Cancellara and Vanmarcke: last year's winner and runner-up.

Paris-Roubaix preview

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It’s time for the last big cobblestone Classic of 2015: Paris-Roubaix. ‘The Hell of the North’ always offers a magnificent show and this year’s race is very open. We can expect a great fight on the pave en route to the famous velodrome in Roubaix. Mikkel Conde put together this preview of the course and the riders to watch.


The route

Compared to last year’s course, there have been a few minor changes, which leaves us with 52.7km of the race’s 253km on cobblestones. This is 1.6km more than in 2014. In many ways, this course is pretty much identical to the one the riders did in 2013.

As always, the first of the 27 pave sections is Troisvilles after just under 100km on the bike. Stage 4 of this year’s Tour de France will include three of the pave sections the riders tackle on Sunday: Quiévy (after 107.5km; 3,700m long), Saint-Python (112.5 km; 1,500m) and Verchain-Maugré (130km; 1,600m).

PROFIL

Usually, the first big selections come on the infamous cobblestones in the Arenberg forest. This is one of the most difficult sections in the race. Here, many have seen their chances of success disappear due to crashes or ill-timed mechanical problems. The peloton is stretched out so far that it can take minutes before you’ll get a new wheel or a spare bike.

The next crucial pave section is Mons-en-Pévèle, starting with 49km to go. The following three kilometres will have a big impact on who’s going to win this race. A cycling cliché says ‘you can’t win the race here but you can lose it’. Actually, you can win Paris-Roubaix on Mons-en-Pévèle.

In 2012, Tom Boonen took matters into his own hands and soloed away from everybody else just before this section. Nobody came even close to him afterwards and Boonen ended up winning by more than 90 seconds. It would take an extraordinary performance for someone to repeat Boonen’s masterpiece but it’s definitely not impossible.

https://youtu.be/7w7PtKPfLlY?t=55m

After Camphin-en-Pévèle, Carrefour de l’Arbre is the last difficult pave section of the race. This is the final chance for the cobblestone specialists to put pressure on their rivals. If you don’t make a gap here, you either have to pack a good sprint or do like Niki Terpstra did last year, and attack while the other riders are looking at each other in the last kilometres.

The riders enter the velodrome in Roubaix soon after passing under the last-kilometre banner. Here, they’ll cross the finishing line once as they take on the final 500 metres of the race.

The favourites

Just like at the Tour of Flanders last week, the lack of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara means this will be a very open race. The list of candidates is long.

Everybody is talking about Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). He was outstanding last Sunday and after winning Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, he now hopes to complete his hat-trick at Paris-Roubaix. This is a big goal for the Norwegian but he also knows that he needs to be having a very good day in order to win.

Even though Kristoff is a big and powerful rider, he might actually be better on the steep hills in Flanders than on the cobblestones at high speed. He won’t be far from the best though. The other favourites need to drop Kristoff before the sprint if they want a chance to win. If they bring him to the velodrome in Roubaix, it’s game over.

Alexander Kristoff is in career-best form having won a staggering six races in nine days.

My personal favourite for Paris-Roubaix this year is Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step). He was my prime pick for Ronde van Vlaanderen but never really got a chance to prove himself. Having Terpstra up front, Stybar couldn’t attack. I’m sure he’s very eager finally to get in the action this time. In 2013, the Czech champion was a part of the elite group of four fighting for the win. Unfortunately he got taken out by a spectator on Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Last year, Stybar covered all the dangerous moves by the favourites and finished fifth. This terrain clearly suits him. He’s fast on the line and not afraid of attacking. Unless he gets caught up in internal tactics, crashes or mechanical incidents, I’m certain we will see Zdenek Stybar fighting for the win come Sunday.

The same goes for Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo). He had a surprisingly poor day on the bike last Sunday. It’s very rare that we see one of the top favourites simply not being able to follow the main group on the climbs. Hopefully for the young Belgian this was just an off day. Vanmarcke has shown he’s in good shape and he loves the cobblestones.

The weather forecast shows dry and sunny conditions this Sunday. Vanmarcke is probably the only rider wishing it had been wet and muddy. Few can handle their bike on the pave sections like he can. Last year, he was one of the strongest riders on the cobblestones. If he has been able to recover after the disappointing performance in Ronde van Vlaanderen, he can do some real damage at Paris-Roubaix.

Sep Vanmarcke during a Paris-Roubaix recon ride with his team.
Sep Vanmarcke during a Paris-Roubaix recon ride with his team.

John Degenkolb has already had a great Classics season. He won Milan-San Remo and proved to be very strong in Ronde van Vlaanderen. The way I see it, Paris-Roubaix suits the German much better than Flanders does. Degenkolb was very impressive on the pave sections last year. He seems to be much stronger now and I would be very surprised not to see him up front in the final.

Naturally, due to his fast finish, nobody wants to arrive at the velodrome with John Degenkolb (he won the sprint for second last year). However, like we saw last Sunday, we might get a situation where just finishing on the podium is enough for some riders. Even though they can’t beat Degenkolb in a sprint, they might be satisfied with taking second or third place.

The outsiders

The most talked-about rider for this year’s Paris-Roubaix is without a doubt Bradley Wiggins (Sky). This is the last big road race in his career. As is customary at Team Sky, nothing is left to fate. Wiggins has timed all the pave sections and the bits in between. He knows exactly how many minutes they take and how big of an effort they require. Few in this sport can set themselves up to reach a goal like Wiggins. When he’s in the zone, he almost always comes out on top.

Paris-Roubaix is his childhood dream race. Bradley Wiggins knows that if he wins this Sunday, he’ll become one of the greatest riders in the history of the sport. However, it won’t be easy! Last year, Wiggins had problems keeping up with the best riders on the cobblestones. He needs to solo away in order to win. Due to his magnificent time trial abilities, the other riders know they can’t get let him get a small gap.

I think it will be very difficult for Wiggins to win this race but I definitely won’t be surprised if he ends on top of the podium Sunday afternoon. What a story that would be!

Riders like Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Greg van Avermaet (BMC) are also on the long list of strong candidates to win this race. Terpstra did it last year after a well-timed solo attack in the final. He proved to be in great shape in Ronde van Vlaanderen. If he sees an opportunity to attack, I’m sure he won’t hesitate for a second.

Van Avermaet crashed at a crucial point last year and lost his chances of winning. He too is in excellent shape right now and mustn’t be underestimate this Sunday. Neither must Sagan. He’s very strong and very fast. However, he does seem to lack a little power at the end of the long races.

My personal outsider is Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr). The French champion is much better in these Classics than people tend to give him credit for. Last year he finished 12th which proves he knows how to tackle the pave sections. He has a lot of raw power and, as a sprinter, he’s very fast on the line.

Démare may not be able to follow the very best riders when they go hard on the pave sections but I don’t think he’ll be far off. He’s not as fast as Kristoff and Degenkolb but after 253.5km on the bike, many things can happen. The last French winner of Paris-Roubaix was Frédéric Guesdon, 18 years ago. The Frenchman is now directeur sportif at FDJ.fr and Arnaud Démare couldn’t ask for a better man to have in the car during the race.

French national champion Arnaud Demare during last weekend's Tour of Flanders.
French national champion Arnaud Demare during last weekend’s Tour of Flanders.

For other strong riders who should be able to do very well look to Geraint Thomas (Sky), Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-Quick-Step), Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), Daniel Oss (BMC) and Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) who proved to be very strong last Sunday.

And don’t forget Lars Boom (Astana). He seems to have timed his shape perfectly. The Dutchman did very well in Ronde van Vlaanderen and he has been close to making the podium at Paris-Roubaix in the past. He always rides aggressively, which may pay off in such an open race as we have this year.

Watching the race

Australian fans can catch Paris-Roubaix live on SBS TV and streaming online from 9.30pm AEST. Foxtel subscribers can watch the race live on Eurosport (channel 511) from 8.45pm AEST. For fans outside of Australia, be sure to check your local guides.

To join the conversation on Twitter, be sure to follow the #ParisRoubaix hashtag.

To read more of Mikkel Conde’s previews and other articles, be sure to visit his website: C-Cycling.

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