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Paris-Roubaix top contenders: Peter Sagan, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert center of intergenerational clash

Veteran greats Sagan, Gilbert, Van Avermaet face-off against new cobblestone kings this weekend – can the old guard unseat the pups of the pavé?

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A lot has changed since Philippe Gilbert won the last edition of Paris-Roubaix.

Pandemics, presidents, and prime ministers have all altered the shape of the world in the time since Gilbert won the cobblestone trophy in April 2019, and the peloton has changed a lot, too.

The last edition of Paris-Roubaix saw Gilbert going up against the likes of Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet as top contenders for a cobblestone trophy.

Fast-forward 30 months to the eve of the 2021 Roubaix, and if you weren’t born in the mid-90s, you’re struggling to get a look-in. This is now the age of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.

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Although the peloton’s generational shift has settled firmly into place, this year’s Roubaix could offer the old codgers of the cobbles some hope yet. From 26-year-old Kasper Asgreen through 39-year-old Gilbert, here are the names to watch at this Sunday’s race – and why Roubaix could play the old guard’s way.

Generation Wowt

Dutch Mathieu van der Poel of Alpecin-Fenix pictured in action during a training session ahead of the 118th edition of the 'Paris-Roubaix' one day cycling race, from Compiegne, near Paris to Roubaix, Thursday 30 September 2021. Due to the ongoing corona virus pandemic, the 2020 edition was cancelled and the 2021 edition was postponed from spring to autumn. For the first time, there will be a women's race Paris-Roubaix as well. BELGA PHOTO DAVID STOCKMAN (Photo by DAVID STOCKMAN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
Van der Poel and van Aert are top of the pile in the modern one-day peloton. (Photo: DAVID STOCKMAN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Van der Poel and van Aert are the no-brainer names to watch Sunday, just like they were through the classics of spring.However, unlike six months ago, neither of the two ‘vans’ are shoo-ins for the podium.

Van Aert, 27, lost his legs when he needed them most at last weekend’s worlds road race after being shaded into silver at the Bruges time trial, and could be toward the end of his form after a huge season. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old van der Poel was quiet in the race for rainbows as he continues to return from his back injuries and has little road racing in his legs in recent months.

Both van Aert and van der Poel are undoubtedly key men for Sunday’s race, but they somehow seem more fallible than they did when Roubaix “should” have been raced this April.

 

The 26-year-old Kasper Asgreen will be looking to complete the rare cobblestone double after winning Tour of Flanders in the spring. The rangy Dane has only one Roubaix to his name but has the big motor and skills on the stones that can separate the best from the rest in the “Hell of the North.”

Although Asgreen talked down his chances at a press call Friday, he will roll out of Compiègne on Sunday with a typically deep Deceuninck-Quick-Step crew including 2019 podium finisher Yves Lampaert, on-form fastman Florian Sénéchal and the veteran Roubaix nearly-man Ždenek Štybar.

“The Wolfpack” is committed to bringing its multi-faceted gameplay to the race Sunday. How Quick-Step deploys its multi-prong assault, and whether it’s the 35-year-old Štybar that ends up profiting from the efforts of his young cubs, could be a talking point of the race Sunday.

And then there’s the likes of Matej Mohorič, Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen,  and world championship podium-placers Dylan van Baarle and Michael Valgren – all of them less than 29 years old — and all likely to make mayhem for Roubaix’s old guard.

The cobblestone codgers

Gilbert
If it seems like a long time since Gilbert won Roubaix, it’s because it was. (Photo: Photo: Stephane Mantey-Pool/Getty Images)

Reigning Roubaix champion Gilbert, 2018 winner Sagan, and 2017 cobbles-crusher Greg Van Avermaet are at risk of seeming an afterthought behind “generation Wowt.”

Sagan missed this year’s classics in his recovery from COVID, but hit his stride through early summer to claim the ciclamino jersey of the Giro d’Italia. Sagan has been slowly regaining his mojo since coming back from his Tour de France injury, but an underwhelming GC victory at the Tour of Slovakia before a disappointing 26th at worlds isn’t enough to put Sagz at the top of any contenders list just yet.

Similarly, Gilbert has barely seemed the same since breaking his knee at last year’s Tour de France, and his teammate John Degenkolb – winner in the velodrome in 2015 and in the Roubaix stage of the Tour de France three years later – seems stuck in the wilderness.

“Golden Greg” van Avermaet has lost his luster along with his golden helmet in recent months. Belgian media exploded when the 36-year-old was omitted from the world championships roster last weekend, but it seemed inevitable. Van Avermaet surprised with third at Tour of Flanders in spring but has done little since – and it’s hard to see that changing Sunday.

https://twitter.com/GregVanAvermaet/status/1443653953464459264

Sep Vanmarcke and Niki Terpstra are among the others that would have been a shoo-in for a top result in a pre-pandemic Roubaix. But in today’s post-COVID world, these two heavies seem a long way out of range now that a new generation has pushed into the frame.

Štybar sits alongside Sagan as top dog in the cobblestone thirtysomethings club.

The relentless Czech rebounded from heart surgery in the spring to finish ahead of van Aert, van der Poel and Sonny Colbrelli in seventh-place at the worlds last weekend, and has no fear of the potentially wet conditions on tap for Sunday. Don’t be surprised to see the 35-year-old hit the velodrome in front of his young Quick-Step teammates in 48 hours’ time.

It could be down to Štybar and Sagan – the latter perhaps racing for the last time with Bora-Hansgrohe – to serve up a surprise in Sunday’s intergenerational grinder.

Older, wiser, better?

A wet Roubaix could level the playingfield between the two generations this weekend.

What van Avermaet, Sagan, Gilbert and the rest of the cobblestone codgers do have on their side is a proven prowess on the pavé and an absence of expectation.

A race like Roubaix is one where experience counts, and the poise and patience that comes with repeated racing could prove more important than ever if the forecast serves up rain this weekend.

Roubaix rookies like van der Poel will have hit up countless YouTube videos and ridden umpteen recons this week. But the experience of sprinting into the cobblestone secteurs and controlling nerves in the most fraught race on the calendar will be worth more than the deepest vault of video clips when the race is 200 kilometers deep Sunday afternoon.

The monuments are races where anything can happen, and the strongest on the day – not the strongest of the season – can come out top. If Sagan and Co. are going to level up with the new kings of the cobbles, Sunday’s race through “Hell” could be their best opportunity for some time yet.

“Even if you are not the best in Roubaix, you can still win there,” Sagan said this week.

Gilbert, van Avermaet and Co. will have been nodding in hopeful agreement.