Preview: Your guide to the 2018 Paris-Roubaix

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It’s time for arguably the biggest one-day race of them all: Paris-Roubaix. Few races capture the imagination like “The Hell of the North”, a brutal slog across the battered farm roads of northern France that’s normally one of the biggest spectacles of the season.

Ahead of Sunday’s 116th edition of Paris-Roubaix, we’ve pulled together all the information you need before settling in to watch this legendary race unfold.

The course

From Compiegne just north of Paris to Roubaix in France’s northern reaches, the 2018 Paris-Roubaix covers a total of 257km. That’s the same distance as last year, but the course isn’t exactly the same as in 2017 (more on that in a moment).

Paris-Roubaix is the flattest of the five Monuments and, in fact, one of the flattest races on the calendar. The difficulty of Paris-Roubaix doesn’t come from climbs like at the Tour of Flanders, but rather from rough sections of cobblestoned farm roads that are spread throughout the route.

2018 Paris-Roubaix profile

The cobbles

In all there are 29 cobblestone sectors in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix for a total of 54.5km of “pave”. The first sector comes after 93.5km — making for a rather easy start to the race — and the last is just 1km from the finish line inside the Roubaix velodrome. The shortest sector is 700 metres long while the longest is 3.7km.

As usual the sectors are numbered, with riders tackling them in reverse order. While there are a few new sectors and a few other changes in the early sectors (from 28 to 24) the final 23 sectors are the same as last year.

As ever, race organiser ASO has given each sector a difficulty rating from one to five stars. Just three sectors have earned the maximum five-star rating, and they’ll each be familiar to you if you’ve ever watched Paris-Roubaix in the past.

The Trouee d’Arenberg (#19): Starts with 95km to go, 2.4km long. This is the most famous section of cobblestones in the race and indeed in the world of cycling. As the cliche goes, the race can’t be won here, but it can be lost. Riders rattle through here at ridiculous speed and positioning is crucial.

Mons-en-Pevele (#11): Starts with 48.5km to go, 3km long. Also normally too far from the finish to have a massive impact, but its difficulty does make it a good place to try and split the field.

Carrefour de l’Arbre (#4): Starts with 17km to go, 2.1km long. The final five-star sector and one that’s only followed by one-, two- and three-star sectors. An excellent launch-pad for a late move or an increase in the pace.

The infamous Trouee d’Arenberg.

The race

Paris-Roubaix is as chaotic as bike races come. Positioning is crucial before and during the cobblestone sectors, and there aren’t many smooth lines on narrow farm roads meant for tractors. Crashes and mechanicals are a frequent occurrence, and riders need their fair share of luck for a good result at Roubaix.

The lack of climbing means Paris-Roubaix is a race suited to the true powerhouses of the sport — the slightly heavier riders that often suffer when the road tilts up, but whose raw power serves them well on the unforgiving pave.

The brutal nature of the course means Paris-Roubaix is the very definition of a race of attrition. And that’s reflected on the results sheet — it’s a race that’s normally won in a small group or by a solo rider.

In fact, here’s how the past 10 editions of Paris-Roubaix break down:

– Five have been won solo (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014)
– One each has been won from a group of two (2013), three (2008), four (2016), five (2017) and six (2015) riders.

Tom Boonen won the 2012 Paris-Roubaix with a 55km solo effort.

A similar result is the most likely outcome on Sunday. There’ll be an early break that gets up the road and that slowly dwindles in number as the finish approaches. There’ll be many attacks in the last 50-100km, particularly in the final cobblestone sectors.

As Mat Hayman showed in 2016, it’s possible to win from the breakaway — you just need to be strong enough to go with the favourites when they sweep up the leaders. But that’s somewhat unlikely — look to groups formed late in proceedings when the favourites come out to play, and also to late solo attacks. This is how the race is likely to be won.

The contenders

So who are the favourites? There’s no one stand-out, but there are plenty in the conversation. For a start, it’s hard to go past QuickStep Floors. Where most teams have one or maybe two would-be contenders, QuickStep arguably has four.

Niki Terpstra (QuickStep Floors)

The Dutchman’s form is undeniable. He soloed to victory at E3 Harelbeke a week ago, did the same at the Tour of Flanders last Sunday, and won Le Samyn in similar fashion a month or so back. He’s also a former winner — he took out the 2014 edition with a late solo attack from a group of favourites.

Seeing a trend here? Terpstra likes going it alone. And if he tries to late on Sunday, and gets a gap, he will be hard to stop.

A recap of Terpstra’s 2014 Roubaix win.

Zdenek Stybar (QuickStep Floors)

This three-time world cyclocross champion has been posting top-10 results all over the place this spring: seventh at Strade Bianche, ninth at E3 Harelbeke, eighth at Gent-Wevelgem, sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen, 10th at the Tour of Flanders … The Czech has been one of the most consistent Classics riders so far this year, but hasn’t hit the winners list yet. That could change on Sunday.

Roubaix is a race that suits Stybar to a tee, and his results show that. Second last year, second in 2015, fifth in 2014, sixth in 2013 (which would have been a podium were it not for a late crash that wasn’t his fault – see 3:17 in this video). Stybar’s Roubaix results, and likewise his recent performances, are the very definition of “knocking on the door” …

Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors)

Somewhat surprisingly, “PhilGil” has only raced Roubaix once before, in 2007 when he finished 52nd. But now that he’s made it a mission to win all five Monuments, he’s back at Roubaix and in with a genuine shot.

Like his teammate Stybar, Gilbert is showing great form. He was second at E3 Harelbeke, third at the Tour of Flanders, second at Le Samyn, fifth at Omloop het Nieuwsblad — another impressive spring. It’s not worth nothing that last year’s winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has endorsed Gilbert as a real contender, either.

Gilbert has the ability to go it alone or to win a sprint from a small group. Handy.

2018 Tour of Flanders
Gilbert has shown good form so far this season, including third at the Tour of Flanders.

Yves Lampaert (QuickStep Floors)

The least-heralded of the QuickStep quartet but a dangerous rider nonetheless. He was seventh on debut at Roubaix back in 2015, and recently won Dwars door Vlaanderen (for the second year running). Lampaert may play more of a supporting role on Sunday but if given his chance, he’s a genuine contender.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)

Few were surprised when Van Avermaet won last year’s Paris-Roubaix. He’d had a ridiculous spring to that point, with wins at Omloop Het Nieuwslbad, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, and second at the Tour of Flanders. He’s had a comparatively modest Classics period this year — fifth at Flanders, eighth at Dwars door Vlaanderen, third at E3 Harelbeke — but is certainly among the biggest threats for Sunday.

Van Avermaet has a great sprint from a small group at the end of long, hard races and he’s able to fight his way into (or create) the moves that matter. It would be little surprise if he became the first back-to-back Roubaix winner since his compatriot Tom Boonen in 2008/9.

Van Avermaet outsprinted Stybar and others to win last year’s edition.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

The three-time world champion is on the favourites list for any Spring Classic he starts, but Paris-Roubaix probably suits him a little less than races like the Tour of Flanders. His best at ‘L’Enfer du Nord’ is sixth, back in 2014, and he only has one other result in the top 20 (he had two untimely punctures which scuppered his chances last year.)

All that said, it would be no surprise to see Sagan win on Sunday. He’s one of the best in the world from a small group sprint, he’s happy to go it alone if he needs to, and crucially for Roubaix, he’s one of the best bike-handlers on the planet (seriously — it still doesn’t make sense how he avoided this crash in the 2016 edition).

Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)

Stuyven made it it into the winning group last year but had to settle for fourth. It would hardly be a shock to see him on the podium, and possibly the top step, this time around.

As with others mentioned above, the Belgian has had an impressively consistent Classics campaign thus far: fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 10th at Milan-San Remo, sixth at E3 Harelbeke, ninth at Gent-Wevelgem, 10th at Dwars door Vlaanderen and seventh at the Tour of Flanders. His best chance of victory is probably a late escape, a technique he’s used to great effect in the past.

Stuyven is at his best when attacking alone.

John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo)

If Stuven can’t get away, Degenkolb might be Trek-Segafredo’s best option. Degenkolb has a great kick on him and won the 2015 edition from a small group. He also won the bunch kick for second in 2014, behind lone winner Terpstra.

Despite winning his first two races of the year, Degenkolb has been a little off the boil in the Classics so far. But anything can happen at Roubaix …

Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates)

Speaking of past Monument winners that are slightly off their best, Alexander Kristoff shouldn’t be ruled out. He’s been top-10 at Roubaix twice — ninth in 2013 and 10th in 2015 — and would be a formidable opponent if he reaches the velodrome with the lead group.

Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac)

It’s unfortunate that Vanmarcke’s Classics career is one defined by near misses. He’s a phenomenal bike rider, but one that hasn’t quite managed to take the big win he’s been close to on so many occasions.

His Roubaix results are impressive — second in 2013 behind Fabian Cancellara, fourth in 2014, fourth again in 2016 — and he’s shown great form in recent weeks — third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, seventh at E3 Harelbeke, third at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Hopefully that will translate to success on Sunday. If he can find a way to get away late and hold on for victory, it would be a very popular win.

Vanmarcke in action at last week’s Tour of Flanders, with Peter Sagan in tow.

The dark horses

Of course, bike racing is inherently unpredictable and the favourites don’t always come through. That’s particularly true at a race as chaotic as Paris-Roubaix where crashes and mechanicals rule the day. Here then are a few outsiders that, if everything goes their way, could take home the cobblestone trophy on Sunday evening.

Wout van Aert (Vérandas Willems-Crelan)

Van Aert has been one of the revelations of the spring. The three-time cyclocross world champion was third at Strade Bianche, 10th at Gent-Wevelgem and ninth on debut at the Tour of Flanders last week. It would be little surprise to see the 23-year-old produce another great result at Roubaix.

Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)

Pedersen finished second at last week’s Tour of Flanders on debut — a stellar effort for a 22-year-old. He showed great tenacity in battling on when Terpstra passed him, and held off the chasing bunch for a terrific result. The Dane has bags of talent and a huge future ahead of him. Stuyven and Degenkolb will likely lead the team on Sunday but don’t be surprised if Pedersen features late.

Pedersen (right) with teammate Jasper Stuyven (seventh) after the finish of Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.

More than half of Team Sky

Sky doesn’t start Roubaix with a massive favourite but it does have four riders who have posted top-10 finishes in the past and who are capable of a good result again on Sunday. Ian Stannard was third in 2016, Gianni Moscon was fifth last year, Geraint Thomas was seventh in 2014 (and won the junior Paris-Roubaix in 2004) and Luke Rowe was eighth in 2015. Don’t rule out Dylan van Baarle either. He finished in the top 20 the past two editions and has shown some good form this spring.

Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data)

The 30-year-old Norwegian was fifth in 2016 and has shown promising signs in recent weeks, including a fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First-Drapac)

Langeveld has been a solid performer at Roubaix in the past, with third last year, seventh in 2013 and eighth in 2014. He’ll likely play second fiddle to Vanmarcke on Sunday but is a dangerous option if he can get up the road (like he did at Flanders last week).

Matteo Trentin and Mat Hayman (Mitchelton-Scott)

Trentin still seems to be finding his feet at Mitchelton-Scott and hasn’t been amazing at Roubaix in the past (his best is 36th). But if everything lines up for him and he can get in a small group at the finish, beware his powerful kick.

Hayman’s win in 2016 was one of the great cycling victories in recent memory and an unforgettable highlight for an Australian cycling fan (see video below). He’ll need a lot to go his way to repeat that performance on Sunday, but there’s no doubt he’s capable of doing so.

Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida)

Speaking of experienced Aussies who love this race, Heinrich Haussler has finished sixth on two occasions (2009 and 2016) and has been in good form since coming back from his long-term knee injury. He could well have a role to play on Sunday.

Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale)

The Belgian champion has had a good spring, finishing fourth at E3 Harelbeke, sixth at Gent-Wevelgem and 11th at the Tour of Flanders. He finished 13th in 2016 and could be a real threat if the opportunity presents itself.

The sprinters

It’s unlikely, but there’s a small chance a lead group of a decent size could reach the Roubaix velodrome on Sunday. If that’s the case, look out for Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ), who was sixth last year and possibly Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo).

The weather

Many cycling fans will be hoping for rain on Sunday, to make an already brutal race into something truly memorable. It’s been 16 years since the last muddy Roubaix — Johan Museeuw won solo by more than three minutes that day in 2002 — and it looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer for the next wet edition.

There are a couple of showers forecast for Sunday, but not enough — and not enough in the lead-up — to turn the dusty cobbles into rocky mudbaths. That said, a few of the sectors are already covered in thick mud in the days leading up to the race …

There’s not likely to be much wind to speak of either, and the temparature is set to be a relatively warm 19ºC. Great conditions for bike racing.

The coverage

Fans in Australia will be able to catch the race live on SBS Viceland and streaming online through SBS Cycling Central. Both start at 9:30pm AEST.

US viewers will be able to get livestreaming via the NBC Sport Gold app from 3:55am ET. Eurosport has coverage in the UK and Europe. As ever, check your local guides (and for details.

If you’re going to follow the race on Twitter, note that the official hashtag is #ParisRoubaix.

Who’s your pick for the 116th Paris-Roubaix? And how will they win it?

Follow the link for a startlist for the 2018 Paris-Roubaix. We’d love to be able to link to a preview of the women’s Paris-Roubaix here, but sadly no such race exists. Can we all agree that a women’s Paris-Roubaix would be amazing and that it’s time for it to happen?

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