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Team CSC says Cancellara is their Roubaix leader

Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara has been promised the unwavering support of his CSC team as they go into battle for a third consecutive Paris-Roubaix crown on Sunday. CSC ride into the 259.5km cobblestoned classic, known ominously as the 'Hell of the North', as the favourites having won the past two years through Cancellara in 2006 and defending champion Stuart O'Grady.

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The team has the luxury of two former winners on its squad

By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse

Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara has been promised the unwavering support of his CSC team as they go into battle for a third consecutive Paris-Roubaix crown on Sunday.

CSC ride into the 259.5km cobblestoned classic, known ominously as the ‘Hell of the North’, as the favourites having won the past two years through Cancellara in 2006 and defending champion Stuart O’Grady.

O’Grady was the first Australian to triumph in the Roubaix velodrome last year but has virtually ruled himself out of contention as he continues his steady rise to form following a serious crash at last year’s Tour de France.

“If I win tomorrow, it will be a miracle,” said O’Grady, whose bid will be further compromised by his dislike of the forecasted rain and cold temperatures that threaten to make the 28 cobblestone sectors even more treacherous.

However the veteran Aussie will be key among an apparently solid team dedicated to taking Cancellara past as many of those sectors as possible before he launches a trademark burst for the finish line.

CSC manager Scott Sunderland points to 2005 winner Tom Boonen, his fellow Belgian Leif Hoste and Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha as their main rivals.

But he believes his outfit, on paper, has the recipe for success.

“Fabian will be our undisputed team leader, but we also have a few other cards to play in the race,” said Sunderland, who has experience on the race both as a winning manager, and as a member of the Alessio team when Sweden’s Magnus Backstedt won in 2004.

“They’re well-drilled, communicate well and they have so much experience of racing together. They know what needs to be done.”

Cancellara has waved away the significance of his 23rd place finish at last week’s much hillier Tour of Flanders, which led to some, including Boonen, to suggest the Swiss had lost some of the early season form which brought him success at Milan-San Remo.

“It doesn’t matter what some people think about what kind of form I have after Flanders,” said Cancellara.

“I am feeling 100 percent more confident than last week, and I’m more than ready for Paris-Roubaix.”

Cancellara’s words carry even more weight as, physically, he is more suited to Roubaix than Flanders, where lighter riders who can climb and also handle the cobbles usually come out on top.

As Boonen continues his search for that first elusive big win of the season, Cancellara reminded the Belgian: “This is the last chance in these kind of classics for a lot of big riders, the pressure is on them.”

With rain and cold temperatures set to make an unwelcome appearance, the race to the Roubaix velodrome could become one of attrition that could annul the pre-race hopes of even the strongest.

“If it’s wet on Sunday, it will be a totally different race, a different sport even,” said O’Grady, who abandoned in Flanders when cold, rain, snow and a couple of punctures took their toll on the sun-loving Aussie.

Even more difficult cobblestones, of which there are 28 sectors on the road to Roubaix totaling 52.8 km, from the ones in Flanders will be the contenders’ biggest enemy.

On the other hand, luck will be their biggest friend.

Rabobank’s Flecha is bidding to give Spain its first win, having finished second behind O’Grady last year, and third last week in Flanders.

Having also finished fourth and third in Roubaix in past editions, Flecha is an odds-on favorite — but he believes you simply can’t take form, past or present, as a good indicator.

“You never win Paris-Roubaix by luck alone, but you can’t just go on the rampage on the cobblestones without keeping your wits about you. In this race, anything can happen.”