Are you sitting comfortably? A traditional Paris-Roubaix awaits, after pandemic and electoral postponements, the race finally back to its traditional slot, and Easter Sunday one too. To add to the tradition, at least this century, it’ll be dry too.
The Route: 257km from Compiègne to Roubaix. To get to the cobbles there’s almost 100km on regular roads, including a few gentle climbs. All the course is exposed to the wind but conditions look calm for Sunday so last year’s crosswind ambush is unlikely to repeated.
It’s worth remembering that in this 257km race, 92% of the course ranges between tarmac and 3-star cobble sections, only 8% is the fearsome four and five star sections, it’s still a road race and plenty of action happens on the ordinary roads. Sectors are rated by difficulty but also a function of distance. So a short sector with stones jagged enough to puncture tires and dreams alike may not merit a diabolical rating, the second section at Templeuve comes to mind, it’s a brute but it’s short so only has two stars.
The Arenberg Forest is one of those self-fulfilling strategic points as riders rush to be at the front in case of a crash… which heightens the crash risk. It’s been tended by a herd of goats this year which doesn’t just provide ecological headlines and cute images, it’ll help the riders. To explain, in the past the authorities deployed weed killer and then heavy street-cleaning rotary brushes on trucks to clean the dead vegetation away from the pavé only this also gouged out the material between the stones making the edges even more pronounced. The caprine care this year means this will be a little less savage. Anyway, back to the sport and 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, a grim corner of France whether it’s mythologised in the tales of Zola or the newspaper and TV bulletins of late. With 20km to go the crucial sectors of Camphin and then the Carrefour de l’Arbre arrive. This final one is five-star, two kilometres and the hardest part comes towards the end where it starts to climb and this is the crucial moment to make the difference.
The Finish: Held in the old velodrome, riders enter the 500m rough 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.
Mathieu van der Poel is the obvious pick, albeit in a race that’s often full of surprises and traps so no five chainring-rating for him. He’s in sparkling form and packs a reassuring sprint. His Alpecin-Deceuninck team is able to support him but that’s as far as they go, they’re not going to bend the race to their will. He’s prone to nonchalance at times, at being out of place but the calmer weather conditions should make this less of a worry. He’ll be heavily marked but once on the pavé and things are lined out he can make his moves.
Wout van Aert has been on the receiving end of late but it’s still relative, fourth place in Flanders was a defeat by the expectations we place on him and Jumbo-Visma but the form is almost there. He’s been complaining about his knee but if he’s there for the finish, well by then everything will feel sore. It’s the last chance for him and the team to get the cobbled Monument they crave. The team bring back Dylan van Baarle whose form is unknown but he wouldn’t be starting if he wasn’t capable so he’s a contender, especially for a longer range move. Christophe Laporte can win this race as well, his ability to make intense efforts for two minutes counts for plenty and he’s fast in a sprint too.
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) is the form pick, he was very strong in the Ronde but much like then, what to do with the other riders? He got the better of Van Aert in the sprint last Sunday but can he beat everyone? So many questions but perhaps it’s best not to overthink things and to just aim to be in the thick of the action in the final hour.
Filippo Ganna (Ineos) got a lot going for him. Time trial specialists have long found Paris-Roubaix to their liking and Ganna looks like a bigger version of three-time winner Fabian “Spartacus” Cancellara who won three times but often had to go solo because his sprint was a liability. Ganna however showed a new weapon in his armoury with that sprint in Sanremo and rivals will be wary of him in a sprint too. At 86kg the cobbles will almost bounce off him but that heightens the risk of mechanicals, even if today’s bike equipment mitigates plenty of this risk, his challenge is the hustle and bustle for position where despite his size he’s less than gladiatorial. Magnus Sheffield is an outsider worth watching too but has had a difficult spring campaign and more than any race Paris-Roubaix rewards experience or at least perseverance.
It feels like you can’t mention Soudal-Quickstep without bringing words like trouble, absence or decline but their team is arguably most suited to Paris-Roubaix, in part because Yves Lampaert (pictured left) and his diesel-style of racing, give him five metres and he could be a hard rider to bring back. Florian Sénéchal is the local who dreams of improving on his sixth place from 2019 but like many team mates has had a rough time while Davide Ballerini and Tim Merlier could surprise.
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) was strong in the Ronde but as ever if he jumps everyone thinks he’s a great wheel to follow as he’s so strong and if they stay away, he shouldn’t be much of a problem in the sprint. Fred Wright (Bahrain) is in form again and capable of being in the front group while Matej Mohorič has made Paris-Roubaix his big goal after a strong performance last year.
Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny) is back and by now the pressure has dropped, but so could his form and his weakness at times has been his brute force which has caused him to crash in corners, he might need more finesse for the pavé, team mate Florian Vermeersch was solid in the Ronde and now has a flat route to suit. Mikkel Bjerg is not normally been a cobbled classics guy but he’s got a giant engine and could be UAE’s best bet even if Matteo Trentin is in form and a crafty racer. Nils Politt (Bora-hansgrohe) has been visible in many spring classics, in part because he’s attacked solo at the wrong points, enjoying a spell in the limelight before being swamped but this could still pay off. Sep Vanmarcke (Israel) was third in Gent-Wevelgem and an outsider.
If last week’s Dutch word was anticiperen, in French it’s anticiper and the same principle applies. Many wins in Paris-Roubaix have come from the early breakaway and having riders up the road gives a team an option on the win and also having helpers up front to support leaders. We can have a course de mouvement, where wave after wave of attacks go at the start. Long shots who might slip into an early move with dreams of winning à la Van Summeren/Hayman include Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Bingoal-WB), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Total Energies), Alexander Kristoff (Uno-X), Luke Durbridge (Jayco-Al Ula), Max Walscheid (Cofidis) or Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën).
|Mathieu van der Poel|
|Filippo Ganna, Mads Pedersen, Wout van Aert|
|Christophe Laporte, Dylan Van Baarle, Matej Mohorič|
|Lampaert, Vanmarcke, Küng, Asgreen, Politt, Wright, Bjerg, Garcia Cortina, Trentin|
Weather: dry and sunny for sure, the forecast for the wind varies according to the sources, some suggest a light 15km/h tailwind for the predominant northerly direction of the race, others almost nothing.
TV: live from start at 11.01am 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 users, and Eurosport/GCN in most other countries.
Paris-Roubaix Femmes: it’s today (Saturday) between 1.30pm and 5.30pm CEST with TV coverage for the final two hours, about where the first of the 17 cobbled sectors begins. This blog’s picks are Lotte Kopecky (SD-Worx) and half her team mates. You’ll find a better informed, proper preview over at procyclinguk.com.