Britain’s David Millar and Dutchman Theo Bos could not come from more different cycling backgrounds.
But both will set aside everything they know about the sport as they prepare for an unforgettable experience on Sunday’s grueling one-day classic, Paris-Roubaix.
Described as the “Queen of the Classics” and, more ominously, the “Hell of the North” the 53km of cobblestones spread over 27 sections in the 259km epic have exacted a costly toll on the peloton in over 100 years of racing.
However that has not stopped Millar, a stage racing specialist, and Bos, a multiple world track cycling champion who has recently converted to road, from wanting a taste.
Millar lines up for the race for only the second time, but with renewed hopes of enduring the pain of the cobbles after a promising performance at the Tour of Flanders last week.
That race, the second of five monuments of the classics season and one which features 15 cobblestoned climbs, was won by Fabian Cancellara ahead of Belgium’s main hope Tom Boonen.
Millar meanwhile is a relative latecomer to the northern classics and half-classics that pepper the cycling calendar in March and April before the longer stage races of the summer.
But after securing overall victory in the Three Days of La Panne race in Belgium last week, then showing promise in Flanders, the big Scot believes he may have found a new direction.
“People have always said I tick all the boxes, especially in a race like Flanders,” said Millar. “It just goes to show what happens as a sportsman if you get pigeonholed when you’re young. But yes, I’d love to finish my career being a Classics rider.”
Millar’s performance, where “in 5km I went from feeling great to having nothing left,” will serve him well ─ to a point. The cobbled sections on the road to Roubaix generally have a more rustic, less forgiving aspect.
That means the endurance of Bos, who made his name in track cycling’s power event of the sprint, will be tested to the full on such difficult sections as the Arenberg forest, where the race can be won and lost and where several big names have come crashed heavily.
After riding over the final 90km on Thursday, Millar was left terrified.
“It scared the shit out of me,” he said. “Arenberg blew me away, and there were times I thought ‘oh God, what have I signed up for?’”
More experienced riders might have to tell Bos just what he is up against, but according to team bosses ─ who succumbed to his pleas after Heinrich Haussler and Andreas Klier were injured ─ he is desperate to race.
“He wasn’t supposed to race at all but because of the injuries he’s been given the thumbs-up,” said Cervélo’s sports director Philippe Mauduit.
“Since then he’s been excited like a little kid. He’s a rider with great potential, and he’s desperate to give it a go.”
Saxo Bank’s Cancellara, the winner in 2006, lines up as a big favorite but Boonen is a three-time winner, including the last two editions of Paris-Roubaix.
If the Belgian wins he will equal Roger de Vlaeminck’s all-time record of four wins.
Recent winners of Paris-Roubaix
1969. Walter Godefroot (B), Flandria-De Clerck
1970. Eddy Merckx (B), Faema
1971. Roger Rosiers (B), Bic
1972. Roger De Vlaeminck (B), Deher
1973. Eddy Merckx (B), Molteni
1974. Roger De Vlaeminck (B), Brooklyn
1975. Roger De Vlaeminck (B), Brooklyn
1976. Marc Demeyer (B), Flandria-Velda
1977. Roger De Vlaeminck (B), Brooklyn
1978. Francesco Moser (I), Sanson
1979. Francesco Moser (I), Sanson
1980. Francesco Moser (I), Sanson
1981. Bernard Hinault (F), Renault-Elf-Gitane
1982. Jan Raas (Nl), TI-Raleigh
1983. Hennie Kuiper (Nl), Aernoudt Rossin
1984. Sean Kelly (Irl), Skil-Sem
1985. Marc Madiot (F), Renault-Elf-Gitane
1986. Sean Kelly (Irl), KAS
1987. Eric Vanderaerden (B), Panasonic-Isostar
1988. Dirk Demol (B), Ad Renting
1989. Jean-Marie Wampers (B), Panasonic-Isostar
1990. Eddy Planckaert (B), Panasonic-Sportlife
1991. Marc Madiot (F), R.M.O.
1992. Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle (F), Z
1993. Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle (F), GAN
1994. Andrei Tchmil (Ukr), Lotto
1995. Franco Ballerini (I), Mapei-GB
1996. Johan Museeuw (B), Mapei-GB
1997. Frédéric Guesdon (F), Française Des Jeux
1998. Franco Ballerini (I), Mapei-Bricobi
1999. Andrea Tafi (I), Mapei-Quick Step
2000. Johan Museeuw (B), Mapei
2001. Servais Knaven (Nl), Lotto-Adecco
2002. Johan Museeuw (B), Lotto-Adecco
2003. Peter Van Petegem (B), Lotto-Domo
2004. Magnus Bäckstedt (S), Alessio-Bianchi
2005. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic
2006. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Team CSC
2007. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Team CSC
2008. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step
2009. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step