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Preview: Boonen in the driver’s seat for Paris-Roubaix

From the favorites talking about their chances to race maps and start lists, it's all here for "The Hell of the North"

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Paris-Roubaix is known by several nicknames, including “Queen of the Classics” and “The Hell of the North,” but to the riders who pin on a number Sunday morning, it will mean just one thing — pain.

The 258km race travels north from Compiegne, an hour north of Paris, traversing a jarring 51.5km of Roman Empire-era cobblestone roads, known as pavé, to finish inside the 400-meter velodrome in Roubaix, sitting 5km from France’s northern border with Belgium.

The most brutal of pro cycling’s one-day classics will once again be held on Easter Sunday, the final bookend to cycling’s “Holy Week,” which, until a 2010 calendar change, included the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.

Preliminary Startlist >>

Course Map >>

Previous Winners >>

Full Paris-Roubaix Coverage >>

And with a 30-percent chance of rain in Sunday’s forecast, this year’s race has the potential to be a true battle of attrition, as riders must negotiate slick roads, muddy cobblestones, and the inevitable crashes and punctures that characterize the race.

With the absence of Fabian Cancellara, following his dramatic collarbone fracture at Flanders, the complexion of the race has completely changed — there is no longer a rider in the race capable of soloing away from the field from 40km out.

Cancellara’s absence immediately thrust his longtime cobbled classics rival, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen, into the role of overwhelming pre-race favorite. Boonen is hot off cobbles wins at E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, and is a three-time winner in the Roubaix velodrome.

Since 2005, Boonen and Cancellara have won five of seven editions of the race; however, following a series of crashes and mechanicals, Boonen abandoned Roubaix last year for the first time, while Cancellara was marked out of the race, allowing Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren, the strongest man from an early breakaway move, to enjoy the biggest win of his career.

In what has already been a remarkable spring campaign for the 31-year-old Belgian, Boonen comes to the start line knowing that if he wins Sunday he will tie the all-time record of Paris-Roubaix wins held by Roger De Vlaeminck, who won four times between 1972 and 1977. (De Vlaeminck carries the nickname “Mr. Paris-Roubaix as a result.) Already this year Boonen has set the record for wins at Harelbeke, with five, and tied for the record number of wins at Ghent-Wevelgem, with three, and the Tour of Flanders, with three.

“I’m breaking every record it seems, but it’s not my main concern,” Boonen said this week. “Of course it’s in my mind to win Roubaix for a fourth time and equal Roger De Vlaeminck, but it’s not an obsession. I just want to win the race and look over the palmarès afterwards. If I focus too much, it’s extra pressure.”

Boonen’s primary adversaries will likely be the two men who stood aside him at the Tour of Flanders podium last weekend, Italians Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan. Pozatto (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) finished second to Boonen in 2009, and seventh behind Cancellara in 2010. Ballan (BMC Racing) has twice finished third in Roubaix, both times behind Boonen in a bunch sprint, as he did again at Flanders on Sunday. Last year at Roubaix Ballan was sixth, 36 seconds behind Vansummeren.

At Flanders, it was Ballan who attacked on the final trip over the Oude Kwaremont climb, and Pozzato who initially chased, bringing Boonen with him to form the winning move; it was also Pozzato who came closest in the final sprint to the line.

“I’m sorry I didn’t win, for me the Ronde has always held a special fascination, but Tom deserved the victory,” said Pozzato. “I played my cards in the sprint but there was nothing I could do. I’m happy with my form, this result gives me confidence, and I’m looking forward to Roubaix, where I will again try to win, though it certainly won’t be easy.”

Vansummeren, last year’s winner, rode at the front at Flanders on Sunday until he crashed at the base of the Paterberg climb on the second of three ascents. Though he wasn’t badly injured, he lost contact with the front group, finishing 49th, 1:06 down. And though he wasn’t on the list of favorites heading into last year’s race, his win in Roubaix wasn’t a complete shock, either — he finished in the top-10 in 2008 and 2009, both times riding as a domestique for Silence-Lotto’s Leif Hoste.

“It was my dream to win Roubaix. I know it’s the race that suits me the most, but that’s not a guarantee that you win it,” Vansummeren said. “You need an exceptional day on the right moment, and I had that then, and it worked out great for me.”

The tall Belgian will be supported by Belgian Sep Vanmarcke, German Andreas Klier and American Tyler Farrar, who finished second at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday just three days after riding 200km in the breakaway at Flanders.

Vansummeren’s 2011 win came largely due to the presence of his then-Garmin teammate Thor Hushovd, who, along with Ballan, clung tightly to Cancellara’s wheel. With 30km to go Cancellara sat up, refusing to drag Hushovd and Ballan to the finish. It was a bittersweet result for Hushovd, who had dearly wished to win Roubaix in the world champion’s rainbow jersey.

However in 2012, following a switch to BMC Racing, Hushovd has struggled, missing Milan-San Remo due to fever and failing to show form thus far in the northern classics. The Norwegian did not finish Harelbeke, did not make the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem, and finished 55th at the Tour of Flanders.

“I was expecting to do better at Flanders,” said Hushovd. “I didn’t have any strength in my legs. I felt empty. However Paris-Roubaix is a race in which anything can happen. I feel that I’m getting back on form. My training has been good and I still believe that I have a chance of winning in Roubaix.”

Hushovd added that Cancellara’s absence has made Boonen the hands-down race favorite. “I don’t know how much the absence of Cancellara will change the race this year,” he said. “Tom Boonen is in great form, so he is the favorite with a team that should be able to handle the toughness of the race. It’s a shame for Cancellara, he was in the right condition to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix again, but that’s cycling for you — it can happen to us all.”

On paper, Boonen is the obvious favorite. But such is the beauty of Paris-Roubaix — a combination of strength, skill, experience, support and luck ultimately decides the winner.

Five-star Favorites

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): Coming off recent wins at Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders — all in sprint finishes — Boonen is enjoying his best season since he first won Flanders and Roubaix in 2005. His Omega Pharma team has both depth and complete commitment to its leader, as evidenced by Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra at the Tour of Flanders. Given Boonen’s track record, it seems that only major misfortune, such as a crash, puncture, poor nutrition or illness, will keep him from a fourth Roubaix title. It’s worth noting that Boonen had that misfortune in 2011, and abandoned the race for the first time in his career.

Preliminary Startlist >>

Four-star Favorites

Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia): A broken collarbone at the Tour of Oman in February appears to be paying dividends for the Italian, who showed his form by finishing with the front group at Harelbeke, and sixth at Ghent-Wevelgem, before taking second to Boonen at Flanders. The rider nicknamed “The Shadow” for his tendency to follow moves will need to reinvent himself in order to go to the line without Boonen.

Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing): It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Ballan finishes on the podium, but much harder to imagine him taking the win. Like Pozzato, Ballan is capable of going to the line with Boonen, as he did at Flanders, and has done so twice in Roubaix. However, unlike Pozzato, Ballan has essentially no chance of beating the Belgian in a bunch sprint, meaning he will need to play off the strength of BMC teammates Thor Hushovd, George Hincapie, Manuel Quinziato and Taylor Phinney.

Three-star Favorites

Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda)
Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing)
John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano)
Hayden Roulston (RadioShack-Nissan)
Gregory Rast (RadioShack-Nissan)
Lars Boom (Rabobank)
Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda)

Notable Absentees
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan): Broken collarbone (during Tour of Flanders)
Jonathan Cantwell (Saxo Bank): Collapsed lung (at finish line of Scheldeprijs)
Sebastian Langeveld (GreenEdge): Broken collarbone (during Tour of Flanders)
Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM): Knee irritation (during Tour of Flanders)
Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale): Not racing
Oscar Freire (Katusha): Not racing

North Americans (based on provisional start list)
George Hincapie (USA), BMC Racing
Tyler Farrar (USA), Garmin-Barracuda
Ted King (USA), Liquigas-Cannondale
Taylor Phinney (USA), BMC Racing
Jacob Rathe (USA), Garmin-Barracuda
Svein Tuft (Can), GreenEdge

Race Notes

Weather Forecast: High of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 30-percent chance of showers
Television: The final two hours of the race will be televised live, on NBC Sports Network.

American Record: Hincapie will start a record-tying 17th Paris-Roubaix, matching French rider Frédéric Guesdon, who is also competing. Hincapie has finished in the top-10 on seven occasions; his best result came in 2005, when he finished second to Boonen in a sprint. Guesdon won Paris-Roubaix in 1997, outsprinting a group including Jo Planckaert, Johan Museeuw and Frédéric Moncassin.

American debut: Phinney, 21, makes his elite Paris-Roubaix debut after twice winning the under-23 edition, in 2009 and 2010. “I’m really honored to be part of the [BMC Raacing] squad,” he said Thursday. “Paris-Roubaix has been my favorite race since I was a kid. I’d like to be there for my teammates, do my job and help the boys out and hopefully be up there in the final — be up front, and when the big selections are made, hopefully be I’ll there.”

The Cobbles

Twenty-seven cobbled sectors (51.5km total) mark the 2012 Paris-Roubaix parcours, varying in difficulty from the innocuous Roubaix stretch, just 1.5km from the finish to the legendary Trouée d’Arenberg, which organizers nearly left out this year because of poor surface conditions.

The Arenberg Forest — or really the five or so kilometers before the railroad crossing that marks its entrance — is where the front end of the race gets really sharp. The straight lead-in to the 2.4km sector is more contentious than a lot of bunch sprints, with domestiques battling to deliver their leaders to the front of the peloton and ahead of the inevitable crashes and mechanicals that split the race here. If a rider hopes to land on the podium in Roubaix, they must make it out of the forest in the front 50 positions, if not better. That window only narrows if conditions are sloppy.

Below are the 27 sectors and their difficulty ratings (★★★★★ = most difficult):
27. Troisvilles (after 97.5km – 2,200m) ★★★
26. Viesly (after 104km – 1,800m) ★★★
25. Quievy (after 106.5km – 3,700m) ★★★★
24. Saint-Python (after 111.5km – 1,500m) ★★
23. Vertain (after 119.5km – 2,300m) ★★★
22. Capelle-sur-Ecaillon – Le Buat (after 126km – 1,700m) ★★★
21. Aulnoy-lez-Valenciennes – Famars (after 142km – 2,600m) ★★★★★
20. Famars – Quérénaing (after 145.5km – 1,200m) ★★
19. Quérénaing – Maing (after 149km – 2,500m) ★★★
18. Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (after 152km – 1,600m) ★★★
17. Haveluy (after 163.5km – 2,500m) ★★★★
16. Trouée d’Arenberg (after 172km – 2,400m) ★★★★★
15. Millonfosse – Bousiginies (after 178.5km – 1,400m) ★★★
14. Brillon to Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes (after 183km – 1,100m) ★★ &
Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières (after 185.5km – 2,400m) ★★★
13. Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies (after 192km – 1,400m) ★★★
12. Orchies (after 197km – 1,700m) ★★★
11. Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée (after 203km – 2,600m) ★★★★
10. Mons-en-Pévèle (after 208.5km – 3,000m) ★★★★★
9. Mérignies – Avelin (after 215km – 700m) ★★
8. Pont-Thibaut (after 218km – 1,400m) ★★★
7. Templeuve l’Epinette (after 223.5km – 200m) ★ & Le Moulin de Vertain (after 224km – 500m) ★★
6. Cysoing – Bourghelles (after 230,5km – 1,300m) ★★★★ &
Bourghelles – Wannehain (after 233km – 1,100m) ★★★
5. Camphin-en-Pévèle (after 237.5km – 1,800m) ★★★★
4. Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (after 240.5km – 2,100m) ★★★★★
3. Gruson (after 242.5km – 1,100m) ★★
2. Hem (after 249.5km – 1,400m) ★★
1. Roubaix (after 256.5km – 300m) ★★