Paris-Roubaix 2014 Preview

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The incomparable Paris-Roubaix runs for the 111th time this Sunday. The legendary race is a celebration of days long past, a relic that offers dangers and challenges unseen elsewhere in most of today’s other major contests. The trip is mostly a flat affair, but the rough cobbles, patches of mud, whirling dust clouds, fanatical spectators, and excessive length provide difficulties that no profile could display. Constant attacks at every juncture force splits and selections and require acute awareness at all times. A moment of lost concentration can also mean going down hard on the unforgiving surface. Experience navigating the difficulties and an extremely high tolerance for the bone-rattling pain of irregular roads are crucial at Paris-Roubaix.

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51.1 total kilometers of cobbles lie along the 256 kilometer road from Compiegne to Roubaix. Some of those sections are in better shape in others, and each is given a rating (between one and five). The more difficult sections are often the site of attacks, with the race’s three five-star cobbled sections quite likely to force selection. First among them, the wooded Arenberg Trench greets the peloton (or what remains by that point) after 161 kilometers. The 2.4 kilometer stretch is extremely rough, and after what might constitute a whole day’s racing in a stage race, the abuse of riding over uneven stones takes its toll. The Mons-en-Pévèle is the next five-star section, 3 kilometers long with some sharp turns and generally a lot of mud, beginning around kilometer 208. Tom Boonen’s awesome long-distance strike in 2012 was launched just before this section was reached; even if it doesn’t launch the winning attack this year, it will still be sure to jettison a few riders from the pack. A few more easily rated sections follow the muddy stretch before the five-star Le Carrefour de l’Arbre is reached, the legendary 2.1 kilometers of uneven pave that must be overcome only 17 km before the finish line. It’s hard to drop anyone after this point, so if the race isn’t split up by the time the riders reach the Carrefour, expect fireworks from the riders hoping to avoid a sprint in the iconic Roubaix velodrome.

Contenders for the Cobblestone Trophy

Trek’s Fabian Cancellara comes into Sunday’s race looking to pick up his fourth cobblestone trophy (which is literally a cobblestone), and he enters the race as a big favorite thanks to both his resume in the classics generally and recent displays of current form. The four-time ITT world champion has one of the biggest engine’s in the sport, making it nearly impossible to drop him. Holding his wheel is an immense struggle on this terrain. But any riders capable of hanging on then must beat him in a sprint, which he has shown quite an aptitude in recently. He won last year’s edition by outsprinting Sep Vanmarcke after the two of them bridged a gap to Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh up the road, watched both of those riders run into spectators, and then continued on by themselves. This year, the sprinting ability that won him last year’s P-R carried him to 2nd place in Milano-Sanremo in March, and it put him atop the podium of his third Tour of Flanders last week when he made it into the winning attack and won a sprint to the line. Defeating Fabian Cancellara will be a very tall order for the other contenders in this race: he has the perfect combination of current form, ability, and experience to win this race. Stijn Devolder is still uncertain for this race after a crash filled Flanders, but if he’s here, he’s a great second.

Tom Boonen has won Paris-Roubaix even more times than Cancellara; his 2012 victory after more than 50 kilometers riding solo is the stuff of legend. Various maladies kept him from contesting in 2013, but numerous results this year have shown that he has recaptured some form. Still, he has not quite returned to the level of two years past, and injury and personal misfortunes have made 2014 a difficult year; he was unable to hang with Cancellara in the Ronde. Paris-Roubaix is a different race, without the climbs of Flanders, and it may suit Boonen a bit more against the seemingly unstoppable Cancellara. What’s more, while his ability to put up sustained power numbers might be somewhat reduced, he still looks quite handy in a sprint, and he learned years ago that the best tactic against Cancellara is to remain glued on that wheel and hope for a sprint. He will also have plenty of help from star-studded Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Niki Terpstra has been a very active and very successful rider this spring, following up a 2nd place at E3 Harelbeke with a 6th place at the Tour of Flanders. He was 3rd in last year’s Paris-Roubaix, the next rider to cross the line after the Cancellara/Vanmarcke duo. Terpstra is a keen opportunist and an excellent soloist, and as one of a number of options on his team, he could benefit if the pack hesitates to follow. Zdenek Stybar was strong enough to still manage an 8th place despite running into a spectator last year. He hasn’t made as big an impression on this classics season as I initially expected, but he does have plenty of form and the bike handling skills of a cyclocross world champion. He also has a quick finish. 29 year-old teammate Stijn Vandernbergh was the other major spectator casualty of 2013, but he enters this year’s edition again on stellar form, having come in 4th in both the Ronde and E3 Harelbeke. He does not have the fastest sprint but he’s very aggressive and at the very least, he’s almost certain to try something on the tough cobbled sections.

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The top challenger taking on favorite Cancellara and super-team OPQS is last year’s runner-up Sep Vanmarcke. Just 25, the Belkin rider has already been on the podiums of Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and obviously Paris-Roubaix, each time showing good cycling acumen for planning the successful attacks and the engine to make them. Unfortunately, on all three of those occassions, his fellow attackers outsprinted him to the finish line. In 2014, he has been in the top 5 of all three WorldTour cobbled races, as well as other big spring contests Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. His biggest challenge will be creating a real gap between other contenders, as a sprint finish simply will not do for him. I think he is one of the very few riders with a chance at getting ahead of Cancellara, and he will certainly give that venture a shot on Sunday. It’s a big ask, but one thing is for sure: he is an excellent bet to be on at least one of the three steps on the podium. Lars Boom is a very high quality support rider.

Paris-Roubaix is a truly unique bike race, unlike any other in the grueling tests through which it parts participants. It is also unlike most of the other bike races that Peter Sagan, versatile as he is, has won in his life. Sagan did not ride this race last year. His 2011 attempt landed him 86th. The long, brutal days have challenged Sagan in his young career, and the flat parcours gives him fewer opportunities to gap the bigger riders. Still, counting out Peter Sagan is always a mistake. He already has a pair of fine wins on the WorldTour level, in Tirreno-Adriatico and at E3 Harelbeke, thanks to his good form in 2014. Winning a Monument is his central goal right now, and I think he will give this race 100%. He obviously has the sprint to beat most challengers if he makes it to the finish, and he’s an expert bike handler for the difficult cobbled stretches. Whether he can survive the carnage of attacks is the real question. I don’t think he will match Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix, but I don’t think it’s an impossible ask either.

Milano-Sanremo winner Alexander Kristoff added to his remarkable track record in recent Monuments last weekend when he came in 5th in the Ronde, rolling across the line by himself after a failed but spirited attempt to bridge to Cancellara’s group. The Katusha rider has a special talent for sprinting after hard days in the saddle, and few are harder than Paris-Roubaix. Furthermore, P-R doesn’t have the climbers of Flanders, which will play into his hands, as he is not an expert climber. 9th in 2013, Kristoff looks even better this year and more likely to hang on during the attacks or even make his own attempts to bridge if necessary. Of the favorites, he has one of the fastest sprints. If he’s there at the finish, it’s hard to see him not winning the cobblestone trophy.  As usual, Luca Paolini makes a great second. Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb is the other big name sprinter who might be considered to at least have a shot at being there in the finish. He held on as long as he could in Flanders but was ultimately dropped on the final climbs on the race. It won’t be much easier in Paris-Roubaix, but the Gent-Wevelgem winner is on awesome form and on a good day and with some luck, making the final selection is not out of the question. If he can hold the right wheel to the end of the race, he’s one of the fastest finishers on the start list.

BMC sends a powerful duo to the race in Taylor Phinney and Flanders runner-up Greg Van Avermaet. Phinney attacked early in 2013 but was unable to hold an advantage. He was twice winner of the U-23 edition of the race. The track star turned time trial specialist has a giant engine and he is handy in a sprint finish. He excels on the long flat days. Last week in Flanders he did an excellent job staying up the road for quite a while to keep the pressure of Greg Van Avermaet; Paris-Roubaix is definitely his style, and BMC will look to set him up for a strike more aimed at overall success here. Said teammate Van Avermaet is an excellent option as well, having ridden to 4th here in 2013. He looks in great shape in 2014, placing highly in a number of races even if he hasn’t managed to come up with the victories he has sought. Fewer hills give him fewer opportunities to show off his quality climbing abilities, but this is a race that rewards aggressive riders, and Van Avermaet fits that bill. In years past, Thor Hushovd challenged for the win here a few times, coming as close as 2nd place in 2010; he’s a bit past those golden years now, but the tough former World Champ deserves a namecheck at least. BMC has the talent to challenge the big favorites in this race.

Team Sky also sends a good squad, with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bradley Wiggins the featured riders for the contest. Boasson Hagen has been riding very well lately, mostly in support, and his time trialing skills and top-notch finishing kick could land him in a great position in Paris-Roubaix. Meanwhile, Bradley Wiggins decided that he would ride the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix this year, and though he does not really have a history of success in this race, he looked pretty good at last week’s Ronde van Vlaanderen. He’s not among the favorites, but he has shown an exceptional ability to succeed when he sets his mind to goals most would deem overly ambitious. Moreover, this is a race that can be won by an elite time trialist, and Bradley Wiggins is among the best in recent memory in that discipline. Geraint Thomas is supposedly riding this race in support of his teammates, but if for some reason he finds himself in position to make a move, he’s a very tough rider built for the days like these; his biggest knock is his propensity to crash, and Paris-Roubaix is nothing if not treacherous.

Back in 2009, Filippo Pozzato managed to finish 2nd to Tom Boonen in Paris-Roubaix. He was also the victor at E3 that year, and 5th in Flanders. Things haven’t really gone the way the Lampre rider would have hoped in recent years, and he is yet to have much success this year, but he did finish with Degenkolb, Sagan, and Stybar in the small group chasing the attackers up the road in Flanders last week. Teammate Sacha Modolo seems unlikely to be there after such a tough day, but he’s one of best sprinters in the race if that somehow happens.

Longer shots looking to animate the race include Wanty Groupe – Gobert’s Bjorn Leukemans (9th in De Ronde this year, and 4th at P-R in 2007), Garmin’s Sebastian Langeveld (10th in De Ronde this year, and 7th at P-R in 2013) and Johan Vansummeren (involved in a serious crash with a spectator, he had a rough Flanders this year, but he did win Paris-Roubaix in 2011 and has a host of other top 10s to his name), and AG2R’s Sebastien Turgot (a surprise 2nd place here in 2012) and Damien Gaudin. Long shots to somehow hang with the proven hardmen and sprint it out include FDJ’s Arnaud Demare (who looks very fast this season but who has not been able to survive the tough days to make it to the finish), Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, Movistar’s JJ Lobato, IAM’s Heinrich Haussler, and Tinkoff-Saxo’s Daniele Bennati.

No exhaustive preview can account for every possibility in a crazy race like Paris-Roubaix. A puncture or crash could instantly ruin the hopes of any of the big favorites and open the contest for new contenders. Still, through all the uncertainty, this race has been dominated by a select group of riders in the past several years; as difficult as it is to win Paris-Roubaix, and as large a role as chance can play over miles and miles of cobbles, seven of the last nine editions have seen either Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara victorious. Sunday will offer a great showdown between both of these heavyweights, and also between the now old guard they represent and the rising stars of Vanmarcke, Sagan, Kristoff and others.

VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites

Winner: Fabian Cancellara
Podium: Sep Vanmarcke, Tom Boonen
Other Top Contenders: Alexander Kristoff, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Taylor Phinney, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Edvald Boasson Hagen

VeloHuman recently joined the Twitterverse! Follow @VeloHuman for more analysis and commentary during the race, and be sure to come back soon for post-race thoughts and previews of Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallonne, and the fourth monument of the year, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

-Dane Cash

Photos by Olivier Moindroit and Christophe Duhem.

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