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Paris-Roubaix: 10 must-watch riders in the men’s race

From van Baarle to van der Poel, we highlight the key riders to watch in Sunday's final spring classic of the season.

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This Sunday sees the men’s peloton take on the final cobbled spring classic of the season with Paris-Roubaix.

The defending champion Sonny Colbrelli is out due to health reasons, but there’s a stacked field full of former and potential winners. VeloNews has picked out 10 of the must-watch riders for the event, from Tour of Flanders winner Mathieu van der Poel to American debutant Magnus Sheffield.

Mathieu van der Poel

Team: Alpecin-Fenix
Age: 27
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Finished third on his debut in 2021

We can only speculate as to how the Tour of Flanders would have played out had Wout van Aert remained health, but the fact is that van der Poel has been at his imperious best this season, despite the fact that he’s only raced nine days. It’s not so much that he’s always the strongest rider — in both Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders he had to measure his efforts — but he’s riding at such a complete level that it’s hard to see anyone really shaking him off their wheel on Sunday. Even Tom Boonen picked him as the favorite.

Paris-Roubaix can often be less of a tactical battle and more of a slugfest when compared to the Tour of Flanders — although the early break can sometimes change that — and that should suit van der Poel in his current guise. If he remains upright; if he doesn’t make any poor decisions, and luck is on his side then he makes the podium. The only question should be over which step he takes.

Wout van Aert

Wout van Aert missed a preview ride of the cobbles but will race Paris-Roubaix. (Photo: LUC CLAESSEN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Team: Jumbo-Visma
Age: 27
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Seventh last year is his best result to date.

While this analysis is 1o riders to watch — not 10 riders who can win — make no mistake: van Aert isn’t going to be on the start line this Sunday to rack up training miles. He might have a “free” role, and there’s every chance he doesn’t feature in the second half of the race due to a lack of racing — and more importantly his recent bout of COVID — but even a van Aert at 80 percent is a dangerous weapon.

At the Tour of Flanders, the Jumbo-Visma team lacked a focal point, and they were often racing from behind as they attempted to contain their rivals. They’d lost their potency. The return of van Aert doesn’t solve that problem but it does give their rivals something else to think about and consider when it comes to playing the numbers game.

No team will let the Belgian sneak away and that could be all that’s needed for a Christophe Laporte or a Mike Teunissen to exploit the situation. One could also conceivably imagine a rider such as Nathan Van Hooydonck skipping clear in the early break and outlasting a number of riders in order to secure a top 10 finish. His form hasn’t netted the results it has deserved so far this spring.

Alexander Kristoff

Team: Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert-Matériaux
Age: 34
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: A shockingly bad record for a rider of his caliber with just two top-10s in 11 attempts.

It has never come together for the Norwegian in this race, with terrible luck and some positioning question marks often taking him out of the running before the race was truly decided. Pre-pandemic, he also had one edition in which he and his then team — UAE Team Emirates — made a terrible technical blunder with the rider suffering a catalog of punctures.

Some riders can excel in races like Flanders yet struggle in Paris-Roubaix, and vice versa, but there’s no doubt that Kristoff has the diesel-like engine for the cobbles of France. At 34, this is probably his final chance of being considered a contender but everything has to run smoothly on Sunday for the Norwegian to stand a chance. There can be no mistakes.

Mads Pedersen

(Photo: Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Team: Trek-Segafredo
Age: 26
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: 51st in 2019. Somewhat bizarrely, that’s his best result.

At face value, Pedersen has enjoyed a successful season with four wins already and a tally that has already exceeded last year’s underwhelming campaign. However, while the Dane has thrived in several races this year he hasn’t quite been his best in the long-form classics. He looked impressive in Gent-Wevelgem but it was his teammate Jasper Stuyven who clipped off the front in the winning break. And despite a handful of top-10s, the former world champion hasn’t been on the top step of a major one-day podium since last year’s Kuurne victory.

Pedersen is a class act all-round and his consistency across the board is a sight to behold, but there will be a tinge of regret and what-might-have-been if he fails to secure a podium in the final cobblestone race of the 2022 campaign. His previous results in the race don’t make for great reading but at some point in his career the Dane will surely rescue that record.

Kasper Asgreen

Team: Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl
Age: 27
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Two finishes but nothing to write home about.

Sticking with the “Danish coffee club,” the next rider on our list is Asgreen. The former Tour of Flanders winner has been sailing against the tide this season with illness dismantling the Quick-Step classics corp and leaving them beaten before a pedal had been pushed. How much motivation, let alone juice, can be left in the tank after such a bruising few weeks, and how many of the riders will have their minds focussed on a much-needed break rather than the ordeal of taking another hiding from their rivals?

Lefevere will not allow his riders to switch off, and truthfully the riders have too much pride to sink without a trace, but without optimal health it’s hard to see where the results will come from. Zdeněk Štybar has been on the podium twice in his career and he goes into the race under the radar again, how far can the former world cyclocross champion go if he’s still suffering?

Christophe Laporte

Team: Jumbo-Visma
Age: 29
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Sixth in 2021.

At 29, the Frenchman has been the revelation of the season, transforming himself from a decent rider to next-level athlete capable of competing for top honors. It’s remarkable what can happen if you switch from Cofidis to Jumbo-Visma in the space of a few months. At the Tour of Flanders a few weeks ago Laporte finished ninth but he was arguably stronger than that result given the crash he suffered and the amount of chasing that he had to endure.

A top result is certainly conceivable on Sunday and with van Aert along for the ride, the team have a much welcome morale boost. Laporte will have to be at his savvy best if he is to feature at the pointy end of the race but his fast finish will mark him as a potential dark horse.

Dylan van Baarle

Dylan van Baarle at E3 Saxo Bank Classic
Dylan van Baarle at E3 Saxo Bank Classic (Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

Team: Ineos Grenadiers
Age: 29
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: One top-20, back in 2018.

The Dutch rider may not have won a race since last spring’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, but he’s been mighty close to ending that run with second in both the Worlds and the Tour of Flanders in recent months. There’s no doubt that the 29-year-old has the quality to land a monument and he heads into the “Hell of the North” as one of Team Ineos’s leading cards to play.

The track record isn’t exactly great, but van Baarle has everything in the locker to compete for a shot at the podium on Sunday. It’s not just his obvious talent that stands out but also his keen eye for infiltrating the right move. He won’t be watched as much as someone like van der Poel but he can be just as cunning.

Magnus Sheffield

Team: Ineos Grenadiers
Age: 19
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Making his debut.

The kid from Rochester, New York, is the real deal, in case you hadn’t noticed, and with two wins already this season he heads into his maiden Paris-Roubaix with his tail up and confidence sky high. Ineos Grenadiers obviously have more experienced riders within their roster but if its classics season has proved anything it’s that the team is more than willing to throw their young riders in the deep end. Sheffield heads to Paris-Roubaix with little to no pressure on his shoulders, and that — coupled with his incredible form — makes him one of the riders to watch.

Stefan Küng

Team: Groupama FDJ
Age: 28
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Three DNFs, 11th in 2019

Küng is one of the few riders on this list who can probably live with the pure power and ferocity that van der Poel is capable of, but taking that condition from a flat, smooth surface and transferring it to the rough and tumble of Paris-Roubaix is a different kettle of fish. Hence why the Swiss powerhouse has struggled for results in a race that his race management won three times via Marc Madiot and Frédéric Guesdon.

Küng has been present and accounted for throughout the spring, so far, often sparking winning moves or chasing them down but he’s lacked that killer blow at times. With a limited sprint, he always finds himself making these telegraphed and predicted attacks. At some point, however, that tactic could pay off, and the form is clearly there right now.

Nils Politt

Age: 28
Team: Bora-hansgrohe
Paris-Roubaix pedigree: Second in 2019 behind Philippe Gilbert

Politt is definitely flying under the radar heading to Paris-Roubaix but he remains a possible wildcard for Bora. They also have Marco Haller, who was instrumental in Politt’s second place a few years ago. The Austrian looks like a prime candidate for the early break but it’s Politt who has the leadership tag around his neck. The form hasn’t been great but Anthony Turgis’ results have taken a dent, Bahrain Victorious looks lighter than they did at Flanders and Florian Vermeersch hasn’t shown enough since his second place last year.