Having put to bed the Tour of Flanders for another year last weekend, the wait for another opportunity to make history has been brief for the riders. Paris-Roubaix now finds itself next on the agenda for much of the peloton, poised to rattle the bones of all and certain to introduce an unlucky few to the cobbles for a ‘closer inspection’. Recent years have seen dusty editions contested on a regular basis, plumes of sunbaked dirt rising skywards thanks to the obscenely large cavalcade of motos and cars churning up a choking smokescreen, within which the riders find themselves racing for most of the day. The fact that 2016’s edition could be wet is certain to cause anxiety for many ahead of the race, as a few millimetres of rain can soon turn the jagged cobbles into a surface as slippery as ice – only a select few would welcome such conditions.
Whatever the weather, the 27 sectors of pavé will be a brutal selection process that can only be softened through an amalgamation of power, endurance, nous and luck. The peloton will at least be afforded almost 100km to prepare for the opening sector, as once the ball starts rolling, there shall hardly be an opportunity to take breath between each vicious stretch of pavé. A total of 52.8km shall be spent surfing from one cobblestone to the next during this 257.5km affair, with great attention focused upon the traditional triumvirate of Trouee d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pevele and Carrefour de l’Arbre which all feature once again in 2016 and have each proven decisive over the years.
As is tradition, the final moment of Paris-Roubaix will be played out within the historic Roubaix velodrome, where a one and a half lap battle between the surviving men has often been the climax to proceedings. Though someone might just be lucky enough to enter solo and savour this victory lap on their own before crossing the line to lift the cobbled trophy unchallenged in the finale.
It is strange to consider a peloton without Fabian Cancellara acting as one of its greatest ambassadors, though thankfully his retirement is still some time away and he shall be firing on all cylinders as he attempts to tie with Tom Bonnen and Roger De Vlaeminck for most wins – 4. The Swiss legend obviously hopes to end this year with a major win of some sort, and having come so close at Ronde van Vlaanderen last weekend, Cancellara evidently has the form to achieve such an ambition. Paris-Roubaix victories always owe a small debt to luck, but it is the ability to stay out of danger and anticipate crucial moves which seals the win for most, a talent honed through experience and one which Fabian Cancellara has in spades. His previous three wins here are testament to his innate tactical nous, while pairing this with his current condition, the title of favourite is certain to be bestowed upon him.
Sep Vanmarcke is overdue for a big win such as this and comes to the race off the back of encouraging showings at both Ronde van Vlaanderen and Gent – Wevelgem. Vanmarcke shares attributes with Fabian Cancellara, powerful enough to attack solo or follow the wheels of others for example, and it would come as little surprise to see both feature in the day’s decisive move. In 2013, these two contested the win in the Roubaix velodrome with Cancellara emerging victorious, but this year it could be wiser to back Vanmarcke for the win should a repeat occur.
When given the freedom to attack this season, Luke Rowe has proven to be incredibly strong, coping with attacks from some of the biggest riders. The Welshman has the gritty determination demanded of a winner on the cobbles and might prove even stronger should the rain emerge as a factor on Sunday. He finished 8th here last year, 5th in Ronde van Vlaanderen last weekend and was unlucky to puncture on Stage 1 of Driedaagse De Panne a couple of weeks ago; having looked strong after making the crucial race winning move alongside Alexander Kristoff, Lieuwe Westra and Alexey Lutsenko. There is no doubt that Rowe is a danger to the hopes of others and it would be no shock to see them rue letting him slip off the front unmarked.
A man who usually blossoms when attention turns to this unique set of cobbles is Dutchman Niki Terpstra, winning the race in 2014 and never shying away from making his presence felt. His season thus far has been modest, though he did take the win at La Samyn when dropping Scott Thwaites with a monstrous effort late on, so is bound to feature in one way or another. For him to take victory, expect him to capitalise upon an inch of freedom by calling upon his time trialling talents and vanishing up the road solo.
Zdeněk Štybar and Lars Boom are an interesting couple of riders given that both of last year’s first two riders home (John Degenkolb & Greg Van Avermaet) are unable to contest 2016’s edition due to injury. Štybar was third last year and is thus the highest finishing rider here from 2015, he looks strong this season, but has not quite met the demanding expectations of his team Etixx-QuickStep in these Northern European one day races so far. His cyclocross background will come in handy should conditions get slippery, a skill shared by Lars Boom who also made the move to the road from cyclocross and won 2014’s Tour de France stage which crossed these cobbles under heavy rain. Boom is a bit of a dark horse in this respect, as it may really come down to the weather more than anything else to determine if he shall be a player in the outcome.
Peter Sagan has laid the curse of the rainbow bands to rest in the last couple of weeks; first when taking Gent – Wevelgem and then again when securing one of the biggest wins of his career at Ronde van Vlaanderen. His performances at these classics in 2016 have been extremely consistent, marking him out once again as a favourite, though there are slight doubts as whether this will be enough on this occasion. His reputation goes before him and he often finds others expecting him to do the bulk of the work in a move, draining his energy and ultimately blunting his sprinting capabilities before the finale. He could form an elite group with riders such as Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke once again, but he will have to measure his efforts well, as such a powerful break could dissolve into kicking chunks out of one another late on and reduce his chances of winning a sprint as a result.
A wildcard for the day is Cofidis’ Florian Sénéchal, the young French rider having won this as a junior in 2011, now he leads the team and will be one of the home fans’ greatest hopes of a win. He made the jump up convincingly in 2015 when finishing 17th, looks even stronger this year and could benefit greatly from a naive peloton underestimating just how talented he is.
1st Fabian Cancellara 2nd Sep Vanmarcke 3rd Zdeněk Štybar