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Geraint Thomas joins Juan Antonio Flecha in leadership role for Paris-Roubaix

Former junior Paris-Roubaix winner Geraint Thomas hopes for big things from the real deal.

PARIS (AFP) — British Olympic champion Geraint Thomas will spearhead the British invasion of Paris-Roubaix Sunday with a realistic chance of winning cycling’s toughest one-day classic.

The Welshman was part of the British track pursuit team that won gold in Beijing in 2008, and he is set to return to the pursuit team in time for London 2012.

In the meantime the Team Sky rider has been forging a name for himself in Europe’s tough one-day races, to the extent that he will saddle up for the 258km cobbled classic Sunday with an outside chance of victory.

The 24-year-old from Cardiff is a former winner of the junior Paris-Roubaix, so riding flat out over the cobbles will not be new.

But it is largely Thomas’s second place at the Dwars door Vlaanderen semi-classic, and a 10th-place finish at last week’s Tour of Flanders, that have got commentators purring.

The British champion has since been given co-leader status for Paris-Roubaix alongside more experienced Spanish teammate Juan Antonio Flecha, who finished third last year and was runner-up in Roubaix in 2007.

While all eyes will be on a potential duel between defending champion Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) and three-time champion Tom Boonen (Quick Step), that could give Thomas the chance to seize the day and produce the biggest result of his fledgling career.

“We’ve got a strong team here but if the opportunity arises, and if I feel as good as I did last week, then I’ll get stuck in and go for it,” Thomas told AFP Saturday. “I’ll be talking with Flecha a bit during the race and we’ll play it by ear really.”

Thomas’s Flanders performance proved that he has the tools to mix it up with the one-day specialists who have been battering their bodies riding over and crashing on the cobbles of northern France and Belgium for years.

“I was chuffed. I was right up there at the end, super-happy with it,” he said. “I knew I could have a strong race, but not quite as strong as what it was. I got stuck in for Flecha, but if I’d been going for myself I maybe would have raced it differently.”

And after Cancellara failed to reproduce a part of his major exploit of last year — winning both Flanders and Roubaix with commanding performances — Thomas believes anything could happen on Sunday.

“Like last weekend showed, Cancellara is not unbeatable and there’s a lot of strong teams out there,” said Thomas. “I think it will be like last week, really aggressive racing. Fabian can’t cover every attack so people like (Frenchman Sylvain) Chavanel or myself, or (Mathew) Hayman going up the road early is going to make it harder for his team.”

Another British Olympian, HTC-Highroad sprinter Mark Cavendish, will make his Roubaix debut.

Cavendish is a 15-time stage winner on the Tour de France but despite being singled out by his team boss as a potential winner of Roubaix in the future, the Isle of Man rider was coy about his chances in this edition.

“I’m not anticipating anything,” said Cavendish. “We’ll have to see after tomorrow.”

So far, the only native English-speaking winners have been Ireland’s Sean Kelly (1984 and 1986) and Australia’s Stuart O’Grady (2007).