The Favorites: Cancellara vs. the field at Paris-Roubaix

Flanders winner Fabian Cancellara is the distant favorite for Sunday, but Taylor Phinney and a cadre of contenders are there if he falters

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On what should be a mild and dry Sunday morning, 200 men will set out from Compiegne, in the north of France, for 259 kilometers of hell. Paris-Roubaix, the third of the season’s five one-day monuments, will cover 27 sectors of cobblestones before finishing on the smooth banks of the Roubaix Velodrome. While 25 teams of eight riders will depart Compiegne, one man, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), is the clear favorite for a cobblestone trophy more than six hours later.

Behind “Spartacus,” a cadre of riders, including American Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), await their shots on the unpredictable stone pathways of the “Hell of the North.” These are our picks for the top favorites for Sunday’s 111th edition of Paris-Roubaix.

Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) ★★★★★
When we use the term “favorite” this year for Paris-Roubaix, what we mean to say is, aside from Fabian Cancellera, “those who could perhaps win” in the event Cancellara falters.

It’s true that this is bike racing, and anything can and does happen, particularly in the classics, and absolutely in the “Hell of the North.” But it’s hard to imagine Cancellara not winning his third Roubaix stone (and second Flanders-Roubaix double) if the race unfolds without major incident.

This is how dominant Cancellara appears at this point of the season, with remarkable wins at E3 Harelbeke and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders): He’s our lone 5-star pick, and there are no 4-star favorites. “Spartacus” is the top favorite and, should the race play out as it should on paper (again, that is a big ask), there appears to be no one capable of matching him.

Cancellara’s chief rival for the “Queen of the Classics,” Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), has abandoned his title defense before it ever began, the victim of crashes during these cobbled classics, and that leaves a flying Cancellara alone as the man to beat. His two wins in the last two weeks have come in typical Spartan fashion, with Cancellara riding off the front of the field and soloing home for wins. In both those rides he used steep pitches as launching pads once the legs of his rivaled had softened, but in Roubaix there are no such ramps from which to attack. This shouldn’t worry Cancellara, who will hope to use the 27 sectors of pavé to weaken those whose only real hope is to hold the Swiss rider’s wheel. The cobbles have a way of sorting out wheelsuckers.

A concern — perhaps the only — for RadioShack and Cancellara is the fact that he’s crashed two times in his last two outings, once at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday and again on Thursday while studying the Roubaix parcours. His RadioShack team did tell VeloNews on Thursday afternoon that Cancellara was uninjured by the fall, but did crash on the same side as Wednesday. He sat in the team car for a few kilometers and then stepped out and remounted the bike, as it had been since 2011 that he’d been on the granite setts of Roubaix during Holy Week.

Is it a chink in the armor? Perhaps, but his foes will need to do much more than that to deny “Spartacus” a third Paris-Roubaix win. —MATTHEW BEAUDIN

Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) ★★★
He’s never been in the top 10 at Paris-Roubaix; in fact, he’s only raced it once, last year. Yet Taylor Phinney could well be the No. 2 favorite to win on Sunday behind Fabian Cancellara.

Why? Because, like Cancellara and Tom Boonen, at 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, Phinney is a rider born to crush cobblestones. He has the TT-specialist power output to match Cancellara, and the musculature, and finishing sprint, to match Boonen. He won the under-23 version of Paris-Roubaix twice before turning pro, and finished 15th last year after spending the day riding as a domestique for his BMC Racing teammates Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan. With Ballan out after suffering a broken leg and Hushovd largely absent from the sharp end of the classics this spring, Phinney should have free reign as a protected rider on Sunday.

Just 22, Phinney has proven that he can go the distance in 250km races, placing fourth in the Olympic road race last summer, and finishing an astonishing seventh at Milano-Sanremo last month after he rode away from the main chase group at the bottom of the Poggio to catch the winning six-man move just as it launched its sprint 400 meters from the line. Beating Cancellara will be tough for any rider — even if physical strengths were even, the experience of the RadioShack leader’s two Roubaix victories give him an advantage — but should something happen to “Spartacus,” such as a crash, puncture, or mechanical, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the young American rides into what is sure to be the first of many Roubaix victories. —NEAL ROGERS

Ian Stannard (Sky) ★★★
It’s a difficult proposition to say that Sky is due for a win this classics season; things happen in these races outside of reason, and there are no algorithms, no power matrices to calculate for classics success, as the British team has done to such great result in stage races.

But the Brits are close, and they have a compliment of strong riders who have been consistent in these classics, but not spectacular. Bernhard Eisel has two top 10s, and Edvald Boasson Hagen finished ninth at Harelbeke. Geraint Thomas will also line up, and he’s got a turn of speed as good as any classics rider outside of Peter Sagan (Cannondale). From top to the bottom, Sky is the strongest team in the race, though it lacks a true captain.

Ian Stannard, 25, is one of the team’s best hopes on Sunday. It sounds too simple to put it like this, but it’s the truth: he’s really, really strong, and has the size needed (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) to survive the terrible cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix.

Stannard’s strength is crucial in tough conditions, as seen in his repeated late surges in the wretched Milano-Sanremo. He rode to sixth that day at Sanremo, after playing the late protagonist. In Belgium, he then rode to ninth at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Sky is nearly there in its classics project; its consistency shows that much. The team needs someone now who can follow Cancellara’s rear wheel and hold on for dear life. Stannard and Co. will be at the wick of the race when the match draws near, as seen at the Tour of Flanders. If they can hold on long enough, they have a better chance than most for a win at Roubaix.

But of course, this is bike racing, a game of ifs. In this case, that “if” is an awfully big ask. —MATTHEW BEAUDIN

Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) ★★★
If a Frenchman is going to snap the 15-edition Paris-Roubaix dry spell since Frédéric Guesdon won the event in 1997, it’s going to be Sébastian Turgot.

Yes, it’s been 16 years since France has won the only monument it hosts. Last year Turgot, a 29-year old from Limoges, was second at Roubaix, out-sprinting Ballan and Juan Antonio Flecha on the banks of the Roubaix velodrome. Of course, it was a distant second after Tom Boonen was off the front for nearly a fifth of the race and finished 1:39 ahead of the Frenchman.

Take away Boonen—and injuries the Belgian incurred at the Ronde van Vlaanderen have done just that this year—Turgot’s chances of moving up a step on the higher have become significantly higher than in 2012. With an eighth-place finish at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, Turgot has shown he has the fitness to finish with the players. It only remains to be seen who plays whom on Sunday afternoon. —MARK JOHNSON

Mathew Hayman (Sky) ★★★
Mathew Hayman is certainly not a top favorite for Sunday; he is perhaps at best a long shot for the podium. But Paris-Roubaix is a strange race where anything can and does happen. Just as bad luck can turn against any rider at any point, serendipity can shine down in the most unexpected moments.

The secret to Roubaix is to keep plugging away and never give up. And in that regard, Hayman will be right there on Sunday, ready to exploit any twist of fate that comes his way. The 34-year-old journeyman is no stranger to the cobbles. A loyal domestique most of the season, Hayman relishes the challenges of the northern classics.

“I live for these races,” Hayman said. “My dream is to win Roubaix.”

After a decade with Rabobank, where he learned to speak fluent Dutch, Hayman was one of the key additions to Sky’s start-up season in 2010. The Australia was and has been an anchor for the team’s classics program, which has produced a number of near misses on the cobbles. His palmarès since the move to the British team reflects his solid consistency in April.

He was fifth at Dwars door Vlaanderen in 2010, third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a winner at Paris-Bourges in 2011. This year, he clawed his way to third at Dwars, but did not finish Flanders last weekend.

Roubaix is a race that favors experience, depth and raw courage, characteristics that Hayman has in spades. Two solid rides over the past two editions of Roubaix, with 10th in 2011 and eighth in 2012, reveal that Hayman could well be just one surge away from hitting the right breakaway.

On Sunday, especially with the departure of Juan Antonio Flecha to Vacansoleil-DCM, Hayman will have more freedom than ever. Roubaix often pays dividends to the persistent and the resilient and punishes the frivolous. Hayman is a hardman from the old-school tradition of cobble-bashers. If the door opens Sunday, you can count on Hayman to stampede right through it. —ANDREW HOOD

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) ★★★
“Since I’ve started training this winter, I’ve been thinking about Roubaix,” Sylvain Chavanel said in March at Paris-Nice. “I seem to be missing some luck in that race. The past two years I’ve had some punctures that cost me a lot.”

But with luck on his side, Chavanel could claim a first Roubaix victory. Yes, there is the matter of Cancellara, but Chavanel enters the “Hell of the North” as the outright team leader for Omega Pharma, having lost Tom Boonen to injury at De Ronde. With the right luck, he will undoubtedly be in the mix. His form is not in question. The Frenchman is coming off a second consecutive victory in the Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne). His ability to sustain a hard effort from a distance is, similarly, on form, as showcased by his time trial romp in the last stage of the midweek stage race. If he happens to open a gap on the cobbles and is alone late in the race, watch him chug his way to the line. If it comes down to a sprint in the velodrome, beware of his craftiness and his little-used sprinting ability. (He surprised himself and his rivals, including world champion Philippe Gilbert, to take a stage victory in a reduced bunch sprint at Paris-Nice.)

Chavanel just has to work on that all-important stroke of luck, as all the other pieces have fallen into place. “I’ve been feeling pretty good for quite a while now. I’m getting better and better every day,” he said last week at De Panne. “I’m in good condition. My objective is to maintain this form until Paris-Roubaix.” If he does so, Chavanel could well be the first French Roubaix champion in 16 years. —CHRIS CASE

Lars Boom (Blanco) ★★★
When Lars Boom walked away from a lucrative career in cyclocross after winning the 2008 world championship, success in the cobbled classics was at the forefront of his mind. The decision to set his sights on the road has undeniably paid off for him, but after nearly five years, a win in the classics remains elusive. Boom changed his off-season program this winter, dropping most of the already abbreviated cyclocross season he has raced in years past and renewing his focus on early-season results on the road.

Boom showed last year that he has the chops to ride with the best on the cobbles with a sixth place in Roubaix — he may have done better had he avoided being drawn into a foolish tactical battle in the race’s final laps on the track. On Sunday he finished 11th, his best Flanders result to date, and told the press he felt as strong as he ever has heading into Roubaix.

With his championship cyclocross background, Boom doesn’t shy away from rain or cold and is a skilled bike handler who can tackle the cobbles securely even when they are wet and muddy. He lacks Cancellara’s massive engine, but Boom is a savvy rider and strong time trialist capable of disrupting the race with a well-timed attack on the cobbles, especially if the big Swiss rider is still suffering the effects of back-to-back crashes at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday and in training on Thursday. —DAN SEATON

Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) ★★★
In his sixth year as a professional, Jürgen Roelandts may finally be hitting his stride.

After a solid amateur career, Roelandts burst onto the pro scene in 2008 by sprinting to the coveted Belgian road title ahead of established riders like Nico Eeckhout and Tom Boonen. While he didn’t quickly become the prolific winner as some expected, Roelandts was always there, notching podiums and top-10 placings in races like E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen. But now, with his third-placed ride at last weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the 28-year-old has shown he’s ready to contend for the “Queen of Classics.”

Roelandts’s good form leading up to De Ronde was well hidden by misfortune — he flatted out of the key selection at Harelbeke, then flatted again at Ghent-Wevelgem and was struck by a race organizer’s car as he waited for a wheel. A week later, though, he proved his resilience by shrugging off the bad luck and bruises to deliver a powerful, tactical ride that landed him on the podium in Oudenaarde.

After masterfully surfing the front of De Ronde during its final two circuits, Roelandts was alone in the lead when the race hit its third ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, perfectly positioned to latch onto the inevitable Cancellara-Sagan express as it stormed by. It was a display of the strength and nous that should serve him well in Paris-Roubaix, where the flatter course profile arguably suits him better than the Ronde’s bergs.

A Lotto team that has looked much sharper this spring than in the past will bolster Roelandts’ chances at success in Roubaix. Long prone to missing the key moves, this year’s Lotto has been attentive and tactically astute. At De Ronde, the team had Tosh van der Sande in the early move and André Greipel and Marcel Sieberg off the front late in the race, paving the way for Roelandts to contest the final. If there is a chance of containing Cancellara at Roubaix, other contenders will need support deep into the final, and Roelandts may just get it. And if he can arrive to the velodrome in a small group, Roelandts still has plenty of the kick that won him that Belgian championship five years ago. —RYAN NEWILL

★★ Favorites
Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM)
John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano)
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ)
Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco)
Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

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