This Sunday’s cobbled classic is a bit different. Unlike the Belgian one-day races we’ve seen so far this season, Paris-Roubaix’s 29 cobblestone sectors are far more rough and brutal. Big, brawny classics riders will do best in the fields of northern France. So here’s a look at nine of the favorites for “The Hell of the North,” a 257km run from Compiègne to Roubaix.
10. Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
Is Philippe Gilbert‘s aim to win all five monuments overhyped or inspired? It’s tricky to say where the aging Belgian star should fit on the Paris-Roubaix favorites list because he has so little experience on the pavé of northern France. However, he deserves a spot on this list because he’s on such good form and his team is extremely deep. Gilbert has shown a fast sprint too, beating the bunch to third at Tour of Flanders, so he could have a chance to win from a small group in the velodrome.
9. Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
Jasper Stuyven has often occupied the front group but never really animated it in the classics this year. He’s been in the top 10 in all five major classics going back to Milano-Sanremo, but Stuyven’s been discreet about it. Roubaix may suit the tall Belgian better than the lumpy bergs of Flanders. If he can get up a head of steam and solo clear of the bunch like he did at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2016, Stuyven could have a chance at a cobblestone trophy.
8. Wout van Aert (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan)
Wow, Wout! The triple cyclocross world champion has defied expectations in his first spring classics campaign. Paris-Roubaix is arguably a better race for the 23-year-old, who always favors tough, slogging power courses in ‘cross. Maybe that raw power will work for him on the pavé. Even though he was ninth at Flanders, he could still be low-profile enough to catch the peloton sleeping.
7. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
What would Frédéric Guesdon do? Arnaud Démare would do well to consult the French star of yesteryear, the last home favorite to win Roubaix, way back in 1997. Or, the French national champion could keep on doing what helped him take third at Gent-Wevelgem and 15th at De Ronde: grit his teeth and follow wheels. If Démare comes into the Roubaix velodrome with a group, this ace sprinter will have as good a chance as any to win one for the French fans.
6. Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale)
Results are only part of the story — that was certainly the case with Oliver Naesen’s 11th place at Tour of Flanders. He was recovering from an injury and also struggled with mechanicals that day. The Belgian champion isn’t as much of a sprinter as Démare or other riders lower on this list, so he’ll have to measure his efforts if he makes the front group, or try for an escape of his own.
5. Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors)
A Czech has never won Paris-Roubaix, but man Zdenek Stybar has come close a few times. Most painfully, he was out-sprinted in both 2015 by John Degenkolb and 2017 by Greg Van Avermaet, settling for second. Now, with Quick-Step on an epic run of classics wins, perhaps it’s Stybar’s turn. Will he have to work for Philippe Gilbert in his quixotic quest for all five monuments? It seems unlikely given Stybar’s pedigree at Roubaix. He’ll need to work on his positioning in that velodrome, though, if it comes to a bunch sprint.
4. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
It’s been a frustrating spring for Greg Van Avermaet. He’s gone winless in the classics but finished in the top 10 three times. After devoting himself for a run at Flanders, the Belgian could only muster fifth place. Perhaps his BMC team is out-matched by Quick-Step’s army. (Okay, pretty much every team is this spring.) But Roubaix is more of a war of attrition, so if the race is hard enough, it could simply be mano a mano to the velodrome, in which case Van Avermaet has convincingly proven himself with his 2017 win.
3. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
World champion Peter Sagan has dominated the news leading into Paris-Roubaix, and not in a good way. His sour-grapes post-Flanders quotes didn’t do him any favors. He doesn’t seem to care, however. Sagan does his own thing, and as enigmatic as his personality is, his ability to amaze us with a brilliant result is even more unpredictable. He’s never had a great ride at Roubaix. But the potential for a Sagan sprint victory in the velodrome is tantalizing. All he has to do is make it to Roubaix with the lead group.
2. Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac)
Roubaix is a race that rewards experience. Sep Vanmarcke has that in spades, including a third-place finish in Paris-Roubaix 2013. He’s looked solid so far in 2018, always making the front group, often working hard to chase back Quick-Step’s myriad attacks. The 29-year-old Belgian is closing in on a big win. Now, he needs to channel that effort in a solo breakaway, perhaps long-range like his former Slipstream teammate Johan Vansummeren did to win the 2011 race.
1. Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors)
Beyond dumb luck, there are three keys that can win a race: Teamwork, form, and experience. Niki Terpstra checks all of the boxes. His Quick-Step squad has been imperious this classics season. His wins at E3 Harelbeke and Tour of Flanders were convincing — more in the manner of how Roubaix can be won, really. And his experience, well, just pull up a YouTube replay of the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, which he won. If the Dutchman can pull off one more beast-mode solo attack like he’s done all spring long, he’ll need to make room on the mantle for another ‘stone.