GENT, Belgium (VN) — OK, so everyone wants Tom Boonen to win. Even some of his rivals.
But come Sunday at the start line in Compiègne, there will be dozens of riders quietly hoping for the miracle. Paris-Roubaix is a race that is treacherously difficult to predict. And every few years, a wild-card winner will surprise the favorites. Just ask last year’s victor Mathew Hayman (Orica-Scott).
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“Roubaix is a race that throws up a special winner every few years,” Hayman said. “A lot of riders are able to live off that dream that it might happen to them one day at Roubaix. I am proof of that.”
And that’s why riders keep coming back year after year. As the sport becomes more and more specialized, and with an even larger focus on climbing and power efficiency, the old-school pedal-bashing of Roubaix presents a unique opportunity. It’s a race where luck and risk-taking pay dividends.
On paper, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) join Boonen at the top of the favorite’s list. Behind them, there is a deep second tier of riders who could win if the stars line up. Here are a few names that hope to be the next Stuart O’Grady (2007) or Johan Van Summeren (2011):
Ian Stannard (Sky), 29
Roubaix starts/best: 7/3rd 2016
Stannard fits the bill of the prototypical “outsider” who can win at Roubaix. He’s brawny build makes him a natural to withstand the pavé, and he’s raced enough times to know where he needs to be at critical moments of the race. And his Team Sky, despite monument wins at Milano-Sanremo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, will never be cast as a five-star favorite at Roubaix, meaning he starts with almost no pressure.
What needs to happen: He won’t beat fast men like Degenkolb or Van Avermaet, so he needs to try to get into one of those post-Arenberg moves, and hope to have the legs to hang on when the big guns come up.
Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step), 31
Roubaix starts/best: 4/2nd in 2015
The former cyclocross world champion seems destined for Roubaix victory. In four starts, he finished three times in the top-10, including second to Degenkolb in 2015. Last year, a crash took him out of the running. Even worse was what was looking to be a dramatic debut in 2013, when he and then-teammate Stijn Vandenbergh both crashed out of the front group of four when each struck fans in the Carrefour de l’Arbre in different incidents.
What needs to happen: The fact that it’s Boonen’s last Roubaix could help Stybar and his Quick-Step teammates. Boonen is expected to try to attack relatively early in the race in the attempt to create a smaller group or even ride away alone, so rivals will be marking his every move. It’s not impossible to imagine a similar scenario to 2014, when Quick-Step put three riders into a group of 10, opening the door for Niki Terpstra to attack with 11km to go. Or, Stybar could counter-attack following a few attempts from Boonen. Quick-Step will be riding for the win Sunday, and Stybar will have his chances.
Arnaud Démare (FDJ), 25
Roubaix starts/best: 3/12th in 2014
The 2016 Milano-Sanremo champ is a budding classics specialist who delivered France’s first monument win in nearly two decades. He’s already raced Roubaix three times (last year he crashed out of Flanders and did not start), but it’s obvious Démare is a quick talent with a big motor. In 2014, he won his bunch sprint in the first chase group that came in 27 seconds behind the Boonen/Stybar group. Under the tutelage of two-time Roubaix winner Marc Madiot, the future looks bright for Démare.
What needs to happen: It still might be a bit too early for Démare to follow the decisive surges that will come in the final hour, but if he can hang on, and ride into the velodrome with a large group, he would have a good shot at becoming the first French Roubaix winner since Frédéric Guesdon, who just so happens to be his sport director.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale), 26
Roubaix starts/best: 2/13th in 2016
The 26-year-old Belgian has enjoyed a breakout season, with four promising top-10s, including third at E3 Harelbeke. That has many hoping he can be an heir to Boonen’s cobbles throne. A winner last year of the Bretagne Classic-Ouest-France, Naesen briefly gave up on cycling and worked in a grocery store stocking shelves. His return to racing has been cheered across Flanders, and last year he finished 13th in the Sagan chase group. On Sunday, he enters his third Roubaix hoping for a big result.
What needs to happen: So far this spring, he’s been able to stay with the strongest in the most decisive moments. His crash at Flanders with Sagan and Van Avermaet shouldn’t be a handicap, and he will be intent on following the same heels on Sunday. If he can stay calm, his legs could carry him deep into the action. Perhaps a repeat of the Museeuw-Boonen passing of the torch moment from 2002 could be in the cards.
Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo), 31
Roubaix starts/best: 7/4th in 2015
The former cyclocross star also seems destined for Roubaix greatness. A winner of the thrilling stage across the cobblestones during the 2014 Tour de France, Boom has the build and experience to be a factor Sunday.
What needs to happen: Boom has been discreet so far this spring, caught up in a few crashes at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Flanders. He just missed the podium in 2015, with fourth, and has the motor to follow the moves in the final hour. All he needs is a bit of luck.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), 29
Roubaix starts/best: 5/5th 2016
Remember when people used to call him Eddy B? The Norwegian had the unfortunate luck of being called the “next Eddy Merckx.” Many say his best years at Team Sky were wasted, when the team set him to work in the grand tours, and didn’t give him enough chances to race to win. At Dimension Data, he’s back in a leadership role, and is showing glimpses of the rider who everyone used to call Eddy B.
What needs to happen: Hit the repeat button from last year, when Boasson Hagen survived the decisive final hour of racing in the front group. He slipped off the back to finish fifth, still a career-best. He’s been quiet so far this spring. Maybe that can change Sunday.
Emanol Erviti (Movistar), 33
Roubaix starts/best: 12/9th 2016
When you think cobbles, you don’t think Spain. The Iberian peninsula has produced great bike racers, but most of them are at home in the mountains. There have been a few exceptions, including Juan Antonio Flecha, a three-time Roubaix podium man. Erviti is one of those hard-working domestiques who ride in the trenches for their GC captains at the grand tours, but gets his chances in races like Roubaix. At 33, Erviti is experienced on the cobbles, and has started 41 monuments during his long career.
What needs to happen: Erviti is one of those riders who fits the mold for a Roubaix surprise. Last year, in his 12th Roubaix start, he rode into the top-10 after a steady spring across the cobbles. This year, the team sent him to the Volta a Catalunya to race in the team time trial (Movistar was later penalized), and his only classics start this season was last weekend’s Flanders (87th). To have any chance, he needs to get into an early break, and then hold on as long as he can. If there’s going to be a miracle man Sunday, it will be Erviti.