Beware the dark horse: Five who could surprise at Roubaix

With its punishing pavé and hard-man racing style, Paris-Roubaix favors the toughest men in the peloton. We look at five dark horses for Sunday.

TERNEUZEN, Netherlands (VN) — Dirk Demol stepped off the Katusha-Alpecin bus Wednesday morning feeling nostalgic. It was 31 years ago to the day that he uncorked one of Paris-Roubaix’s most famous heists.

Demol, 59, only won one race in his 14-year pro career, but it was a big one. In what was the longest breakaway victory in Roubaix history, Demol held on to win the race that helped him transition to become one of the most experienced sport directors in cycling.

“That victory changed my life forever,” Demol said Wednesday. “Roubaix is a race that if you keep trying, sooner or later, you might have a chance to win it.”

Demol’s one-off Roubaix victory proves that the “Hell of the North” is a unique race that occasionally can deliver a surprise winner.

Most of cycling’s other monuments see the sport’s top names leading the honor roll of winners. It’s rare to see a one-off winner in a race as demanding as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for example, or the Tour of Flanders. That being said, Alberto Bettiol’s win Sunday in Oudenaarde was an exception.

Roubaix is different. It’s a race like no other in cycling. With its punishing pavé and hard-man racing style, the race favors the toughest in the peloton. Roubaix is won with old-school, brute strength, and never falls victim to the highly controlled pace of stage racing.

Bad luck, crashes, and mechanicals are part of every Roubaix, but so are stories like Demol’s.

“Roubaix is a race for fighters,” Demol said. “People also say to win Roubaix you need luck, but I disagree with that, because to win Roubaix, you must not have bad luck. It’s a race for riders who never give up. And in Roubaix, if you keep fighting, you can come home with a good result.”

Roubaix is a race that occasionally rewards the journeymen of the peloton. It’s a race for riders who often toil in the shadows, or for big riders who cannot get up mountains or finish off a sprint. But it’s also a day for riders who are as strong as an ox and stubborn as a mule.

These Roubaix raiders usually share a few more characteristics. They’re typically strong and experienced riders who have rambled down the pavé plenty of times. They’re often second-line options on their respective teams, more typically found at the beck and call of a superstar leader. Sometimes, though, they are given freedom to ride when race dynamics go their way or when bad luck strikes a team’s leader. Or they are leaders on second-tier teams that typically are not front-line favorites.

In essence, they’re often off the radar, until they’re off the front.

Think Johan Vansummeren, who raced nine editions of Roubaix, and rode into an early breakaway, and soloed home ahead of Fabian Cancellara in 2011. Or Mat Hayman, who raced 17 Roubaix’s, and had the stars align in 2016 to ruin what would be a fairytale ending for Tom Boonen. Both riders won three races each in their respective careers.

Lightning can strike during Roubaix, perhaps more than any other one-day race on the calendar. Who could be this year’s Demol or Hayman? Here are a few outsiders to consider:

Heinrich Haussler, 35 (Bahrain-Merida): The Australian is the prototypical late bloomer who could take Roubaix. He’s a fighter, and he’s been close in the monuments before, including second in both Milano-Sanremo and Tour of Flanders in his magical 2009 season. That’s more than a decade ago, but Haussler is still banging around. Now a helper to such riders as Matej Mohoric, Haussler will have his freedom on Sunday. Twice sixth in Roubaix, he has the legs and experience to go far. “I love that race,” Haussler said. “I’m catching some good form just in time. I hope to go deep on Sunday.”

Stijn Vandenbergh, 34 (Ag2r-La Mondiale): The tall, lanky Belgian was one of Boonen’s most reliable helpers during the Quick-Step years and has proven he can go the distance in Roubaix. In 2013, he was knocked to the ground by a fan in the decisive Carrefour de l’Arbre sector just moments before Zdenek Stybar also struck a fan, ruining both of their chances for a podium spot.

Daniel Oss, 32 (Bora-Hansgrohe): Ever the loyal helper to defending champion Peter Sagan, Oss’s first job will be riding to race for his leader’s repeat on Sunday. The best way to help Sagan would be to head up the road early, and then help when Sagan comes up to him. That type of scenario is what can deliver big results if bad luck befalls Sagan. A mechanical or a crash could kill Sagan’s hopes, giving Oss a free ticket to ride. Oss is an experienced Roubaix rider, and played a similar role when he helped Greg Van Avermaet win in 2017.

Imanol Erviti, 35 (Movistar): The eternal Spanish “gregario” is the ever-loyal helper for such riders as Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. Each spring, however, the team unleashes him on the pavé. He’s raced 47 monuments in his career, including 14 editions of Roubaix, so he knows his way around the stones. Erviti’s only been in the top-10 once, in 2016, when he rode in with the first chase group behind Hayman. Racing Roubaix is more treacherous than running with the bulls in his hometown of Pamplona, but if he gets a head-start in an early breakaway, he could go the distance.

André Greipel, 36 (Arkéa-Samsic): The Gorilla has a surprisingly good track record in the northern classics, with seventh in the 2017 Roubaix. The burly sprinter might be past his prime in the bunch kicks, but what he might lack in finishing speed he makes up for in determination and drive. Greipel is just the kind of rider who can get into a break, go deep, and then have the legs to stay with the favorites. If he can ride into the peloton with an elite group, it would be wrong to count him out.