Preview: Can anyone beat Cancellara at Paris-Roubaix?

Anything can happen over 51 kilometers of cobbles, but "Spartacus" is the overwhelming favorite with oddsmakers for the "Hell of the North"

Photo: Tim De Waele

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ANTWERP, Belgium (VN) — Can anyone prevent Fabian Cancellara from making history in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix?

The Swiss superstar looks unstoppable following his sublime victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) last weekend. Even with the odds stacked against him in the four-man winning selection, Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) found the way to carry the day.

Six months of training, hype, and anticipation come to a frothy head Sunday with the unrelenting shake, rattle, and roll along the cobblestones of northern France. “The Hell of the North” is a race of attrition, of brawn, and luck.

Roubaix is an entirely different animal than the other northern classics. The winner is often the rider who dares to attack, and who doesn’t suffer any bad luck. One puncture can dash hopes in an instant, while one audacious attack can often deliver salvation.

With 51.1 kilometers of rough, uneven cobblestones strewn over 28 sectors across the 257km parcours, the man known to his fans as “Spartacus” is the rider to beat.

Could he pull off a Flanders-Roubaix double for an unprecedented third time? Cancellara was still in full recovery mode Wednesday, and was in no mood to talk history.

“Roubaix is a different kind of race than the Ronde,” Cancellara said at the GP Scheldeprijs. “Mentally, I am fresh. That’s important. After Flanders, the legs are ok, it’s more the upper body. I am slowly, slowly coming around for Roubaix.”

History is in his corner. In each of the years Cancellara has won Flanders — 2010 and 2013 — he backed it up with a Roubaix victory a week later. But can he do it again?

Looking to stop the Spartacus Express will be a highly motivated Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, so far stymied throughout the classics, despite having superior numbers. An equally strong Belkin team, led by last year’s runner-up Sep Vanmarcke, will complement the Belgian squad as would-be spoiler.

And in the lottery of Roubaix, where accidents and mechanicals are as decisive as raw power, just about anyone with strong legs deep in the race has a legitimate chance to win.

There’s no hiding in cycling’s hardest six hours. Only the very strong and the very lucky survive.

Cancellara alone again

Most of the Roubaix heavy hitters raced Wednesday at Scheldeprijs in northern Belgium. Cancellara, Boonen, and Vanmarcke all raced to stretch their legs and put in one more day of race-speed training before Sunday’s big matchup.

Trek and Cancellara will roll into Roubaix in an enviable position. With Flanders already in their pocket, they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

“Now we can go into Roubaix with a little less pressure,” said Trek general manager Luca Guercilena. “Fabian is a big champion, and he always wants to win.”

The big question Sunday is if Cancellara will be able to ride everyone off his wheel. His victory in a four-up sprint in Oudenaarde revealed his new sprinting chops, but it left some wondering if he wasn’t a touch off because he couldn’t drop everyone like he’s typically done in the past.

View our ‘The decade-long rivalry of Boonen and Cancellara at Roubaix’ gallery >>

When Cancellara surged free on the Oude Kwaremont, Vanmarcke was able to hold his wheel. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) also played it smart, attacking earlier, at 30km to go, and then holding onto Cancellara’s wheel all the way to the line. That created a tricky, four-man puzzle for the final sprint that had the folks inside the Trek team bus on edge.

Even Cancellara admitted the new-look Flanders course, with all the harder “bergs” packed into the final 50km, took it out of him.

“I am slowly, slowly building for Sunday,” Cancellara said. “Roubaix is a different race than Flanders. Flanders was very hard this year, so for two days, all I did was recovery.”

Another big question for Trek will be the depth of the team. Crashes took their toll in Flanders, leaving Cancellara isolated late in the race. Injuries to Yaroslav Popovych and Stijn Devolder, two critical riders for Roubaix, kept them out of Scheldeprijs, but the team is hopeful both can start Sunday.

As Cancellara said, Roubaix is more a race of attrition, but it’s always nice to have teammates deep into the race. Trek starts as the favorite, but there are plenty of challengers on their heels.

See our full spring classics coverage >>

Only a fool would bet against Cancellara — and not many are. The Swiss’ odds are around 16/8, depending on which betting website you check. Boonen is the closest bet, according to oddsmakers, at 13/2. This is for good reason; since the 2010 Flanders, with the exception of the 2012 Flanders, when he crashed out, Cancellara either won or finished on the podium of every monument he’s started. It’s a run that includes five victories (three Flanders, two Roubaix) and he’s the heavy favorite to complete the double triple Sunday.

Read ‘Fabian Cancellara is flesh and blood like the rest of us’>>

Omega Pharma and Sep Vanmarcke

The team with the most to lose Sunday will be classics super-team Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Niki Terpstra saved team colors by winning Dwars door Vlaanderen and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck proved worthy with overall victory at Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne), but so far, Patrick Lefevere’s troops have yet to bring home a big win. And the trophy fish are the only ones that interest Omega Pharma.

Throughout the northern classics, Omega Pharma has played a strong numbers game, with riders in all the key moves late in the action, but they’ve come up empty when it counts. Despite having two in a group of four in the finale at E3 Harelbeke and one in a group of four in Flanders, the team has had to settle for podium leftovers.

“The best classics team in the world should have won a monument. I’m not interested in podiums,” Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad. “I saw a strong team at Flanders, and we will not disappear in a week. We will be ready for Sunday.”

Boonen admitted he lacked the extra kick he needed to challenge Cancellara at Flanders, but expressed optimism his form is coming up just in time to be a challenger for Roubaix.

“It was the first time I did six hours in a final all season. I was very happy afterwards. I was really good until 23km to go. I really felt I could win Flanders, but I missed a little extra that the other guys had who were in front of me in the final 30 minutes,” Boonen said at the start Wednesday. “I think I will be better in Roubaix. Roubaix is a special race. I am hopeful things will go better Sunday.”

Waiting in the wings behind Boonen are an on-form Terpstra, third in last year’s Roubaix, who chased in vain to finish sixth at Flanders, and Zdenek Stybar, who posted a breakout ride in last year’s Roubaix with sixth. Stybar rode in the winning group a year ago, until colliding with a spectator late in the race. Each wants to confirm his place within the team hierarchy.

As Lefevere said, Boonen is almost always a protagonist. Save for Cancellara, no contemporary rider matches Boonen’s experience and depth in the cobbles. Garmin-Sharp officials have confirmed that Johan Vansummeren will start Sunday despite his frightening crash at Flanders, making him the only starter, other than Cancellara and Boonen, to have won Roubaix. That experience is invaluable in measuring efforts, knowing the cobbles, and knowing when to turn the knife.

After a harrowing spring marred by personal tragedy, if Boonen has the legs to match his heart, he could well ride into the history books himself, becoming the first five-time Roubaix winner. It would be a mistake to count him out, despite a sub-par classics season so far.

And then there’s Vanmarcke, who’s quietly been nipping at the edge of a big win all spring. In the five one-day races he’d started going into Scheldeprijs (where he was on domestique duty for Theo Bos), he was in the top five every time, including a morale-boosting third at Flanders.

While Omega Pharma has spread its bet, Belkin is very much a one-captain team.

Although he was frustrated to miss out on victory, Vanmarcke was the only rider strong enough to follow Cancellara’s acceleration on the Oude Kwaremont.
Second in a match sprint on the track to Cancellara in last year’s Roubaix, the big, blonde Belgian is bursting with quiet confidence.

“After last year, I know I can handle the final,” he said in a Belkin press release. “I’m a lot stronger now. To finish second is never fun, and last Sunday, Fabian beat me again, so hopefully I can beat him this time. I recovered well after Flanders.”

Belkin brings a squad every bit as deep as Trek, with former cyclocross world champion Lars Boom riding into good form after fracturing his elbow at Paris-Nice, and Maarten Tjallingii, third in 2011.

If anyone’s proven to be at the same level as Cancellara and Boonen, it’s Vanmarcke. Everyone inside the Belkin team bus believes his time has come.

Outsiders’ club is wide open

The list of outsiders for Sunday is almost as long as the startlist. Nearly every major team will bring at least one rider who harbors hope of cobblestone glory.

At Roubaix, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will find himself in an unfamiliar role — that of underdog. The flat terrain and punishing cobbles of Roubaix are not ideal for his style of racing. He hasn’t started the “Queen of the Classics” since 2011, yet is hoping to revive what’s been a relatively flat classics season, during which his Harelbeke win did little to blunt the disappointment of 10th at Milano-Sanremo and 16th at Flanders.

“Flanders was hard, but I’m thinking ahead to Roubaix,” Sagan told VeloNews. “It was normal that they were racing against me in Flanders. I don’t know if it’ll be that way on Sunday in Roubaix, but if I’m up ahead, it’ll probably be the same. They all know that I can be there [and sprint].”

Behind the Slovak champion is a collection of hopers and dreamers who’ve pegged their spring campaigns on a strong Roubaix.

BMC Racing will bring the deepest squad behind the favorites, with Taylor Phinney, Thor Hushovd, and Flanders runner-up Van Avermaet, to the start line. Hushovd seems past his glory days, and perhaps it’s not quite Phinney’s time yet. Right in the middle is Van Avermaet, who is hopeful his Flanders form carries over to Sunday. The Belgian is due after a two-year run of close calls in the classics.

“Flanders is usually better for me than Roubaix, but I showed Sunday that I am strong,” he told VeloNews on Wednesday. “Roubaix is a special race, and anything can happen. If I don’t have any problems, I think I can go far into the final. I was fourth last year, and I feel stronger this year.”

Right behind them is Sky. The British squad has enjoyed a solid spring campaign, with victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with Ian Stannard and third at E3 Harelbeke with Geraint Thomas. Though Stannard is out with injuries sustained in a crash at Gent-Wevelgem, the presence of Bradley Wiggins and Edvald Boasson Hagen gives Sky three cards to play Sunday.

With Vansummeren likely not starting, Garmin-Sharp will rally around Sebastian Langeveld, seventh last year, with Tyler Farrar, second at Scheldeprijs and Dwars door Vlaanderen, also hoping to go deep in the finale.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), the winner at Milano-Sanremo and fifth at Flanders, could surprise as well.

The French invariably pop for a top 10, and riders such as Damien Gaudin (Ag2r La Mondiale), fifth last year, and teammate Sebastian Turgot, second in 2012, are both starting. Arnaud Démare (, second at Gent-Wevelgem, could also carry the national colors, especially in the absence of Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling), who is sidelined with bronchitis.

On the other end of the spectrum of long-shot contenders are riders such as Martijn Maaskant (UnitedHealthcare), fourth in 2008, and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), second in 2009, who are each hoping to uncork one more magical ride in “Hell.”

The spoils in Roubaix go to the brave and to the lucky. Vansummeren is a prime example; he was never a top favorite, but he was always there. In 2011, it all came together for one career-defining performance.

Hell of the North

There’s no race that engenders such a broad mix of emotions as Roubaix. Some riders absolutely hate it, especially the rail-thin GC riders, and avoid it like the plague, while others thrive.

There’s no doubt that Roubaix is a race unlike any other. Even other northern classics featuring cobbles, such as Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, or Flanders, cannot compare to the punishment that’s synonymous with Roubaix.

The cobbles of Belgium are well worn and better maintained, because most of the race routes are used in every-day life. In contrast, the cobbles of Roubaix are set in rough farm roads that see a few tractors and the occasional bike tourists. Otherwise, they’re not fit for use by everyday motorists.

Starting in Compiègne, the first nearly 100km of the parcours pushes north across the rolling farm country on smooth roads, with nothing to suggest the looming suffering.

This year’s route features 51.1km kilometers of pavé, a number that’s in line with the modern version of the 119-year-old monument. Race organizers earlier this week ranked the difficulty of the pavé, ranging from easy, one-star ratings, to the infamous brutality of the five-star sectors at Carrefour de l’Arbre, Mons-en-Pévèle, and the Trouée d’Arenberg.

See the full rankings list for the cobbled sectors >>

The first sign of tension comes at Troisville (2.2km ★★★), 97.5km into the race. From there, the route starts to duck and weave across the wind-swept farm country to search out more stretches of the bumpy stuff.

Crashes and punctures inevitably start to take their toll ahead of the decisive Arenberg forest at 161.5km. At 2.4km long, bumpy, uneven, and often damp (even in the driest conditions), the infamous “trouée” forces the first true selection. The peloton sprints onto the cobbles like it’s hunting a Tour de France stage win, hitting speeds of 60 kph, and anyone who loses contact here has a very hard time coming back.

From the Arenberg, it’s an endless, bone-rattling run of sectors, with little time to recover lost ground. The second of three five-star sectors comes at Mons-en-Pévèle, 208km in, which frequently produces race-defining moments over its 3km. With 50km to go, the list of potential winners is cruelly whittled down to a handful of survivors.

Disaster can strike at any moment, but any rider who’s pushed this deep has a fair chance of seeing his name carved into a cobblestone trophy.

If Mons-en-Pévèle springs the winning group, the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector, the last of three five-star sectors, often sees the make-or-break moment of the race. An attack here has seen dozens of men ride to victory in the velodrome. In the last 15 years, Cancellara, Boonen, and Vansummeren have gone solo from this sector. Peter Van Petegem and Magnus Backstedt were part of race-winning selections here en route to their respective wins in 2003 and 2004.

See where the race-winning moves happened, 1998-2012 >>

Mild weather for horrific day

Lovers of horrific weather will be in for disappointment Sunday. Forecasters are calling for partly sunny skies, light breezes from the north, and temperatures in the high 50s Fahrenheit.

The last time Paris-Roubaix truly saw rainy, wet conditions was all the way back in 2002, when Johan Museeuw won with a solo attack by more than three minutes.

Conditions are expected to stay mild for the remainder of the week, meaning that the peloton will likely face dusty and dry cobbles. That makes things such as wheel selection easier, but the cobbles — particular in the Arenberg — are treacherous under any condition.

The wind will also not be much of a factor. Forecasters are calling for 5-8mph northwesterly winds, meaning the peloton will be riding into light cross-headwinds, but at that speed, the pros will barely feel it. And with so many fans lining the road, the wind could largely be blocked in the critical sectors. Wind during Paris-Roubaix is highly unpredictable, however, and can easily whip up in a moment’s notice.

At Paris-Roubaix, everything can change at a moment’s notice.

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