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Roubaix Preview: The Contenders
The ‘Queen of the Classics,’ the ‘Hell of the North’ – Paris – Roubaix; 270 kilometres, of which 53 are on cobbles or farm tracks in 27 sectors which count down to the last stretch of 300 metres, laid outside the Roubaix velodrome in this particular Queen’s honour.


***Be sure to see the action live on Cycling.TV***


A throw back to the sport’s earliest days.

This is not a race for wimps; if it’s dry the dust will choke and blind you as you try to pick the best lines.



Pez-Fan John Picken sent this shot of the pave section “Bernard Hinault”. Don’t expect it to look quite so tranquil come Sunday.


If it’s wet the mud will blind you too, sending your wonderfully balanced five grand machine slipping and sliding beneath you; puddles will conceal deep, wheel destroying potholes.

It’s well nigh impossible to eat in either of these conditions so you’ll have to rely on gels and energy drinks for sustenance – your digestive system will be wrecked for a week because you’ll be swallowing almost as much dust or mud as you are race food.



You’ll have to be strong if you want to win and you’ll have to ride ‘le course en tete’ (at the head of the race) for most of the day.

The big riders rarely puncture, this is because they’re at the front, with a clear view of what’s coming – those same ‘capo’ dictate the race; it’s rare for a follower to win at Roubaix.

Despite the fact that your bike has been endlessly computer modeled to cope with the punishment – a little more compliance in the weave, a slightly longer wheel base, bigger clearances and fat, soft running tyres – you’ll ache all over for a week after it.

Only the view from the podium can ease the pain.

It goes without saying that this is a race for the strong men, usually tall or at least solidly built; small, light riders don’t win at Roubaix. Body weight is no handicap on a course with no hills and one where you need to keep the rubber solidly in touch with the road.

Professional road racing is one of the most tactical of sports, but in Paris – Roubaix it’s simple, save energy until the cobbles, stay at or near the front over the stones, don’t get dropped and if you can’t sprint then you have to bolt before the velodrome.

As three times winner, Francesco Moser expressed it; “Be strong, ride in front and have a little luck.”

‘Monsieur Paris – Roubaix’ is Belgium’s Roger de Vlaeminck; when that old chestnut of the “coolest looking rider of all time” crops up in a magazine or on the internet, it’s hard to argue against ‘Le Gitane’ (the gypsy) in his Brooklyn jersey astride his blue Gios sporting those bushy sideburns.



Between 1969 and 1982 De Vlaeminck won the race four times, was second four times and from 14 starts he abandoned once; from those 13 finishes he was outside the top seven once.

In recent times it’s been ‘Lion of Flanders’ Johan Museeuw who was placed his stamp on the race, three wins, a second place and two third places – the mud encrusted Colnago he used to win in 2002 graces the Flanders museum in Oudenaarde.

The current “King of the cobbles” is Tom Boonen – a third, a second and two wins speaks for itself.


Boonen, Flecha, Hincapie, and Haussler – all to be considered contenders to some degree.

Just as with Flanders, experience is everything – that coupled with the right physical characteristics – means that it’s the same names who keep cropping up.

Boonen has three podium finishes from the last four years with Cancellara, Flecha and Ballan on two each over the same period.


Don’t forget about Cancellara!

Cancellara has been struggling to find consistent form whilst Ballan has fallen victim to “the curse of the rainbow jersey,” and another of the cobble specialists – Stuey O’Grady, who won in 2007, is out with injury.

Flecha’s strength and courage are unquestionable; but the same statement cannot be made about his tactical sense – that won’t change between now and Sunday.


Dutch team mate, Sebastian Langeveld has to be worth a mention, however.

Boonen and his henchmen have no such limitations; playing the chess board of Flanders like Grand Masters – with Devolder’s win in De Ronde just another example of their skills.

Boonen is hard to see past, especially with the best Classics team in the business around him – although, in the finalй, it’s every man for himself.

Cervelo’s Heinrich Haussler’s streak of form goes on and on, but perhaps he’s too light for this one? And Hushovd’s wrist injury probably means a non start. Roger Hammond has been third here before and will be good for top ten, but no more.

George Hincapie (Columbia & USA) has the characteristics for the race and after chaperoning Cav to his Primavera win, his morale will be high, but it’s unlikely he will win; a podium is possible, though.

Fillipo Pozzato (Katusha & Italy) has the class and the build, but perhaps not the grinta.



All roads point to Balen, then – that’s Tom’s home town.




 

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