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The Paris-Roubaix field is more open this year...

‘Hell of the North’ set for epic battle across the pave

Can Alexander Kristoff pull off the Flanders-Roubaix double, or will someone else emerge from the dusty cobbles as Sunday's winner?

GENT, Belgium (VN) — The northern classics end Sunday with a crescendo over the pavé. Paris-Roubaix caps the end of the cobblestone classics, a fitting finale to what’s been a transitional year, with new riders elbowing their way to supremacy. The “Hell of the North” will crown a new winner, and perhaps open a new era on the pavé.

The plot lines couldn’t be thicker. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is on a Merckxian-style run, quickly filling the void left by Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), both out with injuries. Behind him is a platoon of favorites, all of them anxious to end Katusha’s stranglehold on the cobblestone classics. Nearly every major team is desperate to save their respective classics campaigns with a big ride Sunday.

The backdrop is one of cycling’s most dramatic arenas. The Flemish classics might have the passion, and the worlds, a touch more prestige, but there is nothing that compares to the rough, unpolished pavé across the flat, windswept farm fields of northern France.

Paris-Roubaix is one-day racing at its brawniest. Luck, both bad and good, can often determine the winner. Crashes, punctures, and even collisions with rowdy fans have dashed dreams of victory in an instant. Both Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) collided with fans on the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector when they were in the front, four-man group in 2013. Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke stayed upright, with “Spartacus” taking his third career Roubaix trophy.

Mild weather forecasted for Sunday could see a repeat of last weekend’s high-speed, controlled race at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), but Roubaix’s rough cobbles, added with gusting winds as high as 20kph (12.4mph), will certainly deliver a wild ride in the final hour or so of racing.

Roubaix has it all: high drama, fearless racing, more than a century of history, and ambitious, young riders in the peloton ready to stake their claim as new kings of the cobbles. It should be an epic day of racing.

Top faves: Kristoff and Terpstra

Two names stand out coming into Sunday’s battle: Kristoff and defending champion Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step).

Like a Viking marauder, Kristoff has proven unbeatable across the northern classics, winning six races in the course of nine days, with his dramatic Ronde victory bookended by three stages and the overall at Dreidaagse de Panne-Koksijde, and Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. Add Luca Paolini’s tactically perfect victory at Gent-Wevelgem, and only Geraint Thomas (Sky), winner of E3 Harelbeke, and teammate Bradley Wiggins, who won the time trial stage at De Panne, have been able to break the Katusha stranglehold.

Kristoff is the first to admit Roubaix is a different creature (his career-best is ninth in 2013), but he also knows he’s on the form of his life.

“Of course, I dream of winning, who doesn’t? If I get podium, I would be very happy,” Kristoff said. “We will give it a try, of course. I have great form right now, and you have to take advantage of that, because it might not come back.”

Terpstra will have huge pressure to deliver a victory for Etixx, Belgium’s king of the classics. So far, the team has come up empty. A few times, they’ve botched their tactics, and a few others, they’ve simply run into stronger opponents. Paolini at Gent-Wevelgem and Kristoff at Flanders both relegated Terpstra to second place.

“Second at a race like Flanders is a big result, but what I want now in my career is to win,” Terpstra said. “I hope to be at my best at Roubaix, and not have any bad luck. I think I can have the legs to win again.”

Since World War II, only six riders have defended their Roubaix titles. History is not on Terpstra’s side, but he’s clearly on good form. He and Kristoff will start as the top favorites.

Long list of contenders and pretenders

There is no shortage of favorites behind Kristoff and Terpstra, with nearly a dozen riders who have realistic chances to win.

Top among them is last year’s runner-up and reigning Milano-Sanremo champion John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin). The German has come into his own during the past two seasons, and will be motivated to finish off what’s been a somewhat stymied northern classics campaign. He couldn’t quite follow the key moves at Harelbeke and Flanders, and did not finish Gent-Wevelgem, but the flatter, wide-open roads of Roubaix suit his stocky style even better. If he can ride into the lead group, just like Kristoff, rivals will have to attack him to drop him, because he will have a very good chance in a reduced bunch gallop to the line.

It will be interesting to see if Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) can salvage his classics campaign with a podium ride Sunday. The Slovak has been catching grief for not living up to expectations, and this year has gone even worse. He was popped from the winning move at Harelbeke, and rode to a face-saving fourth at Flanders, but Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) was grumbling that Sagan didn’t have the legs to help close the gap. Sagan rode into the winning group last year, but he doesn’t appear to have the same form as in 2014. Anything less than a podium will certainly raise the ire of team owner Oleg Tinkov, who recently sacked Bjarne Riis.

Two Belgians will line up with something to prove. Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) both want to shake the Belgian characterization of them as being “nearly men,” but Roubaix favors Vanmarcke, second to Cancellara in 2013, better than Van Avermaet. A third place at Flanders helped confirm Van Avermaet’s credentials, and after a heavy crash at Gent-Wevelgem, he could be firing on all cylinders Sunday.

“They are predicting dry conditions, which should be good for me, so I am looking forward to it,” Van Avermaet said in a team release. “I have recovered pretty well from Flanders and my shape is still there, so I hope to do a good result Sunday. For me, Roubaix is one of the hardest races of the year. I always suffer a lot in the last kilometers towards the finish. It is a special race where big engines and heavy guys can go from far away all the way to the finish.”

Vanmarcke’s collapse at Flanders, when he finished a distant 53rd after being dropped on the Taaienberg, has raised alarms at LottoNL. Vanmarcke is hoping that was a one-time occurrence, but anything less than a podium for both of these Belgians will leave them with an asterisk.

Etixx will bring a loaded squad. Even without Boonen, the Belgian powerhouse has been animating the races as it always has. Just like the rest of the peloton, the team has run into a super-strong Kristoff, but it’s been able to pull off Roubaix success before to stave off a disastrous classics season. Zdenek Stybar and Terpstra are the team’s two protected captains, but others, such as Stijn Vandenbergh and Matteo Trentin, will get their chances. It will be a national scandal if Etixx cannot deliver a Roubaix podium. Talk about pressure.

A few more names will nudge to the front, such as Thomas, Lars Boom (Astana), and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal). There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled with the absences of Boonen and Cancellara, who have won a combined seven of the past 10 Paris-Roubaix editions.

“Without Tom, Cancellara, it’s more open. It will be less controlled during the race,” Astana sport director Stefano Zanini said. “Roubaix is very long, so hard, I have seen riders go in a breakaway to arrive to finish on the podium. Everything is possible in Roubaix. It is a magical race.”

A surprise winner?

Is it the year of the outsider? It could well be. Every few years, Roubaix will serve up a surprise winner. Think Stuart O’Grady in 2007 or Johan Van Summeren (Ag2r-La Mondiale) in 2011. Not that those guys didn’t deserve it, but they certainly didn’t start with five-star favorite status in Compiegne. This year, “sans Tom-Fabs,” a lot more riders will believe in their chances. And more than any race of the season, Roubaix has its casino factor where luck and good fortune go a long way toward winning.

Behind the front-line favorites, there are another dozen riders who start with realistic ambitions. Teams with numbers, such as BMC and Etixx, could see some of their second-tier riders go in early breaks, and then hang on when the moves come from behind. Daniel Oss and Trentin fit that tactic perfectly.

Others who’ve shown hints of good things over the past few weeks could pop for big rides, such as Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling), Bjorn Leukemans (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Jack Bauer (Cannondale-Garmin), or Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida). Or what about Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), the youngest Roubaix starter at just 21, who made a headline-grabbing fifth-place debut at the Ronde?

Orica-GreenEdge is banking on a surprise ride, counting on Australian veteran Mat Hayman to come through after twice finishing in the top-10 in 13 previous editions.

“Mat is feeling very good this year, it’s one of the better years he’s had form-wise,” Orica sport director Matt Wilson said. “Roubaix is a race that always throws up some surprises. Every few years you get a surprise winner or podium up there. It’s one of those years, and Hayman is one of those guys who find himself on the podium.”

The Wiggins factor

And then there’s Bradley Wiggins (Sky), the legendary British superstar who is hoping for a fairytale ending to his road career on the cobbles of Roubaix.

It’s been 34 years since a Tour de France winner has won Roubaix. That was Bernard Hinault, back in 1981, who hated Roubaix, but showed up once, won it, and never came back again. Wiggins is now 34 and has added up to 8kg (17.6 pounds) of bulk to his frame since winning the world time trial championship in September to prepare for Roubaix. Sky has taken some of its scientific approach to Roubaix, studying the power efforts he will need to post across the key cobbles sectors, in an effort to try to make the unpredictable predictable.

Wiggins has been known to crack when things don’t go his way, and he’s been far from impressive over the past two weeks, but more than a few think Wiggins could pull off a cobble miracle. Gent-Wevelgem winner Paolini thinks Wiggins can win, and so does Cannondale sport director Andreas Klier.

“There are chances he can win. It’s not a no-go. So far in his career, he’s always reached his personal goal. If he thinks he can win, then I believe him, too,” Klier said. “It’s good for us, because we know who to follow. He will go very fast on the asphalt, and I do not doubt his skills on the pavé. Roubaix is more than a monument. If you win Roubaix, going from 40km to go, in the wind, it’s something special. It doesn’t matter how many gold medals in his closet. If he wins, it’s a nice way to say goodbye.”

For Wiggins to win, he’ll need a few things to happen. First, he cannot suffer any mishaps, get caught up in crashes, or puncture. When things go his way, Wiggins is hard to beat, but he’s had a tough time dealing with adverse race conditions throughout his career. Lucky for him, it’s not expected to rain Sunday. Second, and most important, he will almost certainly need to arrive alone to have any chance of winning.

“As a team, we are strong, but we are not the favorites, so that can be to our advantage. For Bradley to win, he’s going to have to finish on his own,” Sky sport director and 2001 Roubaix winner Servais Knaven said. “It’s a problem for Bradley, and many other guys, if you finish a group with Degenkolb or Kristoff, because those guys can win in a sprint. I think Bradley is similar to BMC. He cannot wait for a sprint.”

That sets the stage for a dramatic, long-range attack from Britain’s first Tour de France winner. If he pulls it off and pedals into the velodrome alone, he will enter the true pantheon of cycling gods. It’s a long shot, but as Klier said, Wiggins has had an uncanny ability to pull off most goals that he’s seriously targeted. One thing is true; there’s no hiding on pavé.

A bumpy ride, the cobbles never disappoint

The 113th edition of the “Queen of the Classics” is one of the longest races of the season, at 253km, and it’s certainly one of the most demanding.

Roubaix, of course, is known for its pavé. The French version is much rougher and jagged than the well-worn, smoother stuff the peloton races over in Belgium during the Flemish classics. The cobbles in Belgium are almost nearly part of everyday roads, and typically have smoother, rounder edges, making them a bit easier to ride and less prone to punctures. In Roubaix, most of the pavé are held over rural farm roads that were largely abandoned over the past half century as modern, paved roads were built following World War II. What makes Roubaix so unique is the poorer quality of the pavé. There is more maintenance of the roads, including the “Les amis de Paris-Roubaix,” group that protects and restores the pavé roads, but they are infinitely more difficult than many of the Belgian cobbles.

Of the total distance of 253km from Compiègne to the Roubaix Velodrome, there are 52.7km of cobbles spread over 27 sectors (some 1.6km more than last year).

The battle begins near Troisvilles and the 100km mark, when the peloton clatters over the first pavé of the day. The first major selection comes at 158km at the first five-star sector at the Trouée d’Arenberg, or Arenberg Forest. About 46 kilometers later, the peloton reaches the next five-star sector, Mons-en-Pévèle. The always-decisive Carrefour de l’Arbre, at 236.5km, often crowns the winner.

Click here for a breakdown of the cobbles.

Heavenly weather for a day in hell

Forecasters are calling for a perfect spring day for Sunday, so none of the hellish conditions of mud, rain, and wind should be part of the narrative. Instead, the peloton should race under sunny skies, with highs in the upper 60s. The wind typically kicks up in the afternoon, and there could be gusting southwesterly winds up to 20kph (12.4mph), adding a twist to the unfolding events, especially over the decisive closing hour of racing. There is a chance of showers Saturday, however, which means there could be some puddles and soggy sectors along the way.

Unique trophy

Scheldeprijs might award diamonds to the winner (Alexander Kristoff received one Wednesday worth $25,000), and Tirreno-Adriatico has its trident, but as far as unique winner’s trophies go, Paris-Roubaix stands apart. Since 1977, winners have received a mounted chunk of cobblestone, one of the most revered trophies in the sport.

Flanders-Roubaix double

Only 10 riders in cycling history have pulled off the Flanders-Roubaix double on 12 occasions (Boonen and Cancellara have each done it twice). Curiously enough, it’s one of the few milestones that Eddy Merckx was unable to achieve during his career. Boonen did it in 2005 and 2012, while Cancellara was a double-winner in 2010 and 2013. Roger De Vlaeminck did it in 1977, and no one could execute the double victory again until Peter van Petegem in 2003. Can Kristoff pull it off? His track record at Roubaix would not suggest it. In five starts, he did not finish on three occasions, including last year, He was 57th in 2012 and ninth in 2013.

Tour de France pavé

This year’s Tour de France will include three sectors of pavé that will be featured Sunday as well as in stage 4 this summer. The Quiévy, Saint-Python, and Verchain-Maugré sectors (numbered 25, 24, and 22, respectively, in decreasing number as the race runs from start to finish) will be part of this summer’s race. Last year, Boom won the stage and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) cemented his grip on the yellow jersey, laying the foundation of his overall victory.

The cobble sections included in both Paris-Roubaix and the fourth stage of the Tour de France 2015:

— Quiévy (107.5km – 3,700m)
— Saint-Python (112.5km – 1,500m)
— Verchain-Maugré (130km – 1,600m)

VeloNews’ pick

Kristoff. He’s clearly the strongest rider right now, and Roubaix always favors the strong. When someone’s a touch off top form or struggling on the bike, they make mistakes, they miss the line, they puncture, and they crash. Riders have always said when you’re strong, you float over the pavé. Kristoff is on a Merckxian-style run, and he could pull off the double. Why? Because he’s strong enough to follow all the key moves, and he’s no longer afraid to be the aggressor. He has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain, but he has the nose of a winner. And if he’s in a small group on the velodrome track, he has the kick to win a reduced-bunch sprint.