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Roubaix preview: Who will lift the cobblestone?

Sunday's Paris-Roubaix field has plenty of contenders, but surviving the brutal cobblestones takes a hefty dose of luck.

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The first sectors of Paris-Roubaix pavé aren’t so bad. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. But the cobbles compound, sector after sector, stone after stone, battle after battle. Flats, crashes, good fortune and bad. The “Hell of the North” takes who it wants, leaving only those both lucky and strong. And thus Paris-Roubaix is whittled down, from 180 to 120 to 50 to 15 to one.

The season’s most brutal race, 204.7 kilometers of pavement and 52.8 kilometers of stone rougher even than your imagination, ends on the Roubaix velodrome with a single victor. On the podium he holds a single cobble aloft, his trophy as lone conqueror, battered and often bloody. He is le Roi du Nord — the King of the North.

Who will lift the stone this year?

The contenders

All signs point to a Roubaix showdown between the riders who made the Tour of Flanders their own, but Roubaix is a persnickety race, fond of slapping favorites down and lifting new names up. The only thing we really know is that this thing won’t be over until the velodrome sings.

Last weekend, Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan appeared stronger than any of his competitors, riding away from LottoNL – Jumbo’s Sep Vanmarcke with apparent ease and holding off four-time world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Trek – Segafredo in a 13km time trial to the line.

Vanmarcke couldn’t match Sagan or Cancellara at Flanders, but he’s always preferred Roubaix. If Sagan or Cancellara falter, he’ll be ready to pounce.

Sagan has always been better suited to Flanders than Roubaix. He’s never won on the French stones — his best finish was sixth in 2014, and he was 23rd last year — and he’s up against a rider, Cancellara, who knows how to make his own luck at Roubaix.

Luck is the key word here. Roubaix, perhaps more so than any other classic or monument, requires a hefty dose of it. That leaves the race open to lesser favorites with a fortunate day.

That list is long. At its top are two riders from Etixx – Quick-Step. Niki Terpstra knows what Roubaix victory tastes like (he won in 2014) and he rode well last weekend. Zdenek Stybar, the former cyclocross world champion, was second last year and fifth the year before. Etixx teammates Tom Boonen, Matteo Trentin, and Stijn Vandenbergh both showed decent form last weekend and should factor late in the day. Add in Tony Martin and it’s hard to conceive of a more powerful Roubaix squad. There is strength in numbers at Roubaix.

Team Sky arrives with Ian Stannard, a moose of a man who seems purpose-built for Roubaix, as well as Luke Rowe, who sprinted to fifth last weekend. Once again, Sky is one of the strongest teams in the race on paper.

Filling out the list of top favorites are Lars Boom (Astana), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). For more contenders, check out our Paris-Roubaix Power Rankings.

BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet is out with a broken collarbone following a crash at Flanders. American fans should keep an eye out for his teammate Taylor Phinney, who will start his first Roubaix since returning to pro racing.

The pave

The 2016 route extends slightly to 257.5km, and will cover 27 sectors of cobbled pavé.

The first eight sectors cause chaos at the back, but the big names will see their first test at the Arenberg, 162km in. From there on the sectors come thick and fast.

The next key point will be the one-two punch of the long, 3,700-meter Hornaing sector and then 1,700 meters of Warlaing, with just a few kilometers rest between them.

The 3,000 meters of Mons-en-Pevele cobbles earn a five-star rating for the pavé’s brutal inconsistency. With 42km remaining, this sector could be the source of a long-range attack.

Carrefour de l’Arbre is 2,100 meters long and comes 17 kilometers from the finish. Even if a substantial group comes into the Carrefour, it won’t get out together.

News earlier this week that the course may be re-routed around a Troisvilles sector covered in mud set off much consternation (change Roubaix for mud? Really?). But keep in mind that the sector is slightly downhill and, as the first of the day, is hit with incredible speed, and that we’re not talking a bit of mud here, we’re talking inches of the stuff. Organizers will only move the course if a massive crash would be inevitable.

Complete list of the 27 Paris-Roubaix sectors, including links to the Strava segment for each >>