And with that, Flanders Season is over. It always takes me a day or two to get over the completion of de Ronde. The Scheldeprijs doesn't do it. Gent-Wevelgem was a much more effective race for dulling the post-Ronde blues, but that tradition is done and dusted. As far as I'm concerned, it's time to bid adieu for now to the hellingen, kasseien and frietes.
But the emotional roller coaster doesn't stop there. If Monday was spent feeling spent, things are turning around pretty quickly, cuz it's gonna get crazy again.
Forecasts suggesting rain look a little unconvincing, but there appears to be some weather in the vicinity of Roubaix, France this week. There are winds, clouds and moisture around, and if things break the right way over the next few days, we could have a "Real Roubaix" on our hands this Sunday. And if not? Who cares... it's the Hell of the North. It's a season unto itself.
This is gonna run long, for better or worse. Op de flip!
I promised that I wouldn't do a team power poll this week, and I meant it. The team makeups have been dissected to death, so I'm going to keep it simple and start running through... a bunch of riders I feel like talking about. But first, the obvious: everything has changed with the temporary demise of Fabian Cancellara.
The last two years effectively showcased what's been happening since 2006, when Cancellara became a star. I still maintain that Paris-Roubaix is his race, not Boonen's, results aside. Boonen was lovingly crafted by the Cycling Gods to win de Ronde, while no race celebrates Cancellara's dominant power bursts like Paris-Roubaix. The seemingly endless collection of broken rock scattered about at random that they call a parcours practically eliminates the advantage of drafting. Or makes it really, really hard to stay close enough to Cancellara for it to matter. To beat the guy, you have to match him as he powers over the pavé. Good luck with that. Tom Boonen's winning streak would have made him the favorite even if Cancellara were on the line Sunday, but it would have been Tony's race to lose. Godverdomme...
Regardless, everyone likes their chances better now without the Swiss Bear around, and it's fair to say that we are looking at an entirely different race as a result. So, in no particular order, unless you count the Cycling Fever startlist, here's a Paris-Roubaix who's who:
Maxim Iglinsky, Astana
One of the stronger riders over the past month +, starting with his second at Strade Bianche and continuing through de Ronde, where he was around the front all day. But Iglinsky has never taken the start in Compiegne, riding something of a Gilbert program (that's a thing now, right?) where he does the cobbles minus the pavé, then reappears in the Ardennes and does well there too. Experience counts for a lot in Paris-Roubaix, so let's just call him a curiosity for now.
Alessandro Ballan, BMC
I can only find two instances in his long and very consistent career where he was better in Flanders than Roubaix: 2005 and 2007. [And actually he cratered in Roubaix after his RvV win. Too much Prosecco?] That's not to say that he's better in Roubaix than Flanders; results in Flanders can change rather randomly in the last 100 meters depending on who is bothering to sprint. But it does tend to suggest that he doesn't lose anything from one April Sunday to the next. The aggressive tactics on the Oude Kwaremont tell you all you need to know about his form right now. And his race smarts.
That said, can he win? His skillset is not unlike Cancellara's: strong-strong-strong, knows what to do, handles the bike exceptionally, can win alone (sorry Damiano), can't sprint. Boonen can't drop Ballan, but let's face it, Ballan isn't quite on the level of Cancellara at their respective peaks. Ballan hasn't shown he can drop Boonen. That's his task.
Thor Hushovd, BMC
I feel an obligation to discuss him here, almost like Thor has personally willed me into doing it. But it seems clear that Hushovd's sub-sub-optimal preparation and illness has him short of form right now, and nobody has ever won Paris-Roubaix on less than stellar form.
So what do BMC do? My hunch is that Ballan and Thor are co-captains going in, with George Hincapie as Plan C if he's there coming into Mons and Carrefour de l'Arbe. If Thor has it, Ballan can take his digs and see about dropping Boonen, but Hushovd had better be locked in on the Belgian's wheel. Barring a solo win and assuming Boonen stays in the picture, BMC need two guys in the finale -- one to soften up Tommeke and the other to win. If Thor doesn't have it, they still need a second guy to give Ballan a chance at launching something more convincing than his going-nowhere efforts in the last few KM of de Ronde. Hincapie or Quinziato maybe? Burghardt? The Kid? [Wishful thinking...]
Filippo Pozzato, Farnese Vini
My upset special pick to win. He came within half a wheel of winning de Ronde and looked like the strongest guy in the race to me, particularly on the Paterberg. Maybe some sort of mechanical for Boonen, but regardless Pippo was a different guy. So how does that translate at Paris-Roubaix? One scenario is that he's on special form, even better than in Flanders, with his early difficulties delaying his peak slightly. Like Ballan he's generally been at least as good in France as in Flanders, coming second in 2009 P-R, which along with a 5th in Flanders makes it his best Classics campaign to date. Last week was certainly his most convincing effort in de Ronde ever, and if he's good for an encore, well... do the math.
Another scenario is that Boonen is off a bit, following a hectic victory week, but nobody is counting on that. Put the two on level terms, then, and Pozzato has the same chance he had on Sunday -- a real one, but not a great one. There are a million ways for Paris-Roubaix to sort out the finale for them, of course. Crosswinds, for example, are a more realistic scenario than rain (and these guys don't fall off the cobbles anyway). Tailwinds too. Both favor escapes more than Flanders, where the headwind at the end was cited by Boonen as the reason he hung on for the sprint.
Everyone's tactics will be targeting Boonen, so even if Pippo only has Hulsmans late into the race he'll have plenty of allies-of-convenience. Then there's his friend Ballan. Apparently they are pretty tight, with Pippo attending a funeral for Ballan's father-in-law last week. That's more than "hey, we were on the nazionale together a few times." I'm not sure how much they contemplated teaming up on Boonen prior to last Sunday, but you can bet they've both thought about that since. Yes, I am getting excited now...
Frederic Guesdon, FDJ
One of the cooler moments of the race Sunday will be when the 40-year-old Guesdon arrives in the velodrome for the last lap-and-a-half of his cycling career. Guesdon has announced that he will retire at the end of the race, scene of his surprising and career-defining win in 1997. I count 14 participations at Paris-Roubaix [Hincapie is one behind in finishes. Stupid steerer tube...] But for Guesdon, his continued riding isn't a cute little human interest story -- he finished 11th last year, in the thick of the Hushovd group, and hasn't been outside the top 20 since 2007. Mind you, he also hasn't cracked the top ten since 2006, but the peloton shouldn't get all misty-eyed and leave him up the road in a break.
I am developing a soft spot for this team, though. They were very active Sunday in Flanders. They've got guys up the road in the Scheldeprijs as I type this. Too bad Arnaud Demare hurt his wrist, he'd be a serious contender in the Scheldeprijs and a guy to check out on Sunday, if only for future reference. Steve Chainel is one of those hard-not-to-like guys who seems to like the Arenberg Trench. But seriously, if they're in the finale, it'll be a pleasant surprise.
Stuart O'Grady, GreenEdge
Evoking the name of the 2007 winner is an excuse to check in on GreenEdge. Is anyone having a crappier time up north than these guys? Yes, they got the spring off to a great start, but Jens mentioned in the live thread that Matt Goss has been ill all spring. Sebastian Langeveld suffered a horror-crash with a spectator -- and while I don't like Langeveld as a leader too much, he was their classics guy. Baden Cooke and O'Grady are coming off DNF's in Flanders. Jens Keukeleire isn't a Roubaix hardman as far as I can tell, not yet. And Mitch Docker's absence is killing them now. This is a cruel sport.
Luca Paolini, Katusha
So totally not his race. I just felt like mentioning him after a terrific ride in Flanders, and it's the last time I'll mention Katusha in Cobbles Season. Grande Luca!
Peter Sagan, Liquigas
No wait, it's Juraj on the startlist! Nothing against the guy, it's just that he's no Peter, thankfully, because I don't know if cycling could take two of them. Hm, Peter is on at least one provisional list, so we'll see. I've scoured the Italian sites for more... no word yet. The idea of holding him back is offensive on so many levels. Liquigas have nobody else to meaningfully contest the race. Sagan himself proved a lot of points in his favor Sunday, where he looked like he had more in the tank than a lot of the so-called strongmen in their prime. And endurance was about the only big question mark. His aggression and positioning seem very good, as he's made the front end of every race this spring, unless you count Milano-Sanremo where he had to hold back. I'd say he was the fourth-strongest guy left, and unlike the other 46 riders chasing the winning trio, Sagan at least gave bridging up a shot. Get him to Compiegne, pronto.
Tom Boonen, Omega Pharma Quick Step
The logical pick to win, and why not? You haven't lost money betting on the guy since Milano-Sanremo (and unless you were betting on him to disappear mysteriously there, you get what you deserve). Boonen's resurgence is the story of the year so far, but it's not like he's 25 again. It's simply that he has the bit between the teeth again, and all of the elements that made him the dominant force of the mid-2000s -- pack smarts, aggression, swagger, strength, handling, and enough raw explosiveness to split a carbon crank -- are still around. I like the current theory propounded by one Eddie Merckx: Gilbert's rise has convinced Boonen to work harder. Or maybe he was referring to Gilbert's contract. Either way.
Boonen has been so good that Sylvain Chavanel doesn't get his own header here. Still, Chava is the key to victory Sunday, in my estimation. As mentioned above, the entire peloton will be trying to mark Boonen out of existence. BMC is so loaded (I know, I know, but it's true) that they alone can cause OPQS some major headaches. It's all well and good that they've had an armada of stout beaters on the front of 200km races for the last few weeks, but to protect Tommeke at the end of the ultimate hardman contest, they need another ultimate hardman in the mix. Chavanel is the most likely candidate, despite a thin resume in his home country's Monument. Niki Terpstra has had it going on of late, though he too hasn't shown anything too special in the Hell of the North. I'm still betting on Boonen being isolated in the last few major stretches of pavé, and his explosiveness alone won't save him this time.
As a great man once said, you can't have everything. Where would you put it?
Maarten Tjallingii, Rabobank
Like Johan Van Summeren last year, Tjallingii got in the right break after the Forest of Arenberg and was never hauled back. OK, Summie had the extra gear and the history of awesomeness at Paris-Roubaix that made him a very real, if stealth, contender. Tjallingii, on the other hand, came almost out of nowhere to finish on the podium. Good, strong rider in his prime, and he had ridden decently in Hell, coming in with the peloton in 2010. But there was little else to suggest he could keep up with the elite strongmen of the race. So is he for real? He'd better be, or it will be a quiet Sunday for Rabo. All indications are that Lars Boom simply doesn't have the form right now. He was last seen complaining of respiratory problems, not what you want in an inhuman test of aerobic fitness. Matti Breschel is on one startlist but last month they'd taken him off Paris-Roubaix to save him for the Gilbert Program, i.e. the Ardennes. Breschel can do almost anything, and unlike Boom his health is finally headed in the right direction. In the grand scheme of things, keeping him out of the trenches Sunday is smart. But it leaves Rabo hoping for a lot of luck.
Johan Van Summeren, Garmin-Barracuda
The returning winner isn't given the best odds of repeating from anything I've read, solely on the basis that nobody will ever underestimate him again. The question I have, however, is did anyone underestimate him last year? Did Leopard and Quick Step let him get away in the decisive break because they didn't think he had a chance? For all the 'OMIGOD I can't believe he won!" stories last year, the fact was he'd been fifth in 2009 and 8th in 2008. Nobody finishes this race that high without earning it. He was hired by Garmin specifically for this race, as well as his stonking good domestique work elsewhere on the cycling calendar. The shock was that Cancellara didn't win, not that Van Summeren did.
Van Summeren is the personification of what I love about this race. Sure, the flyweight climbers are the stars of the biggest race, the Tour de France, but cycling is about speeding over whatever landscape people feel like racing on, and thanks to the marriage of rolling terrain to the world's worst road surface, there's a place for guys like Van Summeren, whose head tube is about the size of Jose Rujano's top tube. Forget power-to-weight ratios, this is all about power and momentum, something a big guy like Summie can bring with the best of them. There are definitely guys on this list who can hold his wheel on the Carrefour de l'Arbe (just not Tjallingii). But if they're not on his wheel, or up ahead of him, Van Summeren will be a big time threat again.
This gives me an excuse not to talk up Sep Vanmarcke, for once. He's the co-leader for the race with Summie, but I think (from what he's said) that he's hitting the wall, proving that he's human. But look for him to be super-strong deep into the race regardless. Tyler Farrar has the potential to affect this race, but he needs to ride a perfect one, and luck has yet to be on his side. Jakob Rathe, a Portland native and product of the Chipotle development team, is yet another entry on the kids to watch, coming third in the Espoirs race last year.
Gregory Rast, Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek
Just when every ray of hope was gone, I should've known that you would come along. Rast could well be the cure for the Cancellara Collarbone Blues. Lost in the mayhem around their leader, Rast has looked every bit as good as last season, coming in with the first chase group in Flanders Sunday and generally riding well, even in a support role. Granted, his fourth in Paris-Roubaix last year was on par with Tjallingii's third, i.e. the product of joining the winning break, but Rast's career palmares are much more convincing: 11th in the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, 13th in Flanders in 2009, and now another top finish there. If that fourth was a fluke, it was just barely. And I'm not necessarily even buying that. Oh, and for what it's worth, pencil in Tony Gallopin to the list of young guys worth keeping an eye on. Not for a big result this year, but maybe next? At least, if he (or anyone else from RNT) can make it through a race with fewer than five mechanical incidents.
Matt Hayman, Team Sky
Wait, isn't this the Juan Antonio Flecha thread? After finishing 20th in the Ronde it appears the Spanish Arrow didn't lose much form to his hand injury from last month, which means you can pencil him into the finale right now. All well and good. But there simply isn't anything interesting to add since we can pretty much guarantee a high but non-winning finish. The best we can hope for is some more sarcastic clapping in the velodrome.
Hayman was yet another surprise last year, rolling into Roubaix tenth on the day. But more than any of the other riders who made a leap last year, Hayman's was coming due. He'd authored a couple top 25 finishes already and was on terrific form: 4th in Dwars, 21st in de Ronde. Nothing of the sort this spring, however, as he spent last weekend taking a few fliers for the team before finishing way back. Bad news? Not really. It was Edvald Boasson Hagen's race and Hayman was playing his role. Don't be shocked if he's in the mix more this Sunday for Sky.
Boasson Hagen, knock on some good Norwegian wood, is having his first clean run through the spring in forever, and was among the Sagans and Breschels when Summie overshot the entrance to the Paterberg and brought down half the mini-pack, ending any hope of a dramatic bridge up to the three leaders. Boasson Hagen has zero history at the race and is a complete wild card. You can easily picture him out of the action entirely, or sneaking up on the big names in the closing pavé secteurs. Close your eyes and dream...
John Degenkolb, Argos-Shimano
As scary a prospect as Degenkolb entering the velodrome with the leaders might be, I'll take a guess that the Kid has a few more lessons to learn before he can make that leap. Nineteenth overall in his debut last year, he was terribly impressive in jumping away with the winning group, eventually shredded by Van Summeren (who undoubtedly did NOT want to enter the velodrome with Degenkolb). There are kids like Gallopin who are fun to watch and wonder about, but with Degenkolb it's less of a question of if, and more about how soon. Oh, and for what it's worth, Sunday will also be the senior pavé debut for Ramon Sinkeldam, winner of the Paris-Roubaix espoirs last year for the Rabo Conti outfit. This race is U25-potential-porn.
Stijn Devolder, Vacansoleil
Because I have to say something about this team. And I'd gladly talk about Bjorn Leukemans if he weren't on the bubble to miss his start, experiencing knee pain from de Ronde. It's been an all-round poor spring campaign for the Dutch squad, but Devolder is a former Paris-Roubaix top ten, back in his killer 2008 season, albeit with his mate Boonen up the road. He supposedly is strong again, as good as ever (he says), but after two crashes in Flanders his day was over. Can he stop the bleeding, from his knees and elbows and reputation and team hopes? Pretty big ask.
Boonen and Ballan Photos © Fotoreporter Sirotti; Old Paris-Roubaix pic by Getty Images Sport