The peloton at Paris-Roubaix in 2019.

Preview: What you need to know about the men’s Paris-Roubaix

Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and plenty of other big names will be in action on the pavé on Sunday.

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Nearly two and a half years since the last time the peloton traversed its iconic cobbled roads in northern France, Paris-Roubaix returns this weekend. Saturday will see the first women’s edition of the race in the event’s long history, and then Sunday will crown a new men’s champion.

As if the always entertaining parcours and the lengthy buildup to the racing didn’t offer the promise of enough drama, the weather forecast is calling for rain and wind this weekend. Whatever unfolds on the way from Compiègne to the Roubaix velodrome, you won’t want to miss the action.

Assuming you’ve already checked out the excellent preview that Abby Mickey cobbled together for Saturday’s women’s event, here’s what you need to know about the men’s race on Sunday …

The Route

The men’s race at the 2021 edition of Paris-Roubaix will cover 257.7 km in full. Riders will start in Compiègne, a small city to the north of Paris that is home to a massive chateau that was used a summer home for the French monarchy for generations. From there, the peloton will head north, and will ride through the French countryside on gentle roads for 96.3 km before arriving at the first of the 30 cobbled sectors, which are numbered from 30 (the first section) to 1 (the final section).

The peloton will not take on the most difficult cobbled sections right away, but they won’t exactly be easing into things either, with the first four cobbled sectors coming in quick succession, and the third of those being rated four out of five on the difficulty scale. Still, don’t expect any race-winning moves just yet.

After 10 cobbled sectors and 162.4 km, the pack will arrive at the Trouée d’Arenberg, where the action traditionally really begins to heat up. A 2.3 km stretch of five-star difficulty cobbles, the Trouée d’Arenberg runs through a dense forest that can feel claustrophobic. While it’s still quite far out, the section often sees drama, whether in the form of crashes or in bold long-range moves that do, occasionally, work out.

The Wallers à Hélesmes section that follows is not easy, but then there is at least a brief respite before the quite difficult (and lengthy) Hornaing à Wandignies sector. Following another short break from the cobbles is the Warlaing à Brillon sector, after which the pack the pack will be halfway done with the 30 cobbled sectors – but really just getting into a brutal final 70 km of racing.

The riders will take on four more sectors, all of them moderately difficult or harder, before arriving at the second five-star cobbled stretch at Mons-en-Pévèle. It’s 3 km length and is often a springboard for big surges, with less 50 km to go from there to the finish. Then, after six more cobbled sectors comes the four-star Camphin-en-Pévèle, which is quickly followed by the final five-star section, the Carrefour de l’Arbre. The especially technical 2.1 km stretch that comes less than 20 km from the finish is an ideal place for a big attack.

From there, the pack will cover three final cobbled sectors before arriving at the Roubaix velodrome, where, after bouncing around on cobblestones all day, riders will take on one and a half laps of racing on the smooth track surface to close out the race.

The many challenges of Paris-Roubaix are set to be seriously augmented by the weather. For the first time in nearly two decades, the race seems likely to be a wet one, with rain particularly likely in the morning on Sunday. And even if the precipitation situation changes over the course of the day, the winds are also expected to be high. In short, bike handling will be at a premium on Sunday as riders slog through muddy roads on lumpy terrain while buffeted by winds.

The Favorites

Traditionally, races like E3 and Gent-Wevelgem and then the Tour of Flanders give us a good idea of who is in form for Paris-Roubaix. The rescheduling of the French one-day from its traditional date in the French spring to October has changed things. Instead of the Flemish Classics, it is variety of events in early September and then the World Championships that are our main source of info on who is looking good now, and at the same time, it is October after all, and we don’t usually have to factor fatigue at the end of the long cycling season into Paris-Roubaix analysis.

In other words, an already unpredictable race seems even more unpredictable this year.

Wout Van Aert recons the Roubaix cobbles ahead of the race.

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) is the bookies’ favorite for Paris-Roubaix, and deservedly so. Despite a disappointing Worlds road race, where his Belgian team didn’t even land on the podium despite starting with the pre-race favorite, Van Aert certainly looked to be in form when he won the Tour of Britain in impressive fashion and rode to second in the Worlds time trial. Van Aert’s huge engine, powerful finishing kick, and cyclocross-world-championship-winning handling skills make him a serious contender here. That said, a stronger Worlds would have solidified his status atop the field of favorites.

Van Aert’s longtime rival Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is another top favorite. It’s hard to say exactly where his form is; back issues derailed his racing program after the Olympics and he didn’t factor quite as prominently at Worlds as expected. That said, he is a former Tour of Flanders winner and a bike handling wizard who should be as well-equipped as anyone to handle the muddy pavé. Few riders can put in a powerful surge like Van der Poel, so watch for a move at Mons-en-Pévèle or the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Deceuninck-QuickStep riders in recon mode.

Deceuninck-QuickStep is in an interesting position coming into the race. No single Deceuninck rider seems quite as likely as Van Aert or Van der Poel to win, but Florian Sénéchal, Kasper Asgreen, Zdenek Štybar, and Yves Lampaert are all in the conversation. Sénéchal has had a fine season and has the shortest odds of the bunch. Stybar, a former cyclocross world champ who has finished second at this race twice in his career, seems quite dangerous if you ask me.

Trek-Segafredo will also have options in the form of Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven. Both riders thrive on this terrain, and they both have fast finishes should they arrive at the Roubaix velodrome with a small group. Stuyven looked good at Worlds, while crashes marred Pedersen’s run last weekend, but he just finished third in a ProSeries one-day race, the Eurométropole Tour.

Peter Sagan digs deep at the Benelux Tour.

There has only been one edition of Paris-Roubaix since Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) won the race, but three and a half years have passed since then and he has not shown that kind of form recently. Still, he’s a contender, and no longer being one of the very top favorites should help, as having the eyes of the entire peloton on him often made it hard for Sagan to do much when he was at his best. Meanwhile, his teammate Nils Politt will be another rider to watch. Politt was second in 2019 and his big engine will give Bora-Hansgrohe options.

Speaking of 2019, defending champion Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) can’t be counted out, even if the 39-year-old Belgian isn’t the same rider he once was. That said, teammate and fellow former winner John Degenkolb may be the best bet for the team, having shown some speed at the WorldTour-level Eschborn-Frankfurt in September.

Others to watch on Sunday include Dylan Van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers), Michael Valgren (EF Education-Nippo), Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious), and Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation).

After such a long wait, all those big names and more will be in action on the Roubaix cobblestones soon. The battle for the 2021 title at Paris-Roubaix commences on Sunday at 11 am local time, and we should have a winner not long after 5 pm in Roubaix.

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