often peppered the ride through Arenberg, instantly scuttling the chances of contenders; a simple puncture at this point would have the same outcome. Due to the nature of Arenberg, teams will attempt to keep their leaders’ at the front of affairs through sheer speed over the treacherous road, often resulting in an elite group being formed by the time they exit. By now it will be noticeable as to how heavily thinned the ranks will have become since finishing Arenberg, making it apparent as to who now lacks support from their team.
Next is Mons-en-Pevele (5 stars) with 49km to go, a sector which is likely to shape the composition of the eventual group from which we see the winner emerge. The final 30km to Roubaix require the riders to stay upright over Cysoing-Bourghelles, Bourghelles-Wannehain, Champhin-en-Pevele; all before entering the decisive 5 star Carrefour de l’Arbre. Over 2km long and coming only 17km from home, this has often been the site upon which the day’s winning attack has been forged. Once completed, the final pavé which separates them from the famouns velodrome are those of Gruson and Hem.
With Paris-Roubaix sitting as the third monument in the season, we have a vague idea of who are likely to be the major protagonists by now; having already seen the riders duel for the wins at Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders so far. Form is certainly able to be sustained across these successive weekends of classics racing, but each race offers attributes which lean towards the capabilities of certain riders in particular within the peloton. For curtain raising Milan-San Remo we had to cast an eye over the fastest finishing strongmen who were likely to still be present once they arrived on the Via Roma after over 6 hours of racing. In the fields of Flanders those who could cope with the repeated anaerobic efforts required to dominant the vicious hellingen were always going to be apparent and when it came to more than one rider contesting the finish, whoever seemed fastest on paper was sure to be the favourite.
The roads to Roubaix are another differing opportunity once again, but one which requires the least tangible and most transient of all race winning factors; luck. Perhaps because of this, Paris-Roubaix is seen has the crowning glory of the classics season for its ‘against the odds’ chances of winning. Lacking crucial climbs such as the Poggio or Paterberg as featured in Milan-San Remo and Flanders respectively; Paris-Roubaix has the ability to churn up contenders who have otherwise been absent during the campaign thus far. Perhaps the most tactically ridden of all the monuments, this cobbled juggernaut can see favourites’ chances wither rapidly after simply choosing the wrong wheel to follow over the pavé or digging too deep too soon in the race. This ensures a very anxious day where riders attempt to anticipate the moves of the day’s most fancied riders, in order to be one step ahead as the fireworks erupt dramatically in the peloton.
As ever it will be a difficult race to control, some of the major names here lack a team able to keep this occasion from boiling over and rosters which do display strength in numbers are subsequently lacking in a man convincing enough to win it come the end. The history books are perhaps a little overdue at present for an unexpected name to enter beneath the title of ‘monuments winners.’ There is no reason to exclude the possibility of a strong pack of well organised rouleurs making a bid for freedom and staying away with little cohesion from beyond the major names to chase. Underdogs will be much less inclined to play ‘cat and mouse’ in the later stages with any fellow escapees, as they will be all to aware how difficult it is to win this race; spurning the opportunity to contest the win due to silly games would be foolish.
The rider which nobody will wish to take all the way to the finish as either part of a small breakaway or bigger sized bunch is man of the moment Alexander Kristoff. Though his form has been clear already this season with dominant performances in the Middle East, De Panne and only being bettered by John Degenkolb when attempting to defend his Milan-San Remo title; it was still surprising when he added Tour of Flanders to his palmares recently too. His biggest benefit on that occasion was some surprisingly poor tactics from Dutchman Niki Terpstra, the Etixx-Quick Step man worked comfortably with the Norwegian danger man throughout; seemingly towing him to the finish in the absence of any meaningful attacks. With its flat terrain and arduous distance, Kristoff will view this as an opportunity to add another monument to his cabinet; a man who can absorb the efforts of others and be confident of being the fastest man at the finish should he be present in the leading group.
Finding such a surpsingly generous partner on his way to victory in Flanders must surely be the last time that will happen for a while given his form. Nobody will have the slightest interest in aiding Kristoff and, much like Geraint Thomas so far this season, is bound to find people missing their turns in a chase as they place everything on the Katusha man to close the gaps and hold the wheel. As mentioned earlier, some contenders come here with teams which are likely to see their support evaporate not long after Arenberg; meaning all the tactical nous will need using if he has the chance of winning as the most marked man here.
A man with an equal claim to being the fastest finisher in Roubaix is the German powerhouse John Degenkolb; the other monument winner so far in 2015. His build and mentality suit the testing cobblestones which so many fear and he seemed quite the revelation when taking the sprint for second place last year in the wake of Niki Terpstra’s astute race winning attack. It seems laughable to think Degenkolb could find himself squirrelled away in the group which reaches the line first, but many riders could be so eager to exploit an opportunity to distance Alexander Kristoff that they might allow the German’s presence in the meantime; rather than spurn the chance to crack Kristoff. With a team which includes Ramon Sinkledam and Bert De Backer, Degenkolb has a more fancied support team than his rival Kristoff; this should mean the need to ride aggressively becomes less apparent.
A man who may have previously been picked out as one of the main protagonists ahead of 2015’s Paris-Roubaix was Sep Vanmarcke; the talented Belgian prodigy still lacking a major title. Across his classics campaigns thus far, he has demonstrated a level of consistency which places him in similar regards as Fabian Cancellara. Though repeatedly entering these monuments as one of the strongest riders, Vanmarcke is plagued by misfortune and poor tactical decision making when it counts the most. He has also found Cancellara an indomitable foe despite a relatively short, yet prolific, role in the last few seasons on the cobbles alongside him. What makes it difficult to back Vanmarcke with absolute conviction is how stuttering his performances have been so far at Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Strade-Bianche and E3 Harelbeke. We have witnessed Herculean efforts against the odds at both Strade-Bianche and Flanders, ensuring that his conviction or desire to win these major races remains unquestioned. The queries which do surround Vanmarcke are predominantly based on his habit of expending too much energy when it is not necessary. During Gent-Wevelgem he mismanaged his finite resources and was unable to make the crucial moves in Flanders for, possibly, similar reasons. Of course, if he does arrive at the start in Compiegne on one of his good days, he will remain a man who cannot be allowed an inch during the final decisive kilometres on the approach to Roubaix.
Etixx-Quick Step will be confident of once again being the protagonists with the greatest numerical advantage during the crucial moments of the race, but have already squandered such advantages more than once this season. Niki Terpstra was beaten into second place by the ruthless Alexander Kristoff at Flanders, though it was still an ultimately impressive performance in terms of strength. However, as soon as it became apparent that these two were going to collaborate in an attempt to stay away, it was a given that Terpstra could not afford to simply tow the Norwegian into Oudenaarde when possessing such a potent sprint. This was just another page in the growing annals of Etixx-Quick Step’s incompetence when it comes to putting a race to bed in the face of golden opportunities. Terpstra is of course an extremely powerful ride to have onboard for a race such as Paris-Roubaix and comes here as the defending champion, but it seems more logical that they will back Czech road race champion Zdenek Stybar to lead their charge across the cobblestones instead. Stybar has been one of the most consistent riders in terms of performance; both physically and tactically. Featuring at the pivotal moments in E3-Harelbeke (when going clear with Peter Sagan and Geraint Thomas), Strade-Bianche (dispatching the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Greg Van Avermaet for the win) and played a solid team role during Flanders. Should both Terpstra and Stybar make it into the elite group, they surely have the majority of tactical outcomes covered and will feel confident of finally bring a classic home to Etixx-Quick Step this season.
Terpstra took the win last year after splintering off the front of the decisive breakaway and soon set about time trialling his way to the finish at Roubaix’s velodrome solo. One rider who will look to last year’s victory by the Dutchman as inspiration will surely be Bradley Wiggins; coming to the race with the intention of finishing his career with the famous cobblestone trophy held aloft his head. With the news that Wiggins has been timing the pavé sectors in order to gauge his efforts and the tempo of the peloton, no rider will have studied this race so meticulously as the British World Time Trial Champion. Many will argue that such a scientific approach to Paris-Roubaix is a waste of time, you need to be racing in the moment and reacting to the ever changing maelstrom which surrounds you. He might know how many watts to put out going through Arenberg, but does Wiggins have the ability to ‘read’ the cobblestones in order to stay upright and puncture free? The answer is a surprisingly positive one for the ageing Sky rider who has already contested this race on several occasions, dating back to his early days at Marc Madiot’s Francaise Des Jeux squad. His support will include the flying Welshman Geraint Thomas, strongman Ian Stannard, wiley lieutenant Berard Eisel and promising youngster Luke Rowe. These are all men who are happy to sacrifice themselves in order to ensure Wiggins a safer passage through the day and hopefully position him amongst the decisive riders towards the end of play.
For Wiggins, he will expect his teammates to soften up the other favourites for him, before attempting to breakaway solo and motor to the line with the huge engine he has. Something worth keeping mind is what could happen as a result of Geraint Thomas attacking; a man there to work for Wiggins. The bunch could try to call their bluff though and let Thomas get away, something which would need to be judged accurately to ensure he does not vanish up the road and takes the win for himself. Given that this is Wiggins final race and his last attempt at securing another palmares topping race win, would we perhaps even see him working to bring back his own teammate in desperation?
Horses for courses is a saying which perhaps serves cycling better than its intended sport, or any other sport for that matter. A sport where riders can pull race winning performance out of thin air simply because they hold an affinity for the given terrain or course. Lars Boom is one such rider who should be included when summarising the danger men 2015’s Paris-Roubaix. He won the apocalyptic Tour de France stage which tackled the cobbles during last year’s race; taking the win in a rain soaked affair which saw the impressive efforts of Vincenzo Nibali triumphing over the treacherous stones while others faltered. This is not to say Boom’s claim to a Roubaix win is simply limited to that one day during Le Tour, a day where others have to measure their efforts for the next two weeks of further efforts. The Dutchman has appeared comfortable within the eye of the storm as the peloton hit crucial sectors at incredible speed and like Vanmarkce, is only bereft of a better showing here due to misfortune.
Greg Van Avermaet will have been disappointed to have no capitalised on the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen during last week’s Tour of Flanders. Unable to bridge the gap to the leading pairing of Terpstra and Kristoff despite the assistance of Peter Sagan; Avaermaet finished third one a day where he really could have taken all the glory when looking so strong on the final ascent of the Paterberg. Despite Avermaet not necessarily appearing to be the typically styled rider to benefit in the cobbled classics, he has a fourth place at Paris-Roubaix and often ends up in the elite group during a arduous race. Though he might no have as great a level of depth in his support squad as other contenders here, he should have plenty of confidence with Daniel Oss as his key man; the Italian has appeared in superb condition this Spring so far.
A couple of seasons ago, many would not only have bet that Peter Sagan would have taken a monuments win by now, but probably had a small shelf dedicated solely to them. In reality however, Sagan has failed to kick on from the performances which first brought him centre stage on the WorldTour. As ever he remains a consistent finisher in anything from one day classics to three week grand tours and anything in between. Of the five annual monuments, Sagan has currently bagged two 4th place finishes at both Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders; leaving only Paris-Roubaix as a possible win as neither Liége-Bastogne-Liége or Giro di Lombardia favour his strengths. If Paris-Roubaix was 50km shorter, it would be easier to back his chances, but sadly for the Slovak rider, he often dwindles during these longer one day affairs. His overall form has been troublesome this year, during Strade-Bianche he went on the attack at one point, only to be caught and churned out the back as soon as he had been reeled in. During E3 Harelbeke he made the decisive move with Stybar and Thomas, but looked on the rivet during the last 20km; unable to take a turn and eventually bonked so hard after Thomas’ attack (and Stybar’s subsequent pursuit) he could not manage to hold on for third in the final few kilometres; instead finding his name plunged into the midsts of the chasing pack.
Another rider who seemed destined to become a major figure in the classics scene for the foreseeable future was Belgium’s Jurgen Roelandts. This year appears to be the best build-up he has ever had heading into Paris-Roubaix, stating throughout the media that he feels he can put in a solid performance on the cobbles. He appears to be feeling strong off the pack of encouraging showings at Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders; yet will not be that closely marked despite evident form. Like many dark horses at this race, their chances do not come when facing the major names head-to-head, but rather anticipating the moves and aiming to get ahead of the game before they make them. Roelandts remains one to watch and if he uses his head properly, could certainly be on the coattails of the elite group.
Reigning Belgian champion Jens Debusschere could be worth keeping an eye on for home fans too, with encouraging signs apparent heading into Paris-Roubaix. At Gent-Wevelgem he played his cards very close to his chest when making it into the decisive lead group and measured his efforts extremely closely when forcing the likes of Geraint Thomas and Niki Terpstra to close the gaps to the wheels ahead. Ultimately this possible unwillingness to chase blew up in his face as Luca Paolini capitalised on the cat and mouse to slip off the front and solo to victory. He has the capability to smuggle himself aboard a breakaway, but it will be another question as to whether or not he can cope with the subsequent attacks as riders aim to drop one another. If he is present in a group which makes it into Roubaix first, he is fast enough to be a key threat to the hopes of the strongmen with lesser finishing speeds after such a long race.
Outcome: 1st Zdenek Stybar 2nd Geraint Thomas 3rd Jens Debusschere