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COMPIÈGNE, France (VN) — Teams rolled into Compiegne’s royal palace under sunny conditions on the eve of Paris-Roubaix. Spirits were high 24 hours before the start of cycling’s most brutal one-day race.
Despite a chance of overnight showers, most are expecting a fast, dry race. VeloNews queried some of the main protagonists during the team presentation Saturday. Everyone agreed that Roubaix is part lottery, part 15-round boxing match. Only the lucky and strong have a prayer.
“It’s the only race you cannot predict anything at all. So what do I expect? Everything and nothing,” said Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Oliver Naesen. “We will have a tailwind and dry conditions, so it’s certain to be fast. The usual suspects will be strong. The question marks is who will have bad luck, and who will not. It’s impossible to predict anything else about Roubaix.”
Weather is always a talking point before Roubaix. There hasn’t been a wet and muddy Roubaix in a generation. Despite a chance of overnight showers, most expect mostly dry racing conditions Sunday. Afternoon temperatures are expected to hit 70F, and southerly winds will kick up as well. The sectors that were wet and muddy during recon Thursday had mostly dried up by Saturday.
“We did the recon on Friday and it had already dried up a lot. So I think it will be a dry parcours which makes it more safe and more honest,” said defending champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). “A classic like Roubaix, it’s already hard enough to make the difference in the end. We don’t need to ask for rain.”
The dampness will knock down the dust that can make for treacherous racing conditions. Riders prefer slightly damp cobbles with some mud puddles to dry, dusty sectors where tires can prove treacherous on corners.
Even more important is wind direction. After two days of strong winds, forecasters are calling for relatively light southerly winds of around 5-8mph. Invariably the wind always kicks up more in the flat approach Roubaix, but it looks to be mostly light tailwinds.
Drier roads, a tailwind and a peloton looking to break Quick-Step’s stranglehold all adds up to a fast race. And according to Ken Vanmarcke, sport director at EF Education First-Drapac, an honest one as well.
“For sure it’s going to be fast. If you don’t have bad luck, the strongest ones will be at the front,” said Vanmarcke, brother of pre-race favorite Sep. “A tailwind makes for a more honest race. If you are not good enough, you will be dropped. When it’s a headwind, it’s not always an honest race, because people can sit on the wheel.”
Roubaix is unique for its pavé, the weather, its crashes and the distance. With wind as often a deciding factor, teams brace for a big tactical battle by trying to slot riders into breakaways. Roubaix is rare in a major race that luck and bravery can go a long way. Trek-Segafredo sport direcetor Dirk Demol won a Roubaix 30 years in the longest breakaway in race history at more than 200km. Other editions have delivered one-off winners like veterans Johan Van Summeren or Mathew Hayman.
Everyone starts Sunday believing they can win. Many see those dreams shattered long before the velodrome.
“The big fight will be to see which teams get into the breakaway,” said Ag2r’s Stijn Vandenbergh. “It will be a hard race because it’s only the few races where a breakaway can hold to the end. Even if they catch you, you can stay with the leaders. When you are in a breakaway, you are actually spending less energy than when you are in the bunch. It’s always a big fight to be in the front for the cobblestone sectors.”
Roubaix is often a tug-of-war at two ends of the race. The first at the front as breakaway riders try to fend off the chase as long as possible — and then hang no when they’re caught — and the other to avoid crashes, punctures and other mishaps.
Bad luck, avoiding it, and then dealing with it when it ultimately strikes, are key to success in Roubaix.
“Anything can happen in this race. Every year there is a different situation. A lot of it depends on crashes,” said Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida). “There could be a 10-12-man sprint. It is a lot smoother than normal because there was mud and it’s dried out. There’s not going to be so much wind that it will split up the race.”
Haussler has battled back from injuries to put himself in the second line of favorites. Everyone is looking to Quick-Step, Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) as the top favorites.
Roubaix is the last-chance saloon for all of the classics riders, and everyone will be doing everything they can to stay within striking distance of the podium.
Despite Quick-Step’s collective strength, Haussler said he doesn’t see one singular rider standing above the others. Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step), hot off the Harelbeke-Flanders double, takes those honors even if the bookies are favoring Sagan.
“Van Avermaet is not as strong as the years before. Losing [Daniel] Oss cost them a lot. Sagan doesn’t seem to be on a big level either,” Haussler said. “It’s not like a few years ago, if Sagan or Van Avermaet, they’d attack and they’d be gone. You’ve seen in Flanders, the last 20km, even with they do attack, there is not this massive acceleration to drop everyone. The field is more even. You’re seeing the same 10, 15, 20 guys. It’s not like before with the same three or four guys. It’s more open.”
Haussler isn’t alone thinking it might be a reduced bunch sprint. That gives riders like Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) hope of hanging on, and then kicking to victory in the velodrome.
No matter what happens, Roubaix never fails to deliver surprise, heartache, ecstasy, and pain for just about everyone.
“There is only one race like Roubaix,” Naesen said. “You either love it or you hate it. I love it.”