By John Wilcockson
A cold north wind was howling across the open fields of northernFrance Friday afternoon; but there was no sign of rain. That probably meansthat riders in Sunday’s 100th edition of Paris-Roubaix will most likelyhave to face stinging dust blown in their faces rather than the gooey mudthrown up by the wheels in front of them. Either way, the infamous Hellof the North classic is bound to create its usual toll of terror and destruction.In fact, the course that the 190-or-so starters will face is probablythe hardest that the organizers have ever mapped out. Last year, they “discovered” three nasty sections of pavé(as the cobblestone farm roads are called in these parts), and this yearthey have lengthened one section — the already gnarly one between Auchyand Bersée (about 55km from the finish) — and managed to fit inan even nastier (though fairly short) one at Templeuve.The latest addition is called the Moulin de Vertain — named for a magnificent windmill that stands near the start of this half-kilometer section. On Friday, a workman was clearing up some debris near the mill; but the pavé section itself is in dreadful condition — potholes in theevil-looking, jagged black cobblestones are filled with loose grit and ashes; a plow field at the same level as the “road” surface supplies another covering of dust every time the wind gusts; and large piles of manure and silage bordering the road add to the pungency of the locale.Besides this being a challenge the racers would rather do without (onecan only imagine what it’d be like in wet conditions), it comes at a strategic point, less than 40km from Roubaix. And to include it, the organizers have had to utilize a whole series of narrower, twisting back roads — which will be far more conducive to small breakaways than the wider, straighter roads that made up this part of the course for the past few years.A little farther down the course on Friday, some American cyclists weretesting out the next challenging section, between Cysoing and Wannehain,where the cobblestones have in places been replaced by loose stone chippingsand gravel. The cyclists were having a hard time, even those on mountainbikes.Right after this part comes the long, bumpy twisting loop of narrowpavé at Camphin-en-Pévèle that ends with the slightly uphill stretch to the Café de l’Arbre. The north wind was at its strongest here on Friday, and it is unlikely to change much before Sunday.That means there will be a cross-tail wind on this long. long sector that ends only 15km from the Roubaix velodrome.Who will be strong enough and still fresh enough to take advantage ofthis crucial section? The wind should certainly give a solo attacker avery good chance of getting clear (and then blow against him for the rest of the ride to Roubaix). Is it a situation that will favor Postal’s George Hincapie? He is on the best form of his life and is growing in confidence with every race in the past 10 days — second on the final stage of the Three Days of De Panne (and third overall), fourth at the Tour of Flanders, and third at Ghent-Wevelgem.Besides Hincapie, the men who could take the initiative in the finaleare former winners Johan Museeuw of Domo-Farm Frites and Andrea Tafi ofMapei-Quick Step. These two favorites also have the strongest teams inthe race and, based on the law of averages, somebody from one of thesetwo squads should win. If it’s not one of the team leaders, then look forone or another of their strongest teammates.For Domo, that could mean the 2001 winner Servais Knaven, his fellowDutchman Max Van Heeswijk or U.S. champ Fred Roidriguez (also on the formof his life, but riding his first Paris-Roubaix). For Mapei, besides Tafi, the world’s No. 1 squad can look to Italian champ Daniele Nardello, Hungarian standout Laszlo Bodrogi, South African Robbie Hunter or Italian strongman Stefano Zanini.Other favorites (but with weaker teams) include Lotto’s Peter Van Petegem, Lampre-Daikin’s Ludo Dierckxsens, Telekom’s Erik Zabel or Steffen Wesemann and Fassa Bortolo’s Fabio Baldato. Longer shots include Rabobank’s Marc Wauters, Cofidis’s Jo Planckaert or Nico Mattan, Coast’s Lars Michaelsen, CSC-Tiscali’s Tristan Hoffman and Crédit Agricole’s Jens Voigt.
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