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Race Preview: All eyes on two men for Paris-Roubaix

Cancellara at a news conference Friday.

There are 200 riders on the start list for Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, but only two names on everyone’s lips at the start city of Compiegne: Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen.

And beyond last Sunday’s epic mano-a-mano battle at the Tour of Flanders — where the two cobbled-classics specialists sprung clear with 45km remaining until Cancellara surged ahead of Boonen on the decisive Kapelmuur for the win — there’s good reason why both men are again favorites for Roubaix, the notorious spring classic referred to alternately as the Queen of the Classics and the Hell of the North.

Both riders have won Roubaix, Boonen three times, in 2005, 2008 and 2009; Cancellara once, in 2006. One of Boonen’s wins came in a sprint finish ahead of Cancellara, in 2008. Both wear the jersey of a national champion; Boonen of Belgium, Cancellara of Switzerland. Both have worn the rainbow jersey as a world champion; Boonen as world road champion in 2005, Cancellara as world time trial champion, three times. They are similar in age (Boonen turns 30 this year, Cancellara turned 29 last month) and build (Boonen is 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, Cancellara is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds.)

And both men have more at stake than just adding another of cycling’s monuments to their palmares; for each, history is on the line.

For Boonen, a fourth Roubaix win would equal that of Roger De Vlaeminck, known as “Mr. Paris-Roubaix.” For Cancellara, a win would make him only the ninth rider to do the prestigious Flanders-Roubaix double. The last man to do it was none other than Boonen, in 2005.

Even their team strength is relatively equal, with both riders flanked by a pair of danger men. At Saxo Bank Cancellara is backed by an on-form Matti Breschel, winner of Dwars door Vlaanderen last month, and Stuart O’Grady, winner of a tactical Roubaix in 2007. At Quick Step Boonen is supported by Devolder, who finished 25th at Flanders last weekend after soling to victory in 2008 and 2009, and Sylvain Chavanel, a strong domestique who has blossomed under Boonen’s leadership.

Ask each man who has more pressure, and they’ll react the same — a sly smile, followed by the other’s name.

“He has the pressure to do the double, it’s a big pressure,” Boonen said at a team press conference Friday, flanked by two-time Flanders winner Stijn Devodler. “He has a strong team and most of the work will be on their shoulders. We have two guys that are able to win the race and they have two guys able to win the race. We have to be smart and try to control the race from the last 100 kilometers onwards, from the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector. We have to always keep our hands on the race and not do anything stupid.”

Boonen and team on a training ride Friday. Photo: Graham Watson, www.grahamwatson.com

Asked the same question — who has more pressure to win? — Cancellara answered, “The pressure is on him, and his whole team and rest of the peloton. When you look since Waregem at how we’ve been riding, with Matti (Breschel) and me and the whole team and the victories, we’re winning. We’ve showed what we are able to do. If we keep on riding like that, maybe we can risk a little more than the other teams. Our pockets are quite full, but we are still hungry. We’re looking to Sunday.”

Truth be told, the real pressure sits on Boonen’s shoulders, and it has little to do with breaking De Vlaeminck’s record. Riding on some of the best form of his career, Cancellara has already bagged his big one for the spring; Boonen has not. For a rider of Boonen’s stature, finishing second at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders has been more frustrating than promising. And for a Belgian team like Quick Step, a win at Flanders and/or Roubaix is paramount to successful season, while Saxo Bank still has realistic objectives at the Ardennes classics as well as the Tour de France.

It’s something Cancellara is all too aware of. Later, asked another question about pressure to win, he said simply, “I have nothing to lose.” (more …)

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