If you look at the bookies, the consensus is astounding: Alexander Kristoff is favored to win Paris-Roubaix and his odds are almost twice as good as Zdenek Stybar, Bradley Wiggins, Sep Vanmarcke, and Nikki Terpstra, the next level of favorites.
It's not hard to understand why after Kristoff has proved himself the strongest rider on the road recently. His overall win in the Driedaagse de Panne was forged from a bridging up to a breakaway on a hard day in the hellingen of Flanders and a strong time trial, not solely from bonus seconds picked up in sprint finishes. In Flanders, he followed an attack by Nikki Terpstra an audacious 28 kilometers from the line and split the work evenly with the Dutch rider, earning his victory rather than waiting for an easy sprint. With such strength coupled with a sprint that is fast enough to win bunch kicks, like in this Wednesday's Scheldeprijs, it's seems ludicrous to pick against Kristoff.
But, I still don't think he will win. Jens doesn't either, though I think our reasons are different. In his Cobbles Power Poll from earlier this week, Jens noted that Kristoff's record in Paris-Roubaix isn't as good as it is in Flanders, and that might suggest a particular weakness in the flat, windswept, and rougher cobbles of northern France. His best finish is 9th in 2013 when he led home the fourth group on the road nearly a minute behind Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke. Last year he crashed, and crashed again, and was nowhere inside the top twenty. And, though Kristoff's run of form is akin to a "rhinoceros on crack," Jens pointed out that Roubaix is a race that defies logic. Maybe Kristoff's strength will continue to come to naught on the Carrefour de l'arbre.
As for me, I think Kristoff will make the lead group at Roubaix some thirty kilometers from the line. And then, as it has happened to Fabian Cancellara on so many occasions, he will be completely marked out of the race.
In Flanders, Nikki Terpstra must have groaned when he saw Kristoff follow his attack on the Hotondberg, but he wasn't despondent and didn't sit up and wait for a reshuffle of the deck. Instead, Terpstra did the bulk of the work in the first few kilometers to pry open a gap before Kristoff settled in and began to pull through on equal terms. Why bring Kristoff along? Though Kristoff is strong, Terpstra probably thought he could drop him on either the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg where gravity was in the lither Dutchman's favor. But, Kristoff looked Terpstra's equal on the Kwaremont and actually looked stronger on the Paterberg, leading all the way up and seemingly coming close to gapping Terpstra. From that point on, we all knew how the race would end.
This Sunday, two things are now working against Kristoff. First, there are no climbs to distance Kristoff on, only flat cobbled sections where the raw power that ushered him over the Paterberg so ably is key. Second, nobody will work with Kristoff and expect to be able to drop him later. If Kristoff follows an attack, look for the others to dither while deciding whether to work with the Katusha rider and the front group to re-form.
This situation is similar to what Fabian Cancellara has experienced, most acutely in 2011 when Johan Vansummeren took an unlikely victory out of an early break as all the favorites behind looked to Cancellara to do the bulk of the work. But, there is a key difference between Cancellara and Kristoff - Cancellara's strength was simply more unmatchable. Where Cancellara could pre-empt negative racing with moves of his own, I don't think Kristoff is strong enough to do that, especially with a number of strong time trialists like Wiggins, Thomas, and Terpstra considered favorites for the race.
Of course, the race could all come down to a sprint on the velodrome from a select group, a situation only a fool would expect Kristoff to lose in. Whether this happens or not depends on how much other riders are willing to work together to work over the powerful Norwegian. Personally, I think the biggest factor in determining whether we see a solo rider or a sprint that Kristoff wins tomorrow is whether Peter Sagan's form is strong enough to see him to the lead group on Sunday. If he is, the burden to chase attacks falls most squarely on him and Kristoff as the fastest sprinters of the group. If there is any hesitation from either two as they look at each other to chase in the last 15 kilometers, we could see a rider solo away like Terpstra did last year.