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It will start the race as a wildcard entry but with a host of experienced riders on its roster and a strong motivation to show itself in the race, MTN Qhubeka is determined to animate the 113th edition of Paris-Roubaix.
CyclingTips spoke to three members of the team on the eve of the start in Compiegne and each of them made clear that the African squad is taking things very seriously indeed.
Former Milan-San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek is one of those who could do well, and knows that with Theo Bos, Matt Goss, Tyler Farrar and others alongside him, the squad will have a strength in depth that many other teams lack.
It’s likely the team will try to fire men up the road early. Matt Brammeier played that role at the Tour of Flanders, winning his weight in beer in an early prime sprint, and said he is keen to knuckle down early again in the French race.
“I will sure be trying,” he said, asked if he would like to get some daylight early on. The multiple Irish champion knows that such a move would earn MTN Qhubeka important TV time and, importantly, removed the team from any obligation or pressure to ride behind.
Farrar wasn’t completely clear on exactly how many times he has ridden the race, but estimates it as likely six editions. He said his clearest memory was when he was part of the Garmin team that won the race in 2011 thanks to a lone break by then-teammate Johan Van Summeren. “It was amazing,” he stated. “That day we just nailed it.”
Four years later he’s back again and ready to once again be part of a group of outsiders aiming for the top prize.
“I think we will look with MTN Qhubeka to ride an aggressive race again tomorrow and to try to play our cards as best we can,” he stated.
“We will try to put our guys in moves if it’s possible. Losing Edvald [Boasson Hagen, now injured] two weeks ago was a big blow for us. He was our main guy for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But we have had to scramble around and make a plan B.
“We do have a deep team. We have strong guys and if they can get in the right moves and be in position when the real race happens [it will be important]. We have guys who can go very deep into the final.”
Along with Goss, Ciolek is a past winner of Milan-San Remo and knows what it is like to take a Monument. His fast sprint means he will be a big threat if he is there at the finish, either in a break or a lead group of favourites, although he said that he is not naturally comfortable on the pavé.
“I am not feeling really great on the cobblestones,” he admitted. “Everybody feels better on normal roads, but sometimes I have problems to find the right rhythm on cobblestones. So it is not that easy for me.”
He added that the team would explore several options rather than having one protected rider.
Ciolek spoke to CyclingTips prior to the Tour of Flanders and he said then that he hoped he would ride well there. Things didn’t turn out as planned, but he is hoping it is just an isolated incident.
“I actually don’t know [what happened]. My condition was good. I think it just looks like Flanders is not my favourite race,” the German said.
He has only done Paris-Roubaix once before but, given his past successes plus the collective strength of the team, can’t be dismissed as a possible outside contender. Ditto for the other riders on MTN Qhubeka, who are psyched to do something big in the race.