Notwithstanding today's no-show, Quick Step have made it perfectly clear who's in charge, at least in races on the north side of the Franco-Flandres border. It's so obvious as to defy description. So the question for everyone else is, what are you going to do about it? After Sunday (or the Scheldeprijs) Lefevre's charges go into storage for another 10 months, so if the remaining teams have something to say, Paris-Roubaix is their last chance.
First, an assessment of the Boys in Blue and White: they are stocked, as usual, for this race. Boonen and Devolder are presumably co-captains, and guys like Weylandt, Van Impe, Hulsmans and Tosatto are loyal, capable cobbles nuts. Sylvain Chavanel is actually racing the Queen of the Classics for the first time in his career, but he might be of use before it's over too. Boonen has won this twice, and Devolder's soloing strength plays well here on the wide-open, flat roads of the Department du Nord. So while it's not exactly home soil, it's pretty much business as usual.
But... can Paris-Roubaix be controlled? Yes and no. Last year Boonen had a flotilla of teammates around, and when the inevitable trimming-down happened, he still had Devolder to play one-two with. Two years ago Quick Step sent Tosatto and Van Impe in the big early break, giving Tommeke some cover later. Three years ago, in the famous train-gate-crossing race, Boonen was isolated rather early on. Four years ago, in Boonen's first win, QSI were a different team and most of the action involved only Boonen and Pippo Pozzato. At least that last bit is still true.
The problem with trying to control this race with a large team is that the Forest of Arenberg is both a really, really hard stretch and a big bottleneck. All it takes is for QSI to get a few guys stuck behind -- mechanicals, flats, crashes... all the inevitables -- and by Le Trouee d'Arenberg (the Arenberg Trench) if they haven't made it all the way to the front of the race, they're probably done for the day. The Trouee is a thoroughly natural break point, as a matter of pure physics: it's so narrow and dicey that it almost has to be raced single- or double-file, so if you aren't at the front when they return to pavement, you're in deep trouble when the front accelerates. Gaps almost always open up, and if Quick Step want to keep a throttle on things they will have to be quite lucky beforehand AND quite forceful in putting all their guys on the tip of the spear entering the Forest.
For everyone else, the challenge is to gain the front and step on the gas, at Arenberg or maybe beforehand, before Quick Step can enact their battle plan. Teams simply have to realize that waiting for Lefevre's charges to screw up is the surest way to lose. They also have to stop looking at each other to see who's going to take responsibility. This last part is the tricky one, IMHO. For the past three years at least, the balance of power at Paris-Roubaix has been shared between CSC and Quick Step, if not others. Riis' rebranded Saxo Bank could be a force once more, but lacking Stuart O'Grady is a huge blow, and Fabian Cancellara does not seem to be all the way back. Maybe Riis will have his team hammering away at Quick Step, but another possibility is that they will look to someone else for that job. The question is, who? Some possibilities:
Cervelo Test Team: The Knights of é have the two best attributes: talented guys for this race, experience, and aggression -- the three best attributes. Actually, we might call this squad the Knights of H: 'aussler, 'ammond, 'unt and 'ushovd. Anyway, they can make things hard on Boonen, and all indications are that they won't hold back.
Columbia: They too can take some whacks at Quick Step -- Burghardt and Hincapie are the co-captains, both looking strong, and Boasson Hagen is the wild card (though he might be spent after today). Then there's an excellent support squad in Eisel, Hansen and Sieberg. The latter two and EBH have very little experience, though, so maybe it's more proper to talk of Eisel and the two captains. That's certainly something; Eisel in fact has a fifth place and regular top-20s here. The bigger question is whether they're ready to get aggressive. Today's win might give their confidence a boost, but I am still skeptical.
Rabobank: Similar to Columbia, though they have shown more ability to take charge, albeit not in the most timely fashion. Anyway, Flecha and Langeveld will have Matt Hayman and a flotilla of support in guys like Horrillo, Posthuma, Stamsnijder and Tjallingii.
Katusha: For now, Gert Steegmans is back on the roster, though I don't know how current that is. If it's right, then Filippo Pozzato will bring his scintillating form AND a few handy guys like Gert and Ignatiev alongside. I dunno, maybe I'm talking myself out of this. But a fit Steegmans could make a difference.
This is the first wave of tactics, a battle that should have played itself by the time the pack turns left and leaves the carnage of the Trouee behind. From there a zillion other things can happen -- and we'll be guessing wildly at what that might be over the next few days -- but until this point, the first order of business will be creating disorder.