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Paris-Roubaix is the ultimate outsider’s race.
In today’s metronomic, watt-heavy peloton, the strongest almost always wins. In grand tours, racing is too often a game of attrition, and the podium is determined by an equation of who can hang on the longest.
Thankfully, one-day classics change that script, and there’s no race that’s as wildly unpredictable and oddly attainable for a wider swath of the peloton than Paris-Roubaix.
Strange things can happen in a race as grueling and punishing as Paris-Roubaix. In most WorldTour races, it’s rare that the strongest rider doesn’t win. In Roubaix, it can almost be the norm.
Luck, mechanicals, crashes, punctures, and team dynamics all play bigger factors in Roubaix than any other one-day race on the international calendar. Pure brawn tops pure numbers.
Also read: Paris-Roubaix men’s race preview
Yet the “Hell of the North” also draws out the primal instincts in a racer, unlike any other race. Determination, sacrifice, and pure grit bubble to the fore through the dust, muck, and grime of the devilish pavé of northern France.
The Paris-Roubaix palmarès is sprinkled with “outsiders” who defied the odds and pulled off the ride of their lives to win in the Roubaix velodrome.
A scroll down the winner’s list in the 118 previous editions of the French monument reveals some interesting quirks not typically seen in the other major races.
Look over the past decade or so, and there are few names that pop out. Stuart O’Grady, Johan Van Summeren, and Mathew Hayman all won in the Roubaix velodrome as odds-busters. Nearly every edition has a journeyman or an unsung rider elbowing into the frame.
Who could have picked Florian Vermeersch to better Mathieu van der Poel for second last fall? Or Silvan Dillier taking Peter Sagan to the line in 2018?
Paris-Roubaix can deliver these delicious outliers better than any race. For everyone who is suffering from mechanicals and crashes, a few race in zen-like perfection. Some bump and grind on the pavé, a few can glide over them like they’re smoothly laid tarmac, not horse tracks built in another century.
Why is Roubaix prone to outsiders?
And why can an outsider win at Roubaix and not in other monuments, such as the Tour of Flanders or Liège-Bastogne-Liège?
First off, Roubaix is essentially a drag race to the finish line, and may the strongest win. Deep teams always have an advantage, but Roubaix is such a unique race that it’s almost impossible to control. That gives solo-fliers, the lucky, and the brave a better chance of upsetting the odds.
Anticipation is another factor. Being up the road ahead of the chaos and crashes behind is a major benefit. Many of the Roubaix podiums are filled with riders who rode into an early break, and then hung on for dear life when the stars came streaking past.
No one wins Roubaix by fluke. There’s no truer race in cycling. And even the outsiders who win are typically seasoned veterans who paid their dues on the cobbles or who traded their personal ambitions years ago to help a captain.
Everything has to go right to win Roubaix. It’s an elimination race laden with traps. Staying upright, avoiding punctures, having the motor, and gauging the tactics all create an algorithm unique to Roubaix.
And all the good stuff happens in that magical sixth hour of racing.
10 to surprise: Who will be the ‘outsider’ of the 2022 Paris-Roubaix?
Here are a few selections for outsider status in 2022. Some on this list deserve true favorite status and others might be ‘long in the tooth,’ but all of them will be racing to hit the podium.
Florian Sénéchal (Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl), 28
7 starts, career-best: 6th in 2019
The French component of the “Wolfpack” seems overdue for a big ride. Sixth in 2019, Sénéchal knows his way around the cobbles. Like many of his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl teammates, however, Sénéchal hasn’t been able to fully demonstrate his capacities so far this spring. Ninth in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and 14th at Milan-San Remo both boded well, but he’s been stuck in third gear all spring.
Sénéchal could be the team’s best chance Sunday, and he will likely try to anticipate the race and attack before the Arenberg trench to wait for the moves from behind. The pressure is on to deliver in the final race for the team’s cobblestone specialists.
The last French winner? It’s not quite Tour de France territory, but it’s getting close: Frédéric Guesdon in 1997.
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), 28
6 starts, career-best: 11th in 2019
With the way he’s racing this year, Küng is no longer outsider status. He’s been at the front of the action in all the major races so far this spring, and his confidence will be flying high on Sunday. He will be one of the podium favorites and has something to prove at Roubaix.
The big Swiss rider is just the type of rider who fits the classic outsider profile. He brings the motor of an excellent time trialist, and he’s been patiently gaining experience and confidence in the gnarliest of sectors, both important qualities to have any hope of winning Roubaix. Going into his seventh start, he now packs the know-how on where to be, and the engine to carry him far.
At 83kg, he’s got the weight and power to handle the punishing pavé. Küng seems destined to win Roubaix. This year could be it. If not, it might be another decade of banging on the door until it finally opens.
Imanol Erviti (Movistar), 38
16 starts, career-best: 9th in 2016
The ever-steady Spanish rider holds what must be a modern record of 53 starts across the calendar’s five monuments, and will line up for the 17th time on Sunday. His first Roubaix was back in 2005, when last year’s runner Florian Vermeersch was all of six.
Most of the time, Erviti is the road captain that the likes of Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde can rely upon. Once a year at Roubaix he is unleashed. With his experience and motor, Erviti will be trying to sneak his way into one of the early moves. He’s gone deep before, including ninth in 2016.
He won’t be beating anyone in a sprint inside the velodrome, but if he can follow the right wheels at the front of the race, he could be this year’s Cinderella story at age 38.
Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), 34
11 starts, career-best: 9th in 2013
Coming into the spring classics, Kristoff was writing off his own chances, and telling journalists that his fastest years are behind him. And it’s that admission that might make Kristoff the ultimate outsider in this year’s race.
A winner of two of the five monuments, Kristoff has the diesel engine to go deep into the sixth hour of racing. And he’s clearly on form, confirmed by riding an elite bunch off his wheel with 7km to go on the cobbles to win Scheldeprijs last week.
If a finishing group comes in with five or six riders and he’s still there, he could deliver a stunning victory because he will still carry speed after nearly seven hours of racing.
Hugo Hofstetter (Arkéa-Samsic), 28
5 starts, career-best: 19th in 2019
This is the only non-WorldTour rider on the list. It’s harder for second-tier teams to punch into the top-10 at Paris-Roubaix, but it does happen. Hofstetter is quietly scooping up results (and points) for his French team all season long, with third at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and second at Le Samyn and Bredene Koksijde Classic.
Despite only weighing 65kg, he can handle himself well on the cobbles, and hit 19th in 2019. Like many on this list, he would need to get into an early break, and hold on for dear life. The big question mark is can he go the monument distance and still have anything left.
Matteo Trentin (UAE Emirates), 32
8 starts, career-best: 36th in 2016
On paper, the durable Italian should be a prototypical rider for the cobbles. He has the brawn and experience to negotiate the treacheries of the race. A bad crash in the 2018 edition might give him second thoughts.
Like many, Trentin’s been ill during parts of the spring, and he struggled at the Tour of Flanders. But if he can stay upright, and find a good group to work with, he could go deep in the race. A victory at Le Samyn and top-10s in the opening weekend proves he’s ready for a breakout.
Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Victorious), 38
14 starts, career-best: 6th in 2018
Every list of Roubaix outsiders must include Haussler. The German-Australian veteran is a constant presence in Roubaix, and it’s long been the one race he continued to chase even after he slotted into a road captain role nearly a decade ago.
In many ways, Haussler fits the profile of the ultimate outsider to a “T.” He has the experience, motor, and racing acumen to go the distance and read the race. The big question mark now is: Does he still have the legs? Last year, he floated the wheels to 10th into the velodrome behind winner Sonny Colbrelli. With the team racing without the defending champion, there will be extra emotion on the line Sunday.
Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), 24
2 starts, OTL, DNF
The Italian world time trial champion has a long way to go before he’s a serious Roubaix contender. His first two starts in the Hell of the North did not end well, with one DNF and another over the time limit.
Yet everyone inside the Ineos Grenadiers bus is quietly hoping that Ganna will bloom into a Fabian Cancellara-esque rider later in his career. For the absolute strongest, Paris-Roubaix often turns into one long, hellish time trial, where anyone strong enough to ride the peloton off their wheel can use the TT skills to drive home a winning margin.
Cancellara evolved from a pure time trialist into one of the best classics riders of his generation, and the expectations are running high for “Top Ganna” to do something Sunday to confirm his promise.
Micky Schär (Ag2r-Citroën), 35
11 starts, career-best: 34th in 2013, 2014
Another eternal favorite among pundits trying to pick the odds for the outside-the-box payday. At nearly two meters tall, he will be among the tallest riders at the start line Sunday. Most years, he plays the loyal sidekick, and that’s what he gets paid to do.
His job Sunday is to help Greg Van Avermaet get as close to the podium as possible. But this is where the outsider status can really kick in. If “Golden Greg” loses contact early or is out of the race, riders like Schär will be cut loose. Every team has a rider or two like Schär who typically sacrifice for the good of the team, but once in a while, luck and opportunity will turn their way.
Guillaume Boivin (Israel Premier Tech), 32
2 starts, career-best: 9th in 2021
The plucky Canadian was one of the sleeper stories in last year’s muddy Roubaix, and he rocked all the way to the velodrome to hit a top-10. That result confirmed what everyone at Israel Premier Tech already knew. Boivin has one of the biggest engines in the bunch, and it’s in races like Roubaix where he can best reveal it.
Like many on his team, however, he’s been stricken with illness, and it’s still not confirmed he will be racing Sunday. If not this year, he’ll be on the outsider list for the next few years to come.
From Fall 2021