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Sagan leads quartet into cycling’s cobbled “Hell”

Three-time world champion Peter Sagan and a crop of other stars, including Van Avermaet, Stybar, Degenkolb, and Kristoff, are set to battle at this year's Paris-Roubaix.

PARIS, France (AFP) — Known as the “Hell of the North,” and widely regarded as cycling’s toughest one-day race, Paris-Roubaix will be hotly contested on Sunday with Slovak superstar Peter Sagan heading a trio of former champions in contention.

Mud, dust, treacherous patches of moss, and 54 kilometers of roughly cobbled former mining roads feature in the “Queen of the Classics,” a treacherous day’s riding. It typically means a quarter of the riders never make it to the iconic Roubaix Velodrome finish line.

Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), who declined an invitation this year having fallen early in 2018, told AFP some sections of the old mining roads, “look like a pile of stones someone threw off the back of a van.”

Despite illness and a heavy fall in spring preparation, defending champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has been in the mix at several one-day races this season. He remains capable of repeating the type of sensational long-distance attack that brought him glory in 2018.

Some cringe at his nonchalant style, but Sagan is also just the type of blood-and-guts puncheur who can remain calm on the body-battering pavé sections, such as the storied Arenberg Forest, and pounce when rivals wither in the hand-numbing conditions.

“He hasn’t been on top form yet, but it’s coming,” Sagan’s sports director at Bora-Hansgrohe, Jan Valach, said after the Tour of Flanders last weekend. Sagan will be backed by his brother Juraj and a powerful duo of rouleurs in Marcus Burghardt and Daniel Oss.

The race has been won by a Belgian 56 times in its 117 editions. Of the current generation of Belgians, 2017 champion Greg Van Avermaet can be considered the favorite among them, as the classics specialist and reigning Olympic champion is also a man on full form.

“I love Paris-Roubaix,” Van Avermaet declared on Thursday. “It has a special place in my career as it is the only ‘monument’ I have won,” he said.

“You cannot compare this race to any other race though,” the CCC team captain insisted, pointing out the cobbled sections have a colossal impact. “Anything can happen any time you enter one of the 29 sections,” he said of the old roads which are given a star rating of one to five depending on their danger and difficulty.

Van Avermaet, however, is lacking the bevy of riders to back him, unlike the situation at the Deceuninck-Quick-Step team, which has several riders ready to pounce.

The Belgian outfit has dominated the classics the past two seasons. Their strength in depth means they can generally place a rider, and often times several riders, into the decisive move. This season the team will field Czech former cyclocross world champion Zdenek Stybar as its first choice, after his wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 BinckBank Classic. But he is just part of a quartet of potential contenders Quick-Step will mobilize as they follow their “best man on the day” strategy.

Another favorite not to be discounted, Germany’s John Degenkolb won the race in 2015 and also emerged victorious at the epic stage 9 at the 2018 Tour de France, which traveled from Arras to Roubaix and took in many of the same pavé sectors. He did so by out-sprinting Van Avermaet.

“Everybody said I was done,” he said at the finish line. “Well, now you can see I’m not done.”

Many pundits also tip Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, who claims to be in the form of his life and in the past month has won Gent-Wevelgem and was third at the Tour of Flanders.

“A fall blew his chances last season,” Kristoff’s boss at UAE Emirates, Joxean Matxin, said on Thursday. “But given how strong our team is here, we are very optimistic.”