GENT, Belgium (VN) — Strange things happen in a race as grueling and punishing as Paris-Roubaix. Luck, mechanicals, crashes, and team dynamics all play bigger factors in Roubaix than any other one-day race on the international calendar.
Unlike the Tour of Flanders’s list of winners, which is filled almost universally with major names, the Paris-Roubaix palmares is sprinkled with a few “outsiders” who pulled off the ride of their lives to win over the pavé.
Several recent winners who fall into that category include Johan Van Summeren in 2011, Stuart O’Grady in 2007, Magnus Backstedt in 2004, and Servais Knaven in 2001. None of them started in Compiegne with a five-star ranking next to their name, but the dynamics of the race tilted unexpectedly in their favor, and they barnstormed to victory in the velodrome.
“We had strong numbers in the final, and I attacked out of a small group,” Knaven said of his 2001 win. “I had teammates behind me. It was the biggest win of my career, that was the highlight of my career, of course.”
Why can an outsider win at Roubaix and not in other monuments, such as Tour of Flanders or Liège-Bastogne-Liège?
First off, Roubaix is essentially a drag race to the finish line, and may the strongest win. Deep teams always have an advantage, but Roubaix is such a unique race that it’s almost impossible to control. That gives solo-fliers and the brave a better chance of upsetting the odds.
No one wins Roubaix by fluke. Even the outsiders were seasoned veterans on the cobbles when they hoisted the cobble trophy over their heads at the velodrome in Roubaix. Knaven, for example, was an integral member of the era’s reigning super-team, Domo – Farm Frites. O’Grady raced nearly 40 monuments during his career, and started with CSC, where Cancellara was just beginning to hit his classics stride. Van Summeren was twice in the top-10 before blazing to victory.
Luck and crashes are part of any Roubaix script as well. To win over the pavé, riders need to avoid hitting the deck and steer clear of punctures and other mechanicals. As the saying goes, when you’re strong over the pavé, it’s not nearly as punishing, but mistakes are costly.
“There is no race like Roubaix,” said Etixx – Quick-Step’s Stijn Vandenbergh. “Everything has to go right to win. I was in good position in 2013 when I crashed with a spectator. Of course, Roubaix is the race I dream of winning.”
The latest forecasts call for clearing skies Sunday, which should deliver dry conditions for the race (although the weather is unpredictable in northern Europe). Except for a few puddles, the cobbles should dry out quickly if it’s sunny and windy, meaning it will be a fast race. That makes it harder for riders to slip away from the favorites, but as is the case for any Paris-Roubaix, to the brave go the spoils.
Behind the five-star favorites of Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke, and Tom Boonen, there’s an interesting mix of riders who could ride into the history books.
Five outsiders for Roubaix
Stijn Vandenbergh of super-team Etixx—Quick-Step is a top outsider. The 31-year-old Belgian is an old-school cobble-basher with solid experience at Roubaix. In six starts, he’s never finished out of the top-40, and he is better suited for the pavé than the bergs of Flanders, where he was fourth in 2014. Team dynamics could give him wings in this year’s Roubaix. Boonen, former winner Niki Terpstra, and Zdenek Stybar line up as top favorites, so Vandenbergh will look to mark early moves. If he’s up the road, his teammates will be all over their rivals and won’t attack if he’s in position to win. That scenario is a bit of a stretch, but it all depends on the legs of Boonen and Co. In an interview last week, Vandenbergh told VeloNews he has the best legs of his career.
Ian Stannard (Sky) fits the “outsider” mold to perfection. The 28-year-old’s big burly build seems born to pound the pavé. In six Roubaix starts, he’s only punched into top-40 once, but he certainly has the experience and motor to challenge. With Luke Rowe starting as Sky’s captain, Stannard will still have a free ticket to ride. Despite some health issues coming into the northern classics, “Yogi” could hit his stride Sunday.
André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal) continues to surprise in the northern classics. Despite a painful rib injury at the Volta ao Algarve in February, he once again powered into the breakaway Sunday at Flanders, hanging on for 28th. In what will be his fifth Roubaix start, the 33-year-old German promises to be aggressive again. Sprinting to third Wednesday at Scheldeprijs, he admitted his ribs are still causing trouble, a major handicap for a route like Roubaix. But if Greipel rides onto the velodrome with a relatively large group, his sprint could make the difference.
Still only 28, Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) could be riding into his best years, at least for the major monuments where experience and depth are essential. After a strong start to the season, everyone on Dimension Data keeps saying “Eddy B” is on his best form in years. If he can stay upright, Boasson Hagen could deliver on the promise he held nearly a decade ago.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek – Segafredo) has all the makings of Belgium’s next great classics rider. At 23, Stuyven is entering his third classics campaign in top shape. A winner of the 2010 junior Roubaix and winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne this year, Stuyven could get the green light to race, especially if something happens early to team captain Cancellara. He’s perhaps still a touch young to win, but Roubaix always delivers surprises.
The question Sunday is: Who will be that surprise?