As excited as I am for Sundayâ€™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 Sundayâ€”even if the â€œepicâ€ conditions many crave donâ€™t look to be in the forecast.
Hereâ€™s a look at this yearâ€™s favorites:
Iâ€™ve never seen a non-Belgian generate so much controversy after â€œlosingâ€ the Tour of Flanders. But regardless of how he finished last second, Leopard Trekâ€™s Fabian Cancellara remains the top favorite for Sundayâ€™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, Cancellaraâ€™s at the top of his game, has likely learned from his mistakes last weekend, and after all of this weekâ€™s anti-hype, is probably pretty angry. Need another reason?
Paris-Roubaix is a make-or-break event for Garmin-CervÃ©lo and Thor Hushovd sinceâ€”after failing to even hit the podium in the classics thus farâ€”many are waiting with bated breath to declare the teamâ€™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 wonâ€™t be there to steal Hushovdâ€™s power. Expect to see him on the podiumâ€”possibly the top step.
Iâ€™m going out on a limb, but I expect Vacansoleilâ€™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 heâ€™s regained the form that saw him finish sixth in Roubaix last yearâ€”and fourth in 2007. Even better for Leukemans is the fact that heâ€™s the unquestioned leader of his team following Stijn Devolderâ€™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.
Iâ€™m on the fence regarding Quick-Stepâ€™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, heâ€™s clearly a notch below his best and is supposedly still feeling the effects of his crashes in Wednesdayâ€™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 Roubaixâ€™s most successful champion. Frankly, heâ€™s one of the riders I would like to see win Sundayâ€”I think heâ€™s good for the sport (when heâ€™s winning races).
BMCâ€™s Alessandro Ballan has twice come close to winning Paris-Roubaix, finishing third in 2006 and 2008. This spring, Ballanâ€™s been one of the best of riders without a victoryâ€”Sunday is a perfect opportunity for him to reverse that trend. Bolstered by arguably the raceâ€™s strongest team, Ballan and co-captain George Hincapie should be able to exploit a numerical advantage during the raceâ€™s final two hours.Â 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, Skyâ€™s Juan Antonio Flecha rode an anonymous Tour of Flanders last Sunday, finishing 11th after failing to be a major protagonist. That said, Flechaâ€™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.
BMCâ€™s George Hincapie would have been a 4-Stone favorite following his sixth-place performance in Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flanders had he not crashed twice in Wednesdayâ€™s Scheldeprijs. Luckily, Georgeâ€™s injuries have not affected his participationâ€”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 yearâ€™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-Stepâ€™s Sylvain Chavanel almost became the first Frenchman to win the Ronde since Jacky Durandâ€”now heâ€™ll try to become the first home rider to win Roubaix since Frederic Guesdon. Look for similar tactics to play into Chavanelâ€™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 Hushovdâ€™s strongest lieutenants at Garmin-CervÃ©lo and an outside contender himself should his teamâ€™s tactics send him off the front to set the stage for Thor.
If I were Katushaâ€™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 Italyâ€™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 reputationâ€”even if his spot on Katushaâ€™s roster has already been jeopardized.
Welcome to the list, Gerraint Thomas! Skyâ€™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 yearâ€™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.
Rabobankâ€™s Sebastian Langeveld rebounded from an injury in Milan-San Remo to launch an impressive attack in the waning moments of last Sundayâ€™s Ronde. He finished fifth. Heâ€™s one to watch Sunday should the top favorites mark one another too heavily. Holland hasnâ€™t had a Roubaix winner since Servais Knaven in 2001â€”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 Iâ€™m going out on a limbâ€”againâ€”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 aloneâ€”where Hincapie will take the sprint over Thomas, Langeveld, and Chavanel.
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