2011 Paris-Roubaix – Preview

Photo by Luc Claessen/ISPA Photo


As excited as I am for Sunday’s race, I often feel a bit sad in the days leading-up to Paris-Roubaix as I know it signals the end of the cobbled classics campaign. That said, everything looks set for a terrific race Sunday—even if the “epic” conditions many crave don’t look to be in the forecast.

Here’s a look at this year’s favorites:

5-Stone Favorites

I’ve never seen a non-Belgian generate so much controversy after “losing” the Tour of Flanders. But regardless of how he finished last second, Leopard Trek’s Fabian Cancellara remains the top favorite for Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. Put it this way: had another proven contender broken away on the Leberg, towed his companion to the base of the Muur, and then attacked again in the finale to finish third, would he not be a top favorite for Roubaix? No matter what critics say, Cancellara’s at the top of his game, has likely learned from his mistakes last weekend, and after all of this week’s anti-hype, is probably pretty angry. Need another reason?

Paris-Roubaix is a make-or-break event for Garmin-Cervélo and Thor Hushovd since—after failing to even hit the podium in the classics thus far—many are waiting with bated breath to declare the team’s spring campaign a failure. That said, Thor promises to be a major contender Sunday if for no other reason than he finally looks to be the undisputed leader of his squad. Before the heat and hills took their toll last Sunday, Thor appeared to be one of the strongest riders in the race. The heat returns this weekend, but the hills won’t be there to steal Hushovd’s power. Expect to see him on the podium—possibly the top step.

I’m going out on a limb, but I expect Vacansoleil’s Bjorn Leukemans to be one of the two or three strongest riders in the race Sunday. After a quiet but productive start to the season, the Belgian proved Sunday that he’s regained the form that saw him finish sixth in Roubaix last year—and fourth in 2007. Even better for Leukemans is the fact that he’s the unquestioned leader of his team following Stijn Devolder’s anonymous ride Sunday. If a Belgian is destined to hoist the cobbled trophy this weekend, look for Leukemans to be the one doing it.

4-Stone Favorites

I’m on the fence regarding Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen. On one hand, he won Ghent-Wevelgem and rode a respectable Tour of Flanders (even if it fell short of his expectations). On the other, he’s clearly a notch below his best and is supposedly still feeling the effects of his crashes in Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs. A win for Boonen would not only absolve him of what could quickly become two consecutive springs of underwhelming results, it would also tie him with Roger de Vlaeminck as Roubaix’s most successful champion. Frankly, he’s one of the riders I would like to see win Sunday—I think he’s good for the sport (when he’s winning races).

BMC’s Alessandro Ballan has twice come close to winning Paris-Roubaix, finishing third in 2006 and 2008. This spring, Ballan’s been one of the best of riders without a victory—Sunday is a perfect opportunity for him to reverse that trend. Bolstered by arguably the race’s strongest team, Ballan and co-captain George Hincapie should be able to exploit a numerical advantage during the race’s final two hours.  If he proves up to the task, Ballan will become the first Italian since Andrea Tafi to win both the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.

Like many of the pre-race favorites, Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha rode an anonymous Tour of Flanders last Sunday, finishing 11th after failing to be a major protagonist. That said, Flecha’s a more consistent performer in Roubaix and should rebound Sunday with another fine performance. The arrival of the young Geraint Thomas bodes well for Flecha, giving the Spaniard a more than capable lieutenant and the team another card to play in the finale.

3-Stone Favorites

BMC’s George Hincapie would have been a 4-Stone favorite following his sixth-place performance in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders had he not crashed twice in Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs. Luckily, George’s injuries have not affected his participation—a good thing considering that the American seems to be at the top of his game. Good weather, a strong team, and beatable competition make this year’s event one of the most winnable of his career. Will the 16th time be the charm for the American in his penultimate Roubaix?

Quick-Step’s Sylvain Chavanel almost became the first Frenchman to win the Ronde since Jacky Durand—now he’ll try to become the first home rider to win Roubaix since Frederic Guesdon. Look for similar tactics to play into Chavanel’s favor as he looks to set-up teammate Boonen for the win Sunday. Chavanel finished eighth in 2009; of the teams with more than one contender, he might be the best #2.

Heinrich Haussler finished one spot ahead of Chavanel at Roubaix in 2009, the year he burst onto the scene with an impressive string of top classic results. This year he returns as one of Thor Hushovd’s strongest lieutenants at Garmin-Cervélo and an outside contender himself should his team’s tactics send him off the front to set the stage for Thor.

If I were Katusha’s Filippo Pozzato, I would ask Bjarne Riis if there might room at Saxo Bank for 2012. On the outs with his directors and his fans, Pippo needs a tremendous performance Sunday to avoid becoming public enemy numero uno among Italy’s tifosi. That said, Pozzato finished well in Roubaix last year after missing Flanders due to a bad case of the flu. A win is certainly the goal, but a valiant effort and a spot on the podium might be enough for this talented rider to protect his reputation—even if his spot on Katusha’s roster has already been jeopardized.

2-Stone Favorites

Welcome to the list, Gerraint Thomas! Sky’s British National Champion has shown over the past several weeks that he deserves to be counted among the best cobbled classics riders in the world. And Thomas does not suffer from a lack of experience; he won the junior Paris-Roubaix in 2004 and narrowly missed winning last year’s cobbled Tour stage into Arenberg. Another rider who could play a role while trying to set-up a teammate, Thomas looks destined for cobbled stardom.

Rabobank’s Sebastian Langeveld rebounded from an injury in Milan-San Remo to launch an impressive attack in the waning moments of last Sunday’s Ronde. He finished fifth. He’s one to watch Sunday should the top favorites mark one another too heavily. Holland hasn’t had a Roubaix winner since Servais Knaven in 2001—does Langeveld have the legs to pull-off a similar feat ten years later?

My Prediction: Jens Voigt once said that he liked his chances if he would win 10% of the times he attacks. In other words, one never finds success if he never tries. So call me a foolish, homer if you like, but I’m going out on a limb—again—and picking George Hincapie to finally slay his demons and win Paris-Roubaix Sunday. A glut of top contenders and several talented lieutenants will lead to a race in which a group of second tier stars is given enough of a leash to make it to the velodrome alone—where Hincapie will take the sprint over Thomas, Langeveld, and Chavanel.

Let the heckling begin! Share your comments and picks below.

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About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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13 Responses to 2011 Paris-Roubaix – Preview

  1. Freds1379 says:

    I cant see hushovd as 5-stone, at best 3, he looked extremely unconvincing at flanders, if he were in good form he would have at least been able to stay with the best riders in the last 10/15 km of flanders, he couldnt and finished 48th or somewhere thereabouts? ( please correct me if im very wrong), that suggests to me hes not good enough to win
    Also what about gilbert? another website discusses him, i doubt he'll win it but he could make it interesting and place highly.
    Finally my prediction (for what its worth) is cancellara, i doubt he'll be allowed to make a solo break but when it gets to the last 15 or 20 the pack will have been whittled to the select few best riders with few teammates around them, if the days main break is caught early and theres no one up ahead i can very much see him attacking and dropping the other riders, when he goes, theres very few that can follow him, theres a five star section of cobbles about 20k from the finish, if hes in a group there expect an attack and a solo victory, thats my view

    • Whit says:

      Thanks for the comment, Fred. You might be right about Thor–although I wouldn't bump him lower than 4-Stones. If he weren't so over-hyped heading into the season, his track record alone would get him in the top-5 of contenders.

      As for Gilbert, he's not racing–he usually takes this weekend off to rest for Amstel and Liege. Which site said he was?

      Thanks! Come join us Sunday in The Feed Zone!


  2. soul_cramp says:

    I think its Cancellara's race to lose. Look for him to put some vicious displays of power on the cobbles if bad luck doesn't take him out of it before the final 2 hours.

    Quick-step should play the same hand they played at Flanders. Only this time tell Boonen to not launch his biggest rival up the road. I'd be happy to see Chavanel get the win too, he's fun to watch race.

    Garmin-Cervelo, Garmin-Cervelo, hello? Please do something. This being Roubaix I doubt there will be any instructions to sit in. And if there is Thor or Tyler need to pull the ear phone out and just go for it.

    I would love to see Pozatto finally attack instead of react constantly. Unfortunately it seems right now if Cancellara is in your group and you attack you run the risk of launch him. I think Pippo's best chance is to bridge up to an early break before the real action starts then try and hold it to the line.

    All that being said, I'll be cheering for the same rider I've cheered for ever since I knew what Paris Roubaix was, George Hincapie. Despite all the let down and dissapointment in this race I believe he still has it in him, and after his perfomance at Flanders, not to mention his team, I like his chances despite all the naysayers.

  3. grolby says:

    Funny – I was thinking the same thing about Pozzato. His Katusha career appears to be on the rocks, and he's had a rough couple of seasons. He needs a shot in the arm. Pozzato's greatest weakness is his inconsistency. When he's on, he's brilliant.

  4. Mattio says:

    I'm going with Leukemans. Naturally rooting for George, though.

  5. Pappy says:

    Personally I like Roger Hammond – a modest, gentleman's rider who does well in P-R. To win? No, not likely as he will be riding for Hushovd, but top five-six if the weather's not too hot, and quite possibly better. The fact that some favs are hurting from Weds gives him even more chances. For the win? S. Chavenal should be angry enough to want it, but I don't think the course is quite right for him and the team is weakened. Cancellara is still the most likely candidate even with everyone watching him.
    Leopard need to keep making the race hard – then Spartacus has to make it brutal in the final 60-50km – who will help him?

  6. Scott M says:

    I am still NOT buying the Hincapie hype but must concede his performance in Flanders was solid. There, I said it…now I can move on. My love for Pippo is starting to run out…not sure if a move to a new team will be the kick in the rear he needs but for the first time in a few years I'm not putting him in my top 5 picks. Your favorites Whit seem well chosen..I am going with Spartacus, Flecha, Leukemans, Boonen and Haussler…I wavered between him and Thor but I think he will get the chance Sunday for a top placing over Hushovd.

    Should be a great race, anyone know the weather forecast? Last I heard it was gonna be dry and dusty…let's all say a prayer to the weather gods for some serious rain shall we? Looking forward to chatting in the feed zone..my wife still thinks I'm nuts to be so focused on a laptop screen for a few hours, wired on red bull and maybe even an early beer…she'll never learn.

  7. Mse says:

    The Swiss Time Machine

  8. Adam says:

    Sometimes I think that Flecha doesn't have the savvy for the longer classics, maybe the addition of Thomas helps him out a bit. Flecha works his tail off, but more often than not, when it comes to Flanders and Roubaix his efforts are timed poorly and he ends up losing. A strong lieutenant might help remind him to keep the powder dry and let someone else work.

    Less logical than any of the picks above, but I'd like to see Baden Cooke have a good Paris-Roubaix. It seems that Nuyens' career-reinvigoration put that idea in my head, but a top 10 for Cooke after a few years adrift would be nice.

  9. GluteCramp says:

    Hi guys, inrng sent me over here to ask if there's any chance you guys could take a look at the Garmin-Cervelo bikes and see if there's any non-standard pedals attached to them? I'm waiting with bated breath for a glimpse of an in-use Garmin/Metrigear power measuring pedal… I figure, since they're targeting a late 2011 release date, we might see some here for some really solid pre-production testing. Thanks!

  10. Joe says:

    It would be a great race, watching Hincapie win. I don't he's up to it though. I'm not questioning his legs… fitness wise, I think he has whats required, but to win Roubaix you have to be a killer. It's not about winning out of conservation, it's about causing physical pain to your opposition, and surviving your own aggression. I've never met Hincapie, but I don't think he has that killer instinct.

    I want Hincapie to be that guy, I want to see him win Roubaix, but when I try to picture him crushing the competition through the Arenberg forest (with a smile). I'm reminded of the 2008 Tour de france, where he whinnied on about peloton politics, and how he though he should have been given the opportunity to wear yellow. Killer's don't expect gifts from the peloton, the take what that want, when they want it.

    Without a shrink, or a hypnotist… Hincapie's got no chance.

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