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Preview: Boonen in the driver’s seat for Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix is known by several nicknames, including “Queen of the Classics” and “The Hell of the North,” but to the riders who pin on a number Sunday morning, it will mean just one thing — pain.

The 258km race travels north from Compiegne, an hour north of Paris, traversing a jarring 51.5km of Roman Empire-era cobblestone roads, known as pavé, to finish inside the 400-meter velodrome in Roubaix, sitting 5km from France’s northern border with Belgium.

The most brutal of pro cycling’s one-day classics will once again be held on Easter Sunday, the final bookend to cycling’s “Holy Week,” which, until a 2010 calendar change, included the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.

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And with a 30-percent chance of rain in Sunday’s forecast, this year’s race has the potential to be a true battle of attrition, as riders must negotiate slick roads, muddy cobblestones, and the inevitable crashes and punctures that characterize the race.

With the absence of Fabian Cancellara, following his dramatic collarbone fracture at Flanders, the complexion of the race has completely changed — there is no longer a rider in the race capable of soloing away from the field from 40km out.

Cancellara’s absence immediately thrust his longtime cobbled classics rival, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen, into the role of overwhelming pre-race favorite. Boonen is hot off cobbles wins at E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, and is a three-time winner in the Roubaix velodrome.

Since 2005, Boonen and Cancellara have won five of seven editions of the race; however, following a series of crashes and mechanicals, Boonen abandoned Roubaix last year for the first time, while Cancellara was marked out of the race, allowing Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren, the strongest man from an early breakaway move, to enjoy the biggest win of his career.

In what has already been a remarkable spring campaign for the 31-year-old Belgian, Boonen comes to the start line knowing that if he wins Sunday he will tie the all-time record of Paris-Roubaix wins held by Roger De Vlaeminck, who won four times between 1972 and 1977. (De Vlaeminck carries the nickname “Mr. Paris-Roubaix as a result.) Already this year Boonen has set the record for wins at Harelbeke, with five, and tied for the record number of wins at Ghent-Wevelgem, with three, and the Tour of Flanders, with three.

“I’m breaking every record it seems, but it’s not my main concern,” Boonen said this week. “Of course it’s in my mind to win Roubaix for a fourth time and equal Roger De Vlaeminck, but it’s not an obsession. I just want to win the race and look over the palmarès afterwards. If I focus too much, it’s extra pressure.”

Boonen’s primary adversaries will likely be the two men who stood aside him at the Tour of Flanders podium last weekend, Italians Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan. Pozatto (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) finished second to Boonen in 2009, and seventh behind Cancellara in 2010. Ballan (BMC Racing) has twice finished third in Roubaix, both times behind Boonen in a bunch sprint, as he did again at Flanders on Sunday. Last year at Roubaix Ballan was sixth, 36 seconds behind Vansummeren.

At Flanders, it was Ballan who attacked on the final trip over the Oude Kwaremont climb, and Pozzato who initially chased, bringing Boonen with him to form the winning move; it was also Pozzato who came closest in the final sprint to the line.

“I’m sorry I didn’t win, for me the Ronde has always held a special fascination, but Tom deserved the victory,” said Pozzato. “I played my cards in the sprint but there was nothing I could do. I’m happy with my form, this result gives me confidence, and I’m looking forward to Roubaix, where I will again try to win, though it certainly won’t be easy.”

Vansummeren, last year’s winner, rode at the front at Flanders on Sunday until he crashed at the base of the Paterberg climb on the second of three ascents. Though he wasn’t badly injured, he lost contact with the front group, finishing 49th, 1:06 down. And though he wasn’t on the list of favorites heading into last year’s race, his win in Roubaix wasn’t a complete shock, either — he finished in the top-10 in 2008 and 2009, both times riding as a domestique for Silence-Lotto’s Leif Hoste.

“It was my dream to win Roubaix. I know it’s the race that suits me the most, but that’s not a guarantee that you win it,” Vansummeren said. “You need an exceptional day on the right moment, and I had that then, and it worked out great for me.”

The tall Belgian will be supported by Belgian Sep Vanmarcke, German Andreas Klier and American Tyler Farrar, who finished second at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday just three days after riding 200km in the breakaway at Flanders.

Vansummeren’s 2011 win came largely due to the presence of his then-Garmin teammate Thor Hushovd, who, along with Ballan, clung tightly to Cancellara’s wheel. With 30km to go Cancellara sat up, refusing to drag Hushovd and Ballan to the finish. It was a bittersweet result for Hushovd, who had dearly wished to win Roubaix in the world champion’s rainbow jersey.

However in 2012, following a switch to BMC Racing, Hushovd has struggled, missing Milan-San Remo due to fever and failing to show form thus far in the northern classics. The Norwegian did not finish Harelbeke, did not make the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem, and finished 55th at the Tour of Flanders.

“I was expecting to do better at Flanders,” said Hushovd. “I didn’t have any strength in my legs. I felt empty. However Paris-Roubaix is a race in which anything can happen. I feel that I’m getting back on form. My training has been good and I still believe that I have a chance of winning in Roubaix.”

Hushovd added that Cancellara’s absence has made Boonen the hands-down race favorite. “I don’t know how much the absence of Cancellara will change the race this year,” he said. “Tom Boonen is in great form, so he is the favorite with a team that should be able to handle the toughness of the race. It’s a shame for Cancellara, he was in the right condition to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix again, but that’s cycling for you — it can happen to us all.”

On paper, Boonen is the obvious favorite. But such is the beauty of Paris-Roubaix — a combination of strength, skill, experience, support and luck ultimately decides the winner.

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