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John Wilcockson’s 2008 Paris-Roubaix preview and top picks

Wet weather changes everything in Paris-Roubaix, and the forecast for this Sunday’s 106th edition is rain showers with a brisk tail wind throughout the day. These conditions will pose a new challenge for many riders, including the media’s big favorite, 2006 winner Fabian Cancellara of CSC. The big Swiss has never ridden the Hell of the North in the rain, and although he feels 100 percent better than he did at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, he tipped other riders to be on the podium in the Roubaix velodrome Sunday night.

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Cancellara picks Hincapie as a favorite

By John Wilcockson

Tom Boonen, at a news conference Saturday on the eve of Paris-Roubaix

Tom Boonen, at a news conference Saturday on the eve of Paris-Roubaix

Photo: AFP

Wet weather changes everything in Paris-Roubaix, and the forecast for this Sunday’s 106th edition is rain showers with a brisk tail wind throughout the day. These conditions will pose a new challenge for many riders, including the media’s big favorite, 2006 winner Fabian Cancellara of CSC. The big Swiss has never ridden the Hell of the North in the rain, and although he feels 100 percent better than he did at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, he tipped other riders to be on the podium in the Roubaix velodrome Sunday night.

“For me, [George] Hincapie is the biggest favorite,” he told VeloNews. “He rode very, very well in Flanders. He didn’t get a great result [fifth], but he raced really well. He’s been on the podium at Roubaix but he never won, and this is one of his last chances in his career because of his age [34].”

Cancellara went on to name others who he thinks are on top form. “We saw [Juan Antonio] Flecha ride well last Sunday [he finished second], and he is crazy about this race. He’s had lots of good results at Roubaix … and he’s never won it. As for Tom [Boonen], he was very strong last week, but I always say that to win the big races you really need to have won something before it. And he hasn’t won a race since the Tour of California. Then we have [Leif] Hoste; he also did a great race last Sunday but he didn’t have good luck, and you need even more of that in the race coming up.

“In the end, it’s possible that all the big favorites aren’t going well. That’s really possible. It depends on the weather, and on the flow of the race. If it rains, it will be a new race for me as I have never done Roubaix in the rain, or even on wet pavé. In the end, I know how to ride my bike and I’ve done plenty of other racing in the rain, including cyclocross and mountain biking.”

Cancellara’s Australian teammate, defending champion Stuart O’Grady, summed up his expectations with these words: “With the rain, it will be a different race, almost another sport. We’re there to win, and we’re going to have to take risks, and if the weather’s bad it’s not about if there’ll be crashes, it’s when and how bad the crashes will be. Obviously I prefer hot and dry, and tomorrow’s gonna be cold and wet. The wet conditions normally favor the bigger, heavier riders, but we’ll see. It’s gonna make good TV.”

The CSC directeur sportif at this week’s cobblestone classics, Scott Sunderland, also spoke to VeloNews Saturday. He said, “Everything and anything can happen tomorrow. This is what makes Paris-Roubaix so special. Also, you can never go out of Paris-Roubaix feeling disappointed, and that you didn’t do what you wanted to do. You never want to come second or third, or last. Of course you want to win. But your approach has to be, I will do my best. That’s how we approach it. As long as we die trying, or fail while trying, with blood, sweat and tears, then that’s all I ask from the riders. I don’t ask for anything more.”

Running through CSC’s list of seven riders who will be supporting Cancellara in Sunday’s race, Sunderland said, “Stuart O’Grady is now where we were hoping he was going to be. And I think he’s going to be very good for Sunday. Kurt Arvesen is good, although he has hurt his wrist. He had a crash yesterday [Friday], training around a roundabout and a car came too quickly and he fell — slowly, but he’s hurt his wrist, So I hope that’s not going to cause him too much discomfort tomorrow. Then we have Alan Johansen, Marcus Lungqvist, Matti Breschel, Lars Bak and Kasper Klostergaard — who’s there mainly to chaperone Fabian Cancellara for the first 100 to 150 kilometers.”

Almost a month after winning three big races in Italy — the Monte Paschi Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo — Cancellara says he is calm and relaxed, even though he didn’t have his best race at Flanders last Sunday. Some observers said that the CSC team leader was slipping on the cobblestones when the rain fell in the Belgian classic. Maybe he will have similar problems this Sunday, but he was confident on Saturday

“When Cancellara’s at 100 percent,” he joked, but not entirely, “the people have to put on a wind-breaker because I come up so fast from behind. And in the end, I say, ‘Let’s go and give everything out that you can.’ And I’ll be ready for the after-party in our hotel.”

O’Grady was perhaps a little more realistic in saying, “A lot of guys will have already lost the race before the start if it’s raining. There’s probably only 10 guys in the peloton going to bed tonight thinking they can win.”

THE VELONEWS PICKS

4-STARS: Tom Boonen (Quick Step), George Hincapie (High Road)

3-STARS: Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto)

2-STARS: Magnus Bäckstedt (Slipstream-Chipotle), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Stijn Devolder (Quick Step), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas)

1-STAR: Steven De Jongh (Quick Step), Enrico Franzoi (Liquigas), Ralf Grabsch (Milram), Frédérique Guesdon (Française des Jeux), Roger Hammond (High Road), Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), Stefen Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop)