While last year I took an early stab at predicting the favorites for this year’s race, I’ve saved the real Preview for the last minute. The last few weeks have given us time to separate the men from the boys, hence a smaller list than usual of men capable taking the Queen of the Classics. Here we go:
Last spring, sickness and injury took their toll on Fabian Cancellara, possibly a result of an early season trip to the rainy and cold Tour of California. As a result, the Swiss Champion rode a rather anonymous classics campaign, abandoning the Tour of Flanders after a broken chain on the Koppenburg and spending most of Roubaix in the service of his team. But Spartacus is back this yearâ€”in a big way. After winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flandersâ€”an impressive double in its own rightâ€”Cancellara now heads to Roubaix as the top favorite to become only the second non-Belgian (and coincidentally, the second Swiss rider) to add the impressive Flanders-Roubaix double to his palmares as well. Cancellara is obviously in the form of his life and he has enjoyed past success on the pavÃ© (he won the race in 2006 and has several high finishes on his resume). Perhaps more importantly, Cancellara has the confidence from knowing he defeated his main rival, Tom Boonen, twice in the last two weeksâ€”in races considered Boonenâ€™s home turf. All that aside, Cancellaraâ€™s biggest asset is his team. With experienced domestiques including Stuart Oâ€™Grady (the 2007 Roubaix winner), Baden Cooke, and Frank Hoj, look to see Saxo Bank massed at the front of the peloton well into the raceâ€™s final phases. Better still, Cancellara has a lieutenant strong enough the race himselfâ€”Matti Breschel. Combine condition, experience, confidence, and team with a dash of luck, and Paris-Roubaix is Cancellaraâ€™s race to lose.
Itâ€™s to hard to believe that Quick Stepâ€™s Tom Boonen comes into this yearâ€™s Paris-Roubaix as a slight underdog considering heâ€™s the two-time defending champion and the winner of three of the last five editions. Boonenâ€™s also took second in Milan-San Remo, the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, and last Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flandersâ€”an impressive haul for most riders. That said, thereâ€™s just one thing separating Boonen from being a shoo-in to take a record-tying fourth Roubaix: Fabian Cancellara. To beat Spartacus, Boonen needs to ride with confidence and a bit of luck to go with the form thatâ€™s obviously there. Heâ€™ll also need more support from his team than he received last week. The worldâ€™s fastest time trialist, Cancellara won Flanders partly because he was able to isolate Boonen early, forcing him to ride mano a mano in what was essentially a two-man time trial to the foot of the Muur. His legs clearly spent from the sustained power output, Boonen was unable to respond to Cancellaraâ€™s inevitable surge. Tomorrow, Boonen will need his teammates, notably Stijn Devolder, to ease the pressure on their captain before the race enters its crucial sectorsâ€”especially since Cancellaraâ€™s team seems to be much stronger. If Boonen can exit the Arenberg Forest with at least 2 or 3 teammates at his side, heâ€™ll be in good shape; if heâ€™s isolated early though, it could mean the end of his terrific run at Roubaix.
The next two riders on the list come to this yearâ€™s edition of the Hell of the North with new teams and fine conditionâ€”two things theyâ€™ll need to overcome Cancellara and Boonenâ€”and years of near misses.
Team Skyâ€™s Juan Antonio Flecha is a rider unafraid to attack in Paris-Roubaix, but bad luck, poor team support, and foolish choices have often prevented him from taking the win. A victory in this yearâ€™s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad seemed to indicate that Flechaâ€”thanks to the support of a powerful Team Skyâ€”had finally shrugged the cobbled monkey from his back. However, missed chances in the E3 Prijs and the Tour of Flanders have some wondering if Flechaâ€™s Omloop was more a result of timing than a signal of bigger things to come. That said, I think Flecha can win this race. Roubaixâ€™s always suited him more than Flandersâ€”heâ€™s a powerful rider, capable of the long, sustained in-the-saddle efforts from which Roubaix winners are born. Furthermore, he has a talented team entirely devoted to getting him the win. If Flechaâ€™s able to take advantage of what might certainly become a two-man staring contest between Cancellara and Boonen, he could ride away to take the biggest win of his careerâ€”and the first cobbled monument ever to go to a Spaniard.
BMCâ€™s George Hincapie is next on our list of favorites, and is another man hoping a new team and some incredible form might propel him to the win thatâ€™s eluded him throughout his career. Hincapieâ€™s progressed nicely through the classics, following his 4th place in Ghent-Wevelgem with a 6th place in the Tour of Flanders. Hincapie has indeed fielded some criticism for what seems to be a penchant for missing the â€œbig moveâ€â€”Sundayâ€™s Ronde seemed to add fuel to the fire. Optimists like me hope last Sunday was just an indication that Big George is peaking just in time for Roubaix, a race a bit more suited to his powerful style. He enters Sunday as Co-captain with Marcus Burghardt, a man who could certainly ease the pressure on George in a race where heâ€™s often found himself alone earlier than most. Alessandro Ballan would have been another valuable asset, but heâ€™s been scratched following a â€œsuspensionâ€ due to his rumored involvement in the Mantova doping investigation. Like Flecha, Hincapie needs to take advantage of a possible Cancellara-Boonen stalemate should the two top favorites prove unwilling to take the bull by the horns. If George can pull it off, it will be the finest day of his long career, and quite possibly all he needs to call it one too.
Our last 4-Stone favorite again faces the difficult task of trying to win the race for himself while riding in support of more-favored rider. Saxo Bankâ€™s Matti Breschel appeared to be the strongest man in last Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flanders before a mechanical and a botched bike change ruined his day. Now he comes to Roubaix eager to prove to himself and his suitors for 2011 that heâ€™s the real deal. If he plays his cards right, he might just get his chance, as a Roubaix is a race where loyal teammates often find themselves in winning situationsâ€”especially riding for heavy favorites. (Just ask Servais Knaven.) Remember, Breschel finished 10th in Roubaix last year, a result he earned more or less on his own merits. With such a crowded situation at the top of the field, Breschelâ€™s just the type of man to take advantage of the logjam to win it all for himselfâ€”if he can ride with more calm and poise than he did last week.
While perhaps, a step below Matti Breschel, Stijn Devolderâ€™s another rider who could benefit from his team captainâ€™s status as top favorite. The last two years, Devolderâ€™s come to Roubaix on the downswing following wins in the previous Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flanders. His form seems a bit late this year though, something that might just push him over the edge in Roubaixâ€”a race where heâ€™s showed some potential in the past, albeit with nothing to show for it. This year, with dry conditions and a supporting role, Devolder might just add a Paris-Roubaix to his two Flanders victories. If he does, look for Quick Stepâ€™s post-race press conference to contain more fireworks and/or icy stares than the race itself.
Along with Hincapie, Iâ€™ll be rooting for Katushaâ€™s Filippo Pozzato to win tomorrowâ€™s race. While enjoying the form of his life heading into the Tour of Flanders, Pozzato was forced to fly home with a nasty flu during the 3-Days of DePanne. Pozzatoâ€™s back nowâ€”he finished Wednesdayâ€™s Scheldeprijsâ€”but admits to being a step below where he was two weeks ago. While it remains to be seen where exactly his fitness lies, itâ€™s clear that Pozzato feels no pressure for Sundayâ€”and thatâ€™s a good thing. Roubaixâ€™s a race where anxiety and nervousness can take their tollâ€”cases in point: Flecha and Hincapie. If Pozzato feels good and has a chance to play his card, he could go one step higher than last yearâ€™s 2nd place, becoming the first man to win as Italian Champion since Andrea Tafi in 1999.
I guess thereâ€™s something about Roubaix and near misses. Cervelo Test Teamâ€™s Thor Hushovd could have won lastâ€™s year edition had he not crashed on the Le Carrefour de l’Arbre sector, 20 kilometers from the end. This year, Hushovdâ€™s not had the season he and his team were expecting, with sickness, injury, and poor form taking their toll on what was hoped would be a breakthrough season the team. That said, as many of the favorites certainly know, Hushovdâ€™s not to be discounted. Heâ€™ll make the splits during the middle third of the race; itâ€™s the final sectors that will determine whether Mighty Thor becomes the second Scandinavian winner of the Hell of the North. The good weather works in his favor, eliminating one variable from an already chaotic and nervous event.
Speaking of second chances, Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Leif Hoste might be known more for his missed opportunities in the Tour of Flandersâ€”heâ€™s finished second three times. This year, Hoste rode a solid Ronde in support of Phillippe Gilbert; as a result heâ€™ll have a strong team including Greg Van Avermaet and Jurgen Roelandts at his disposal in Roubaix. Another rider who could capitalize on hesitation at the top, Hoste will need to demonstrate a willingness to make the race for himself should the opportunity present itselfâ€”something we have yet to see from the Belgian. Lottoâ€™s the only team not to have won a race this yearâ€”thereâ€™s no better time than now for Hoste to end that streak.
Marcus Burghardt has quietly proven himself to be one of the most consistent riders in the cobbled classics over the past few years. Heâ€™s overlooked by virtue of the fact that his breakthrough win preceded several top finishes; usually the opposite is the case. Technically the Co-captain of the BMC squad taking the start in Compiegne, Burghardt might have to defer to George Hincapieâ€™s latest attempt to add Paris-Roubaix to his resume. That said, like Breschel and Devolder, Burghardt might find a supporting role just the leash he needs to position himself for a winâ€”especially if other teams give their lieutenants similar opportunities. And with Hincapie known for his â€œitâ€™s all about the teamâ€ mentality, heâ€™ll have an advantage over men with more jealous leaders.
I canâ€™t understand why Tyler Farrarâ€™s not getting more attention following his solid run of results leading into this weekendâ€™s race. With top-10 finishes in Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, Farrar clearly has the legs to handle 200-plus kilometers of hard racing and still have something in the tank for the finale. His win in Wednesdayâ€™s Scheldepriis indicates his form is still rising. While Farrar has said heâ€™s riding in support of Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren, I see those comments as nothing more than a smokescreen as Farrarâ€™s clearly a step above his two Benelux teammates. Do I think Farrar can win? No. Do I see him finishing in the top-10 and possibly top-5? Absolutely. While many view Farrar as a true field sprinter, I see him as more of classics riderâ€”like Museeuw early in his career. Thatâ€™s a bold comparison, I know; but after Sunday, it might just prove prophetic.
Lars Boom leads Rabobank into Sunday along with Joost Posthuma. While Boom plays down the role his cyclocross background will have, I think it merits at least some attention for the confidence it could give the Dutchman heading into the raceâ€™s rougher patches of pavÃ©. While Boom might still be a few years away from being a serious candidate for the win, he could find himself in a breakaway that might propel to a top-10 result. For a nation starved for a true cobble-contender, thatâ€™s an accomplishment worthy of merit.
Peter Sagan was inexplicably left home for a few weeks following his two stage wins in Paris-Nice. While I understand the need to protect the young Slovakianâ€™s development (heâ€™s only 20), I canâ€™t understand why he didnâ€™t at least deserve a start in Milan-San Remo. I guess management was afraid of Daniele Bennati being upstaged. Regardless, Sunday is Saganâ€™s first start in a classicâ€”what a stage for a debut! And while the odds are overwhelmingly against him, consider these 3 things: Sagan has proven unfazed by the top-level competition heâ€™s faced so far this season; he finished 2nd in the 2008 junior Paris-Roubaix; and heâ€™s a former World Junior Cyclocross Champion. While he might be forced to ride for Manuel Quinziato and Daniel Oss, by the end of the day Sunday, expect to see Saganâ€™s name near the top of the results.
Like the now-retired Wilfred Peeters, Matthew Hayman is a super-domestique deserving of one big day. He rode an aggressive race in last weekâ€™s Tour of Flanders, at one time escaping from the front only to be caught by the eventual winning move. A rider capable of high wattage outputs on the pavÃ©, Hayman is more of a sentimental favorite than anything else. At the end of the day, heâ€™ll defer to his captain Juan Antonio Flecha; but once his work his done, a top-10 finish is certainly within the Australianâ€™s reach.
Others to watch include BBox’s Steve Chainel, another talented young star who’s proven his mettle thus far this spring; Bernhard Eisel a savvy rider benefiting from several departures from HTC; and Bjorn Leukemans, a man hoping to show the ASO just what it’s missing by not inviting his Vacansoleil team to the Tour.
So there you have it, PavÃ©â€™s 2010 Paris-Roubaix Preview. Iâ€™s interesting how closely it compares to last yearâ€™s imaginary 2010 Preview. Will the result resembles last yearâ€™s as well? Only time will tell.
For now, enjoy the raceâ€”you can follow PavÃ© on Twitter for live commentaryâ€”and share your comments and picks below.