13 April 2014
After Ronde van Vlaanderen it’s now time for the third big Spring Classic of the season, Paris-Roubaix. This is the 112th edition of “Hell of the North”. With all the big favorites at the starting line, we should be in for another great show this Sunday.
Compared to last weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the parcours for Paris-Roubaix hasn’t undergone any drastic changes. However, there have been a few minor modifications. The two pave-sections Vertain à Saint-Martin-sur-Ecaillon (2300 meters) and Quérénaing à Maing (2500 meters) have been replaced by Vertain à Haussy (900 meters), Saulzoir à Verchain-Maugré (1200 meters) and Quérénaing à Famars (1200 meters). This means there will be 1500 meters less paves this year compared to 2013, leaving a total of 51.5 km on the cobblestones for this year’s edition.
Usually, the first big selection in the race comes as the riders enter the Arenberg forest after 160 km on the bike. Many riders have seen their chances of success slip away as crashes, punctures and other mechanical problems took them out of the race or let them too far behind to catch up again. The next big selection will most likely come on Mons-en-Pévèle, starting after 208 km. Last year, there were only 13 riders left in front after this pave-section. In 2012, Tom Boonen soloed away with 52 km to go without anyone able to follow him. This is a crucial part of the race. Your legs can feel great up until this point but after more than 200 km in the saddle, bouncing on the cobblestones, the tables can turn around quickly.
The race organizers recently just rated all the pave-sections. As usual, the three hardest parts, given five stars, are Trouée d'Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and Le Carrefour de l'Arbre, which come with less than 20 km to go. This is where Vandenbergh and Stybar lost their chances of winning last year as they got too close to the spectators. The last three pave-sections aren’t very difficult. If you weren’t able to drop your rivals at this point, you have to outsprint them on the velodrome in Roubaix.
According to the latest weather forecast, it should stay dry this Sunday with about 16°C and a light head wind.
In the preview for Ronde van Vlaanderen, I said that I saw Fabian Cancellara as the strongest rider in the peloton. He proved that last Sunday. Therefore, he’s naturally the big favorite for Paris-Roubaix as well. Last year, he won the double and I think he will repeat that performance again this year.
Usually, Tom Boonen would be Cancellara’s biggest rival. However, he ran out of legs in the final of Ronde van Vlaanderen and he seemed to suffer quite a lot on the steep climbs - more than the other contenders. You can never count out Boonen in Paris-Roubaix but to me it would be a surprise to see him at the top of the podium for the fifth time in his career this Sunday.
Without Tom Boonen in tip-top condition, Fabian Cancellara is in a league of his own on the cobblestones. Last year, his chances of winning seemed to have disappeared but - on his own - he rode past everybody to join the front group. If Fabian Cancellara shows the same kind of strength as he did last Sunday - and I think he will - only accidents can prevent him from winning Paris-Roubaix 2014. After Ronde van Vlaanderen, Cancellara admitted he would have liked to win solo and carry his bike over the finishing line. I doubt anybody will be able to follow Fabian Cancellara on Le Carrefour de l'Arbre, meaning the chances of him living out that dream this Sunday are quite good.
In Ronde van Vlaanderen, Sep Vanmarcke turned out to be just as strong as predicted. He was the only one able to follow Fabian Cancellara on Oude Kwaremount and he even tried to drop the Swiss near the top of Paterberg. Vanmarcke didn’t race in the best tactical way though. He wasted energy on countless attacks prior to Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg and he probably paid the price for it at the end. In the final sprint, his legs were cramping and Vanmarcke had to focus on ‘just’ not getting fourth. His gesture when crossing the line said it all; he was very happy to settle for third place. If Belkin manages to have more riders in the front group in Paris-Roubaix and Sep Vanmarcke doesn’t waste any energy early on, I think he will be able to fight for the win again this time.
Peter Sagan deserves to be mentioned as one of the favorites. So far, this season hasn’t been as rewarding as he had hoped for. He won E3 Harelbeke but he didn’t have the legs to follow Cancellara and Vanmarcke in the final. Personally, I think Sagan made another rookie mistake. He took way too many turns in the chase group early on and on an off-day (as he claimed it was after the race), you simply can’t afford to waste any energy. One would have thought Sagan learned this last year, when he couldn’t follow Cancellara on the steep part of Paterberg. However, Peter Sagan is still one of the strongest riders in the peloton and I think he will be very eager to make up for Sunday’s poor performance. Like many others, Sagan will most likely try to glue himself onto Cancellara’s wheel and I think he will be there as well when the race enters its final part. Can he follow Fabian Cancellara on Le Carrefour de l'Arbre? That’s the question. I doubt it, but if he manages to, he should be able to outsprint the Swiss on the velodrome.
Everything can happen in Paris-Roubaix and therefore the list of outsiders is always very long. However, I will try to narrow it down a bit. It means I will probably leave out some names, sorry, I can’t name them all. The following riders are those I think will have the best chances of making a top result this Sunday.
My personal outsider for the podium is Alexander Kristoff. The Spring Classics are his first big goal of the season, and he’s been outstanding so far. He won Milano - San Remo and was only a few seconds from bridging the gap (on his own!) to Cancellara, Vanmarcke, Vandenbergh and Van Avermaet in Ronde van Vlaanderen. Kristoff even led the chase group on Paterberg before going solo. It’s no secret that he is extremely strong right now. While Ronde van Vlaanderen is as much about experience as it is about strength, raw power is more important in Paris-Roubaix. This is an elimination race. If you have the legs and can avoid any bad luck, you will be near the front. In a sprint, Alexander Kristoff is probably the fastest rider in the race. However, after 256 km, nobody is really fast. Still, should Kristoff be sprinting for a spot on the podium, I, for one, would definitely not bet against him.
Another strong Norwegian for this Sunday is Edvald Boasson Hagen. He rode in service of Geraint Thomas in Ronde van Vlaanderen and tried to get up the road early in the final to make the other teams start chasing. To me, Boasson Hagen seems to be back on a very strong level. With a team to support him, I think he will be up there in the final, fighting for the podium. Team Sky also has Bradley Wiggins, who has changed his race schedule to focus on this race. Wiggins did well in Ronde van Vlaanderen but to me, he shouldn’t be the team captain. Instead, it would be a brilliant tactic to let Wiggins attack and get away in a small group before Mons-en-Pévèle section. This would force OPQS and Trek to chase hard and give Edvald Boasson Hagen a free ride into the final. Don’t forget Geraint Thomas and Bernie Eisel are here, too. Without Ian Stannard, Team Sky may not have a top favorite, but they do have enough strong riders to play the numbers game.
Last year, Taylor Phinney was my outsider pick. On paper, he’s the perfect rider for Paris-Roubaix. He’s as strong as an ox, fast on the line and most importantly: he never gives up! Phinney was very eager to do well last year and his excitement probably got the better of him as he hit the front and led out the peloton in the Arenberg forest. It cost him at the end, but as he said; “How often do you get the chance to do this?” Now Taylor Phinney is a year older, more experienced, and together with Greg van Avermaet, he’s leading BMC in Paris-Roubaix. In Ronde van Vlaanderen, Phinney proved to be back in good shape after his injuries when he made it into the morning breakaway and turned out to be strongest up front, together with Daryl Impey. Personally, I have no doubts that Taylor Phinney is going to win Paris-Roubaix one day. It may not be this Sunday, but I don’t think he will be far off either. Greg van Avermaet will be a marked man after his great performance in Ronde van Vlaanderen. The other favorites won’t let him get away this time but they may let Phinney get a gap. If he manages to get away with strong - second/third guard - riders from OPQS and Team Sky, he will be up there when the big favorites start moving in the final.
For other strong candidates look to the OPQS duo Zdenek Stybar & Niki Terpstra and Björn Leukemans, Luca Paolini, Sebastian Langeveld and Matthew Hayman.
For live coverage of Paris-Roubaix 2014, go to steephill.tv.