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Stars and Stones: Roubaix preview

On Sunday the 203 cobbles season comes to a close with the big climax. Paris-Roubaix, The Queen of the Classics. At once the easiest and hardest of all races to predict. On the one hand there is no race where raw power is as decisive but on the other hand there is no race where riders are do in the hands of Lady Luck. The strongest guy can get hammered by punctures and crashes turning the race into a nightmare for even the biggest of favorites.

Bryn Lennon

The story of Roubaix of course is the cobbled sectors. This year there are 27 of them and as usual ASO have rated them by difficulty on a five star scale with five being the most difficult.The sectors in the race is an ever changing pattern with some new coming and some going every year. Often the state of the sectors is the crucial factor in deciding which ones are included. The local organization "Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix" are constantly looking out for the roads in the area to help local municipalities to maintain them in order to maintain the heart of this unique race. The most famous sectors are of course almost permanent fixtures but even those aren't sure to be in every year, especially Arenberg is a tricky business because of the borderline horrific shape it's in.

In order to preview the favorites I've compiled the list or the sectors this year and matched them with a rider of the same caliber. Unfortunately there isn't a six star section to match up with Fabian Cancellara but we're going to have to make do. So this is what we have to look forward to on Sunday.

27. Troisvilles (km 98,5 - 2200 m) ✰✰✰
Jürgen Roelandts
The man of the hour in the Tour of Flanders, the only one to really try the early attack and who got the third place as just reward. You can hear in his comments that his confidence gained a huge boost. Can that and great form land him another podium?

Before the race even hits the part with cobble sections the riders have about 100 fairly undulating kilometers to cover. The myth is that Roubaix is a completely flat race but that isn't the case, it's just that the finale isn't as hilly as the Flandrian races.

26. Viesly (km 105 - 1800 m) ✰✰✰
Alexander Kristoff
Roubaix isn't really the Katusha sprinter's race on paper but at this point form and momentum count for a lot and Kristoff has both. He could end up being top Norwegian again.

25. Quievy (km 107,5 - 3700 m) ✰✰✰✰
Thor Hushovd
On my 5 star list before RvV but the respiratory problem he had on Sunday look worrying. Especially if they were the kind of "respiratory problems" that come with being tired,old and out of shape. BMC at least has one of the most impressive support lineups with guys like Schär, van Avermaet and Burghard ready to do the heavy lifting or get in the tactical breakaways.

24. Saint-Python (km 112,5 - 1500 m) ✰✰
Yoann Offredo
Not prepared to give up on him just yet. He looks like one of the gambling riders who are intent to take the race to Cancellara. If he has the engine to do it? Probably not but he used to make races very watchable when he was in that mode pre-suspension.

23. Vertain (km 120 - 2300 m) ✰✰✰
John Degenkolb
One last chance to save a disappointing spring. Hed landed a 19th place in his first attempt so if his form is on the rise it isn't completely unlikely. The field behind Cancellara is wide open so why not.

22. Verchain-Maugré (km 130 - 1600 m) ✰✰✰
Matthew Hayman
Perhaps the strongest Sky rider in last years debacle for the team, he might be their best bet on Sunday if he isn't tasked with working in-effectually for teammates that can't deliver.

21. Quérénaing – Maing (km 133 - 2500 m) ✰✰✰
Mathieu Ladagnous
The FDJ rider has been solid in the big cobbles monuments these last years. With a little more luck than last year he could be this years surprise frenchman on the podium.

20. Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (km 136,5 - 1600 m) ✰✰✰
Stijn Vandenbergh
On his best season ever and with Boonen out of the picture Vandenbergh could do a Vansummeren and use his massive power to get himself a cobble.

19. Haveluy (km 149,5 - 2500 m) ✰✰✰✰
Sebastien Turgot
Turgot is turning into Mr Thereabouts-guy. The classics version of Haimar Zubeldia if you will. He might very well strike again this year. Bonus points for anyone who spots him in the TV coverage if he does.


18. Trouée d’Arenberg (km 158 - 2400 m) ✰✰✰✰✰
Lars Boom
However you look at it, Boom has to be the most credible contender to Spartacus this year. Along with Hushovd he is the most obviously Roubaix-built riders today and it's only a question of time before he puts together a winning challenge here. Rising form, great team-support and a wish to revenge the lackluster season should make him the big danger-man this year. Blanco also have Tjallingii and Vanmarcke as potential threats but I wonder if they won't focus all their power on putting Boom in position this year?

As for the Trench of Arenberg there is very little left to be said. It is without any comparison the cruelest 2400 meters in all of cycling. No other piece of road can have such devastating effect on a bikerace, it's a dream-killer and bone-breaker but of course also the birthplace of dreams for those who make it through in a good position. But the best part actually comes right after the trench. There is nothing quite like the look of riders for the first few hundred meters as the field exits the forrest, dazed and confused. For the front groups there is the frantic look-arounds to assess what actually just happened. Who made it? Do I have any teammates left? Am I the new de-facto teamleader? Did my main rivals get drop off? Do I go full out to take advantage of the situation or do I wait for teammates to improve my situation down the road? It's like a condensed 10 minute lecture in bike tactics.

17. Wallers - Hélesmes, dit " Pont Gibus " (km 164 - 1600 m) ✰✰✰
Niki Terpstra
He made a valiant attempt to help the freight train that was Boonen last year but soon had to let go and instead played the role of effective spoiler in the chase behind. Now with the opportunity to ride his own chance he is an interesting outsider even if he looked fading as his day ended in a Koppenberg walk of shame in De Ronde.Terpstra looks like the optimal modern Roubaix rider to me. Big and powerful with the ability to motor on his own almost endlessly, plus his track background gives him a decent chance in the velodrome should he be in a group.

This is actually a re-introduced sector, last used in 2008, that has been renovated by the Friends of Paris-Roubaix and renamed in honor of two time winner Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle.

16. Hornaing (km 170,5 - 3700 m) ✰✰✰✰
Stein Devolder
Nobody failed to notice Stijn back at the front of the race again in Flanders, even if it was in the service of Cancellara this time and not solo-attacking like back in the day. Clearly the power is back there though and that means he can be a factor in Roubaix too. It always looked to be the race he was made to win.

15. Warlaing - Brillon (km 178 - 2400 m) ✰✰✰
Filippo Pozzato
Still hoping, still thinking he can pull off the big result this spring. Unfortunately this is also the race where a lack of proper support could come back to haunt him. Anyone who isn't properly protected at least as far as Arenberg could waste crucial energy before the race proper has even begun.

14. Tilloy - Sars-et-Rosières (km 181,5 - 2400 m) ✰✰✰✰
Johan Vansummeren
The 2011 winner is actually the rider next to Cancellara that looks to be in the best shape for Sunday and he hasn't been falling over like drunken sailor these last days either. The hilly courses in Flanders clearly have him at a disadvantage but for Roubaix all that is moot, then it's all about the power. Apart from form he also has a decent team around him if Garmin has one of their lucky years in P-R. It seems that either they have huge success or they all crash and burn somewhere around Arenberg.

At Tilloy is when the sectors start coming thick and fast. The real selection is starting now once the post-Arenberg-situation has crystallized.

13. Beuvry-la-Forêt - Orchies (km 188 - 1400m) ✰✰✰
Ian Stannard
Stannard looked like a top favorite for Roubaix after Dwars but I think his stock has fallen since and other Sky probably have better form now. Still likely to be a factor in some way.

12. Orchies (km 193 - 1700 m) ✰✰✰
Heinrich Haussler
Roubaix is the race where having form and being "not so shrewd" can really pay off. Enter Barbie.

11. Auchy-lez-Orchies - Bersée (km 199 - 2600 m) ✰✰✰✰
Juan Antonio Flecha
Obviously Flecha is going to be on the list with his history. Personally I can't see him ever winning the thing after last years boneheaded riding where Senor Van Den Pijl decided to blast off from the group where Sky had massive numbers and could have controlled Boonen and put Flecha and Boasson Hagen in a great position. Instead the Spaniard probably helped cement Boonen's chances with his patented non-sensical "I'm stronger than you"-jaunt.

The Auchy sector is where Terpstra tried and failed to hang on to his teamcaptain Boonen last year. It's a seemingly endless sector that still is just a preface to the terror that comes 3 kms later.


10. Mons-en-Pévèle (km 205 - 3000 m) ✰✰✰✰✰
Sylvain Chavanel
Is Chava's form fading? If not, this could be his day. Some signs in RvV pointed to that being the case but sometimes it hard to distinguish poor form from a moments weakness. Last year he was struck with bad luck but looked on fire in the chase groups for whatever good it did him. If Cancellara falters then Chava could become the first frenchman to win since Guesdon in 1997.

On this,the second of three 5-star sections the race has been won and lost several times. Long and with stones that forces the riders on an endless search for the better (less gruesome) line it is a crucial point in the race. This is where Hincapie famously crashed out in 2006 and it's a crazy two-part section where the absolute worst of it comes after a brief respite on tarmac in the middle. After a 90 degree right-hander the riders enter a patch of road the punishes anyone who can't maintain a breakneck speed as the front of the race is always attacking here.

9. Mérignies - Avelin (km 211 - 700 m) ✰✰
Lars Bak
Another name in the "hasn't done diddley-squat so far but he might?"-category. Bak is one of the power guys who can take it from an early attack, especially if conditions make the race hard. Also I mainly put him on the list to annoy those who irrationally believe his recently very active teammate André Greipel can go and win the whole damn Paris-Roubaix. Which, let's be absolutely clear, he can not.

8. Pont-Thibaut (km 214,5 - 1400 m) ✰✰✰
Björn Leukemans
Should be a heavy hitter but has been pretty invisible so far except when he turned half the field into professional pedestrians on the Koppenberg. I can't imagine he's not in the top 10 on Sunday though.


7. Templeuve - Moulin de Vertain (km 220,5 - 500 m) ✰✰
Arnaud Démare
A slightly anonymous ride in the Scheldeprijs makes you wonder if he isn't aiming specifically for Roubaix. He should be a bit lightweight for this race still but it will surely be interesting to follow. Démare is looking like one of the potentially most versatile riders for the years to come.

It's the section where we get the iconic helicopter shots of the big honking windmill. It's completely timid but did you not hear the part about the windmill? Epic.

6. Cysoing - Bourghelles (km 227 - 1300 m) ✰✰✰✰
Matti Breschel
I'm exercising my right to be a total homer here. Two years in Rabo hell aren't enough to permanently beat the quality out of Breschel. He will make the selection here and only mechanicals or crashes can probably keep him out of the top 5. So there.

Bourghelles - Wannehain (km 229,5 - 1100 m) ✰✰✰
Sebastian Langeveld
Another slightly anonymous rider who is on good form. A solid performer in Roubaix who could get on the podium on motor alone.

5. Camphin-en-Pévèle (km 234 - 1800 m) ✰✰✰✰
Taylor Phinney
Most everyone's greatest wish for Sunday is an unleashed Phinney who gets to prove his worth. If his knee isn't bothering him he should be in a perfect position to deliver, being number two on the strong BMC squad after Thor. All the signs point to a breakthrough performance if lady luck smiles on him.


4. Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (km 236,5 - 2100 m) ✰✰✰✰✰
Fabian Cancellara
I can't remember a bigger single favorite going into the Paris-Roubaix in later years. If it hadn't been for his little tumbles he'd look like the perfect Roubaix-specimen and at the same time all of the expected worst opponents are weakened. In a Cancellara vs. The field bet I'm guessing the vast majority would go with Cance which says something in the most random race on the calendar.

As feared as Spartacus is, the Carrefour is perhaps more feared. This is where the race is decided on the worst paved stretch of "road" imaginable. Together with the Camphin sector it also makes for an almost endless misery. The riders who can attack and float over these cobbles are the ones who will be taking a place on the podium. This is also where we will see the most densely packed rows of spectators.

3. Gruson (km 239 - 1100 m) ✰✰
Geraint Thomas
This is the 33rd Sky rider listed here? 47th? I've lost count. You be the judge if that makes them more likely to succeed? If last year is anything to go by the resounding answer is no. And since I just said this, the answer is of course yes. Thomas has won the junior version of Roubaix for whatever it's worth. I for one am done tipping them to do well* (*I'm not).

2. Hem (km 246 - 1400 m) ✰✰
Hayden Roulston
If the weather is foul Roulston could be a man to watch. Few people raise their level as much when conditions are poor. His duties for Cancellara is of course the deciding factor. If used in the longgame he is one of the better candidates for a win a'la Vansummeren in 2011.

All the sectors after the battle on Carrefour are a bit of a formality. If riders managed to hang on there, chances are they won't get dropped on the easier last sections. The big last hurdle comes after the Hem sector. With about 5 km to go comes a heavy false flat uphill drag that offers the perfect launch pad for the riders sitting with a surplus on their competition. If your tank is empty here and the other guy's isn't, you're in big trouble.

1. Roubaix (km 256,5 - 300 m) ✰
Ramunas Navardauskas
Just as the last stretch of cobbles before they enter the velodrome isn't really P-R-cobbles in any real sense, they're just nicely laid city cobbles, Navardauskas isn't actually a favorite either. It's just when you look at the qualities of the guy you can't help but hope that he will discover this race and make it his goal to win it one day. Because he has all we look for in a Roubaix-rider. The power, the timetrialing ability and the will of iron. All he needs is the passion for the race that marks all of it's greatest champions.

Photo credit, Blanco/Arenberg: Sirotti.