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by Shane Stokes
April 12, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos, Kristof Ramon
There can be only one: it’s a tagline that was used in the 1986 film Highlander but is perhaps equally applicable to Paris-Roubaix.
In that movie, the central plot was that all the immortals must fight and kill one another, with the final one left winning what was entitled ‘The Prize.’
Substitute beheading for defeating by bike and The Prize for the famed Pavé cobblestone trophy and you can see a parallel with the big spring Classic; the battles will rage but, finally, just one rider will take away the title.
Granted, likening the movie to the race might be a shade OTT, but the difference between winning and netting second, or less than that, is massive.
When it comes to sporting immortality in Roubaix, there can indeed be only one.
Several of those who will be in the running gave their thoughts on the eve of the race.
Arguably the biggest favourite is Alexander Kristoff, the Norwegian rider who has won 11 races thus far this season, including last weekend’s Tour of Flanders and Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs.
He has a best finish of ninth in 2013 but is nevertheless being spoken about as the 2015 Paris-Roubaix champion.
“I believe I can win, but I think I must have a very good day and not bad luck,” he said at the presentation of teams on Saturday afternoon in Compiegne. “I don’t necessarily need good luck but I don’t think I need bad luck.
“I think if I get into any sort of trouble, it will be difficult for me. But of course if I can be there in the first group in the velodrome, I still can sprint, I think.”
Asked by CyclingTips if the velodrome finish could complicate things, he said that he didn’t think so. “Not really,” he answered. “I have not really raced on the track but I did it sometimes in training when I was young. The velodrome is not very steep so it should be okay.”
Interestingly, another race favourite John Degenkolb also dismissed any suggestion that the track could affect the final result. He said that he believed he could get the better of Kristoff if both of them arrived there in a group.
“Why should I be not confident?” he told CyclingTips in a long interview. “I don’t think that my shape is worse than in San Remo. We are all road cyclists and I don’t think… I have also got track experience from the beginning of my career, so I don’t think that this would give me a disadvantage in a sprint, just to be in a velodrome.”
Kristoff didn’t appear particularly nervous about the race. Indeed his team told CyclingTips that he seldom feels pressure and didn’t have the burden of expectation on his shoulders.
He also doesn’t appear worried that the last time he raced on a similar parcours he hit the deck and was forced to stop.
“I did it last year in the Tour and it was quite…I did not even make it to the cobbles before I crashed out of the race, actually. It was quite difficult [in the wet],” he said, expressing a slight preference for dry weather.
“If it is raining, it is a bit different, maybe. A little bit slower. No necessarily worse for me, normally I am okay in the rain also.”
He also fell in the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, but hopes to avoid any such mishaps today.
Kristoff confirmed that his Katusha team would try to help control the race but pointed out that other teams also had a responsibility to do that. He named Etixx-QuickStep as his big favourites, and also said that Sky would be a factor.
Greg Van Avermaet finished third in the Tour of Flanders and is another who is regarded as one of the main contenders. “For me Flanders was the big goal and Roubaix is just the week after,” he said. “I still have the shape.
“I think Flanders suits me a little bit more than Roubaix but I am confident I can do the same here also. I had good training on Wednesday and I was feeling really good. I am really confident that I can do a good race on Sunday.”
Van Avermaet doesn’t have as fast a finish as Kristoff or Degenkolb, although he did manage to distance Peter Sagan by going long in the finale of the Tour of Flanders.
He said that he would decide his tactics depending on how the race plays out, but accepted that being aggressive would likely suit him best.
“We will see. I will try again to open up the race, maybe. Not too early,” he stated. “I will try to do an attack if it is possible, but it is hard to say now where it is going to be. I am an aggressive rider and I will stay like this.
“The ideal is getting to the finish with a small group, without the fastest guys there. It is always a hard race for me and in the end I am always dead, so we will see how it goes. I hope to be as fresh as possible at the finish and the last cobblestone section. Then it will be okay.”
What’s important for him is not to bring the Tour of Flanders winner to the line; last Sunday showed how that ends up, with Niki Terpstra being the rider on that occasion who had to play second fiddle in the gallop to the line.
Seven days later, he is determined that he doesn’t find himself in the same position.
“There is only one tactic to beat Kristoff, I think…to get rid of him and not go with him to the sprint,” he said. “I was already surprised that he was so good at Flanders because he did a lot of races. He won also on Wednesday in Scheldeprijs.
“I hope he is tired and he is not as good anymore as last Sunday. That is the only way to get rid of him.”
One factor which could help is that there is less room to hide in Roubaix. Granted, Kristoff was one of the very strongest riders last weekend, but if he is lacking anything in his legs Van Avermaet will know that it may be possible to distance him.
“For me, Roubaix is always one of the hardest races of the year,” he said, noting the gruelling nature of the event.
“It is always nice to be here but at the finish I am always tired and I am happy when it is over. Like I said, it is one of the hardest races, but it is a race that also fits me and I will go to try for the best and try to go for the win.”
Stijn Devolder is a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders and, in the absence of an injured Fabian Cancellara, will lead the Trek Factory Racing team in Paris-Roubaix. He was seventh back in 2008, had several quiet years but now appears to have returned to form with the American WorldTour squad.
“It is one of the hardest races of the year, together with the Tour of Flanders,” he said. “We are also waiting to see what the weather will give. But it will be a hard race for sure.
“Since Flanders I tried to recover as much as possible. Then we did the race on Wednesday in Belgium [Scheldeprijs] to keep the body in good shape. Otherwise I’ve been trying to rest as much as possible….having a lot of carbs and reloading the body for tomorrow.”
Like many of the others, he noted Kristoff’s strength. “I thought we had a tactic to beat him last week but he is too strong for us at the moment!” he admitted. “He is again the main favourite tomorrow for the win. After that there are a lot of good riders. Maybe one day we will beat him. I hope it will be tomorrow.
“The first thing I have to see is how Kristoff is,” he continued, talking about how he and the team might approach the race. “He was very good in the last races and I think he will be also tomorrow. But after that a lot of other good riders and everybody is thinking the same.
“We are speculating a little bit too much, I think. But maybe tomorrow we should attack a little bit earlier and not be scared to race.”
Sky’s Geraint Thomas will in part be trying to help his team-mate Bradley Wiggins win his final race with the squad. However if Wiggins is found wanting, or if crashes or tactics put Thomas ahead of him, he will be ready to play his card.
He too noted Kristoff is a danger. “As he showed, he went away with 25 kilometres to go in Flanders. He has got an engine as well, he is not just a sprinter.
“I don’t think getting rid of him is just down to us. I think that is just the race. If we went out there just with that plan, we would come unstuck and somebody else would win anyway. We just have to think about ourselves and not get hung up with one or two riders.”
Lars Boom is also a contender and has taken encouragement by how the Tour of Flanders went for him. “The form is good, especially after last Sunday’s sixth place,” he said. “It gives me more confidence for Paris-Roubaix. I will try to be on the podium.”
Boom won the cobblestoned stage in last year’s Tour de France, dominating over many of the same roads, and wants to try to repeat that success today.
Another seeking to recreate past glory is Johan Vansummeren, who won Paris-Roubaix with the Garmin team back in 2011.
Now with the Ag2r La Mondiale squad, he was feeling good about his shape yesterday. “My form is really good. It is right where it needs to be,” he told CyclingTips.
When he lifted the pavé trophy, he did so by getting clear early on and then attacking while the favourites watched each other behind. Would he seek to employ the same tactics this time around?
“We will see how it goes in the race,” he answered, perhaps not wanting to give away his game plan. “There are thousands of possibilities. Everybody is making things they want to do before the race. But sometimes it doesn’t work like that.”
Those words are certainly true; everyone can draw up an ideal scenario for themselves beforehand, but the tactics, crashes, punctures and general mayhem of Paris-Roubaix are legendary.
Many who take the start in Compiege will picture themselves standing atop the podium but, as with a certain cult movie, there can be only one.