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Race Preview: All eyes on two men for Paris-Roubaix

VeloNews managing editor Neal Rogers, on the scene in France, gives a preview of Sunday's Paris-Roubaix

Cancellara at a news conference Friday.

There are 200 riders on the start list for Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, but only two names on everyone’s lips at the start city of Compiegne: Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen.

And beyond last Sunday’s epic mano-a-mano battle at the Tour of Flanders — where the two cobbled-classics specialists sprung clear with 45km remaining until Cancellara surged ahead of Boonen on the decisive Kapelmuur for the win — there’s good reason why both men are again favorites for Roubaix, the notorious spring classic referred to alternately as the Queen of the Classics and the Hell of the North.

Both riders have won Roubaix, Boonen three times, in 2005, 2008 and 2009; Cancellara once, in 2006. One of Boonen’s wins came in a sprint finish ahead of Cancellara, in 2008. Both wear the jersey of a national champion; Boonen of Belgium, Cancellara of Switzerland. Both have worn the rainbow jersey as a world champion; Boonen as world road champion in 2005, Cancellara as world time trial champion, three times. They are similar in age (Boonen turns 30 this year, Cancellara turned 29 last month) and build (Boonen is 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, Cancellara is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds.)

And both men have more at stake than just adding another of cycling’s monuments to their palmares; for each, history is on the line.

For Boonen, a fourth Roubaix win would equal that of Roger De Vlaeminck, known as “Mr. Paris-Roubaix.” For Cancellara, a win would make him only the ninth rider to do the prestigious Flanders-Roubaix double. The last man to do it was none other than Boonen, in 2005.

Even their team strength is relatively equal, with both riders flanked by a pair of danger men. At Saxo Bank Cancellara is backed by an on-form Matti Breschel, winner of Dwars door Vlaanderen last month, and Stuart O’Grady, winner of a tactical Roubaix in 2007. At Quick Step Boonen is supported by Devolder, who finished 25th at Flanders last weekend after soling to victory in 2008 and 2009, and Sylvain Chavanel, a strong domestique who has blossomed under Boonen’s leadership.

Ask each man who has more pressure, and they’ll react the same — a sly smile, followed by the other’s name.

“He has the pressure to do the double, it’s a big pressure,” Boonen said at a team press conference Friday, flanked by two-time Flanders winner Stijn Devodler. “He has a strong team and most of the work will be on their shoulders. We have two guys that are able to win the race and they have two guys able to win the race. We have to be smart and try to control the race from the last 100 kilometers onwards, from the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector. We have to always keep our hands on the race and not do anything stupid.”

Boonen and team on a training ride Friday. Photo: Graham Watson, www.grahamwatson.com

Asked the same question — who has more pressure to win? — Cancellara answered, “The pressure is on him, and his whole team and rest of the peloton. When you look since Waregem at how we’ve been riding, with Matti (Breschel) and me and the whole team and the victories, we’re winning. We’ve showed what we are able to do. If we keep on riding like that, maybe we can risk a little more than the other teams. Our pockets are quite full, but we are still hungry. We’re looking to Sunday.”

Truth be told, the real pressure sits on Boonen’s shoulders, and it has little to do with breaking De Vlaeminck’s record. Riding on some of the best form of his career, Cancellara has already bagged his big one for the spring; Boonen has not. For a rider of Boonen’s stature, finishing second at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders has been more frustrating than promising. And for a Belgian team like Quick Step, a win at Flanders and/or Roubaix is paramount to successful season, while Saxo Bank still has realistic objectives at the Ardennes classics as well as the Tour de France.

It’s something Cancellara is all too aware of. Later, asked another question about pressure to win, he said simply, “I have nothing to lose.” (more …)

The Others

Flecha training on Thursday

Of course at a race like Roubaix, where a crash or flat tire can change everything in a split second, there are other, second-tier, favorites to consider. The first to be mentioned is Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha, winner of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Ghent in February. Flecha finished third, behind Cancellara and Boonen, at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke one week prior to Flanders.

Until now, Flecha has been a nearly-man at Roubaix. He finished third behind Boonen and George Hincapie in the Roubaix velodrome in 2005, fourth in 2006 behind a solo Cancellara, and second in 2007 out of a lead group of seven riders. Last year he placed sixth after causing a pileup that took out Leif Hoste and Filippo Pozatto, opening the door for Boonen to take another solo win.

Flecha had an admittedly off-day at Flanders last weekend, finishing last of the first peloton, in 34th place, And even if he has a fantastic day at Paris-Roubaix, in order to finish on the highest step of the podium, Flecha will have to figure out how to contend with Cancellara’s superior strength and Boonen’s superior finishing speed.

“I will just have to adapt to them,” Flecha said Friday. “Ok, one is strong, the other is fast. I will have to adapt. If I am there at the end I won’t just sit on, I will try to beat them. Maybe I will attack, maybe I will get rid of them. Maybe it will be a battle at the velodrome. Obviously Boonen knows that track, and how to win there. I am not going to think about the two or three ways I cannot win. Let’s see how the race goes, and if I’m there for the final, let’s see how it goes at the end. If I have to sprint with Boonen and Cancellara, ok, let’s go for it. I will try to win.”

The other rider figuring into the second-tier of favorites is Pozatto; the Italian demonstrated considerable strength at the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, where he finished fourth after a concerted chase to bring back the winning three-man move. However Pozatto came down with a stomach flu in the days that followed that race and was forced to sit out Flanders with a fever. He returned to competition Wednesday at the GP Scheldeprijs, but maintains his condition is uncertain for Sunday.

“I still feel a little weak, which is normal,” Pozatto told the press Friday. “I’ll have to see how I feel after 200km. I might be good until then, but at closer to 250km, it’s unknown.”

Pozatto, who maintains a close friendship with Boonen in their shared adopted home of Monaco, said he watched Flanders from the couch. In his estimation, Boonen’s calf cramp on the Kappelmuur was the major difference between the Belgian and Swiss riders one week ago.

Filippo Pozzato at a press conference Friday. AFP PHOTO BELGA PHOTO PETER DECONINCK

“Fabian was fantastic, for sure, but Tom was strong too,” Pozatto said. “Tom had bad luck to cramp on the Muur, but Paris-Roubaix it’s different. I think Tom and Fabian have the same possibility to win the race.”

Asked  how tactics will play out Sunday, Pozatto said it should be fairly straightforward. “It’s an easy race for tactics because there are two people who are at a higher level than everyone else. There’s also Flecha, because he can be good. If he has the legs and power, when they start to go, he will just follow them.”

Of the many dark-horse picks — including a not-100-percent Hushovd and a perhaps-past-his-prime Hoste — three are well-established names riding for American teams.

Garmin-Transitions will go in with Martin Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren as established top-10 Roubaix finishers and Tyler Farrar coming off field-sprint wins at De Panne and Scheldeprijs. However all eyes will be on David Millar, whose bold, unexpected ride at Flanders revealed a new skill set for the time-trial specialist.

HTC-Columbia is sending an experienced squad to support recent Ghent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel. “Paris-Roubaix is a race which suits Eisel a little better than the Tour of Flanders, and just like in the Tour of Flanders, we’ll be basing our race strategy around him,” said HTC-Columbia director Tristan Hoffman, a second-place finisher at Roubaix in 2004.

And at almost 37, sentimental favorite George Hincapie (BMC Racing) is showing little sign of slowing down. He finished fourth at Ghent-Wevelgem two weeks ago, and sixth at Flanders last weekend after watching the selection go up the road on the Molenberg.

“I think I deserve to be one of the favorites,” Hincapie told VeloNews Thursday. “I still believe I can win a Flanders or Roubaix. It’s kind of motivating that (European media) would count me out of those sorts of races. The riders don’t count me out. If you see, they won’t let me go, and they have a ton of respect for what I’ve done and they know I’m a factor to deal with at all points. To me, at the end of the day, that’s what’s important.”

And basing Roubaix favorites from Flanders performances doesn’t always equate, Hinapie said. “Roubaix is a totally different race. There are no climbs, so you might see guys at the front at Roubaix that you didn’t see at Flanders, guys that don’t go uphill very well but have a ton of power on the flats. There’s always a different group of riders that weren’t there in Flanders that you have to deal with at Roubaix.” (more …)

The Course

Each year Paris-Roubaix’s course differs slightly from years past; this year’s course covers 259 kilometers of flat, winding roads. Of that, 52.9km will be on uneven and slippery cobblestone stretches referred to as “sectors,” divided into 27 sections (click here for the 2010 sector list). However there are certain inevitable truths to every Roubaix: it always starts in Compiegne, north of Paris, and finishes on the outdoor velodrome in Roubaix, near the Belgian border; it also almost always delivers the 2.4km cobblestone section through the Forest of Arenberg, where crashes, punctures and separation are all but guaranteed.

Weather always plays an important role. The forecast for Sunday is sunny and mild, with a high near 54 degrees, meaning it will be a fast 108th edition of the race.

“It looks like it will be a dry Roubaix,” Boonen said. “This means it will be a fast race. Technically it will be easier for us, especially out of the corners.”

Dry doesn’t mean easy, however. A wet Roubaix means it’s slower and more technical; a dry Roubaix means riders hit the cobbles faster, causing more jarring on their bodies and vision, and they must also contend with the breathing and visibility hazards of dust kicked up off the cobblestones. Last year, in dry conditions, just 99 of the 187 starters finished.

Asked which section seemed the nastiest during Quick Step’s reconnaissance ride Friday, Boonen pointed not to the Arenberg but to the Beuvry-la-Foret at Orchies, sector 13, which has been dedicated to France’s two-time Roubaix winner Marc Madiot, now a director at Française des Jeux. It’s the section where a race motorcycle crashed into spectators last year, injuring three seriously.

“The cobblestones are far apart from each other making it a really difficult surface to ride,” Boonen said. “The cobblestones on the ground are as if a big truck dumped them and just left them there. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for this sector on Sunday, as it is approached by a wide-open sector of road where we’ll be pedaling at high speed. There are still 60km remaining, so the race will be pretty broken up, and it is not so long. But last year I attacked there and we went away with 10 guys.”

If Boonen attacks in the same spot on Sunday, it’s a safe bet Cancellara will be glued to his wheel. Asked how he would try to avoid another scenario like at Flanders, Boonen scoffed at the notion.

“I want to have the same scenario,” he told VeloNews. “And I will try to stay with him. It’s not useful to try to make a one-man show with a rider as strong as he is. I will try to stay with him, and beat him in the sprint. But it’s always a different scenario at Roubaix than at the Tour of Flanders. You can’t compare the two races.”

The battle between Cancellara, Boonen and the rest of the contenders starts at 10:35 local time Sunday morning. Roughly six and a half hours later, the winner will be known.

Favored teams and their marquee riders

Five-star favorites

Quick Step: Tom Boonen (Belgium), Stijn Devolder (Belgium), Sylvain Chavanel (France), Maarten Wynants (Belgium)

Saxo Bank: Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Stuart O’Grady (Australia), Matti Breschel (Netherlands), Baden Cooke (Australia)

Four-star favorites

Garmin-Transitions: Martijn Maaskant (Netherlands), Johan Van Summeren (Belgium), Tyler Farrar (USA), David Millar (Great Britain)

Cervélo TestTeam: Thor Hushovd (Norway), Roger Hammond (Great Britain), Dominique Rollin (Canada), Andreas Klier (Germany), Théo Bos (Netherlands)

Team Sky: Juan Antonio Flecha (Spain), Michael Barry (Canada), Greg Henderson (New Zealand), Mathew Hayman (Australia)

Omega Pharma-Lotto: Leif Hoste (Belgium), Jurgen Roelandts (Belgium)

Katusha: Filippo Pozatto (Italy), Serguei Ivanov (Russia)

Three-star favorites

BMC Racing: George Hincapie (USA), Marcus Burghardt (Germany), Karsten Kroon (Netherlands)

Rabobank: Lars Boom (Netherlands), Sebastian Langeveld (Netherlands)

HTC-Columbia: Bernhard Eisel (Austria), Hayden Roulston (New Zealand)

Absent

Cervelo: Heinrich Haussler (Germany)

Team Sky: Edvald Boassan Hagen (Norway)

BMC Racing: Alessandro Ballan (Italy)

Rabobank: Nick Nuyens (Belgium)

HTC-Columbia: Mark Cavendish (Great Britain)

Omega Pharma-Lotto: Phillipe Gilbert (Belgium)