Earlier today, Jumbo Visma’s media team kicked into high gear with a rather stunning announcement, the creation of a Tour de France jersey (to replace their overly yellow team kit) derived from Dutch master works.
This was an exceptionally clever move by the team. It took attention away from their earlier announcement that Wout Van Aert would return after being medically cleared of any concern, a statement which pronounced him both “in excellent shape” and yet unable to achieve top form, to the point where he couldn’t make it to his team’s reconnaissance ride today and will try to help Christophe Laporte and Mike Teunissen live out their Hellish dreams instead.
Forget about Wout, they say. After all, today is a day for celebrating Dutch greatness, and he’s not Dutch, and anyway his form isn’t so great, so just don’t worry about him and HEY PREORDER YOUR SPECIAL JERSEY NOW!!
This is one of the greatest sandbagging efforts of all time. The truth is that Wout needs about five seconds of preparation to achieve a form that will scare the daylights out of everyone with fewer than two sets of professional cyclists in their blood lines. [Taylor Phinney is also not worried.] Wout needs to recon Paris-Roubaix like I need practice dressing for a ride in the rain. Would there be some benefit to riding with his team? Sure, it’s a fine way to pass the time. But if he sleeps from now until Sunday morning, will he arrive in Compiègne being Wout Van Aert? Yes. And that is a big deal.
Do order those jerseys though. That’s such a great idea, and if Quick Step responds with its Van Eyck-themed jersey I may go on a very unhealthy spending spree.
Oh, Paris-Roubaix Again?
Turning to the main event, isn’t it nice to have the Hell of the North back in its spring spot? Not if you are UCI president David Lappartient, who is going around opining that the race and the other cobbled classics could just as well stay in the fall, for all he cares. Not that Flanders Classics wants anything to do with this, but he says ASO might go along.
At this point, what even is reality? I blame daylight savings. The US apparently just decided not to have daylight savings anymore, because 10am is 11 is 10 again. It doesn’t matter. Next thing you know it’s time to move the spring classics. April? Is that not just another name for October? What is October, really, besides my sneaky favorite U2 album? They can have the race whenever they want, and I will just put on some VR specs to add mud to the visual and it’ll all be just fine.
Anyway, before I just go across town and walk into the sea, let’s return to the actual race. Paris-Roubaix is indeed on tap for Sunday, dangerously close to being back in its original calendar spot, and will look pretty much like it always looks.
This year’s route contains a few changes to the early cobbles, as often happens, but the net result is that there are 54.8km of bouncing over the pavé, shaving just 200 meters off last year’s total. What’s different? Not the first phase of four secteurs from Troisville to Saint-Python, the third of which from Quievy to Saint-Python is a pretty bouncy four-star event that carries on for 3.7km.
Did you know! Saint-Python is a garbled re-translation of Saint-Piat, the name of the church in town, indicating that the town’s name is in honor of Piatus of Tournai, a Belgian saint who emigrated from Italy in the third century to the Belgian city a half-hour north of Saint-Python. He probably did lots of cool things for people to have considered him a saint, but unfortunately the bad stuff gets all the headlines, and he is best remembered for his martyrdom in the time of Roman Emperor Maximius, which was carried out by lopping off the top of his skull.
Ohhh-kaaay... moving along, the next set of cobbled secteurs is where things get switched around, as the Saint-Martin to Vertain secteur has been moved from #25 to #26, and changed direction, while secteurs 24 and 23 have been swapped out for two different ones: Saulzoir-à-Verchain-Maugré (2 stars, 1.2km) and Verchain-Maugré-à-Quérénaing (3 stars, 1.6km). This is the type of churn the early lineup experiences regularly and happens about 20km before the Haveluy-Wallers secteur that tends to kick off the major hostilities, coming right before the Trouée d’Arenberg. Everything else occurs the same as it always does, with Orchies, Mons, Cysoing/Bourghelles, Camphin-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbe looming over the business end of things.
So yeah, it’s Paris-Roubaix. It won’t be muddy as there is nothing but dry and warming air over northern France through Sunday. Racers will have to race their bikes and not count on their rivals just sinking into a pit of mud.
OK, So Who Will Stop Mathieu?
Let’s look over the the lineup and handicap the race with respect to the major question looming over the race, the chance that nobody will be left standing between Mathieu van der Poel and the finish line in the Roubaix Velodrome. Because with Wout supposedly not quite himself and defending winner Sonny Colbrelli sidelined indefinitely, along with van der Poel’s wonky but suddenly wonderful spring, well, this is what will define the race.
In no particular order, here are the potential, alleged obstacles standing in van der Poel’s way.
1. Mathieu van der Poel’s Teammates
The Alpecin-Fenix lineup for Brabantse Pijl, where the Dutch star was outnumbered by INEOS and isolated for the finale of the race, was not up to snuff. So the question becomes, is van der Poel looking at a repeat of that scenario?
I really don’t think so. Alpecin-Fenix have added Sylvain Dillier this year, formerly second in Paris-Roubaix four short years ago, and have Gianni Vermeersch (15th last year) as well as an experienced supporting cast behind the top trio. Recent results don’t say much about their current form, so maybe that or bad luck will end up leaving van der Poel unprotected in the key moments, but that’s a risk every team faces (especially this year); Alpecin-Fenix won’t lose for lack of pedigree.
Another question is whether van der Poel uses his teammates to the fullest. Last year he bolted away from the scattered groups coming out of Arenberg and teamwork was never a consideration after that. This year’s race is likely to be less of a mess and perhaps the scattering will give way to regroupings that we have seen so many times in drier weather, and now van der Poel has teammates incorporated into his efforts. If that happens, he will be on level terms with the other top guys in terms of team strength.
2. Re-Wouted Jumbo-Visma
I am just going with Van Aert as the single biggest threat to van der Poel. Working backwards, if he is there at the end, we know Van Aert can finish off a very hard day with a wicked sprint. If it’s maybe not quite as hard a day as last year, all the better. This is a prerequisite for beating van der Poel, given his own fast finishing. So can he make it to the ‘Drome on time? I am done underestimating his legs and determination. And it’s not hard to imagine a cagey race where everyone else is so cowed by Matti and Wout that they all stay parked on their illustrious wheels.
From there, Van Aert can count on support or alternative attacking from Christophe Laporte, Mike Teunissen and Nathan van Hooydonck, whose best finishes are 6th, 7th and 22nd respectively. Each of them is dangerous enough for van der Poel to fear a scenario where he is outnumbered and forced to watch them take turns going up the road, so he will be counting on Dillier and Vermeersch the Elder to keep them in check. Even then, however, this ain’t Brabantse Pijl. If there is a four- or five-star secteur to come, van der Poel is strong enough to attack on the mega-stones and bridge up alone to a Jumbo on the loose, and then you’re left with van der Poel and Teunissen rolling into Roubaix. So be careful what you wish for here Jumbo.
3. INEOS Strength in Numbers
Compiègne’s hottest new club is... the INEOS team bus! Parked in an alley behind a butcher shop on the Boulevard des Étas-Unis, the latest creation from cycling trophy shelf designer Sir Dave Brailsford, this club has everything! Brits, Yanks, Dutchies, Poles, and an espresso machine that shoots fireballs straight into the riders mouths. Just look for a group of guys who look like the casting call for the next Guy Ritchie film and tell them you’re Cousin Greg from the American branch of the Murdoch family, looking to see if you can be of assistance.
OK, seriously though, do they have five guys who can win or five guys who you’re pretty sure won’t? Luke Rowe has a top ten a few years back and Dylan van Baarle is the hot hand for the monuments. Magnus Sheffield is on cracking form, especially for a teenager. Filippo Ganna and Ben Turner could either ride this race or fill in for Robert Williams as the Celtics’ center in its series against the Nets. Pretty cool! Except van Baarle is better in Flanders, Sheffield is a teenager, Turner’s best result here is an OOT in the U23 event, and Ganna fared no better in the grown up event three years ago. It’s weird to write about how great they’re doing and then call them a cross-off for Paris Roubaix two days later, but that’s what I am doing.
4. The Quick Step Revival
This one has been covered a lot along the way. If you have a theory as to how to unlock the collective talents of the Wolfpack, there’s a lovely little northwestern European nation full of people who would love to hear your thoughts. Actually maybe two of them, if you can make the grass Asgreener on the northern side of France.
But good luck with that. Lampaert was ill and maybe isn’t anymore, which is big news considering he was fourth last year, which sounds cool except he got left behind when the finale formed and came in a minute after the top trio. Is he feeling better? Like, more than a minute better than he did in 2021? Cool, except that still probably just gets you into a highly loseable sprint.
Asgreen has been pretty good, if not quite special, but his palmares say he’s one of those Flanders guys who doesn’t travel that well over the border. Next up is Florian Sénéchal, sixth in 2019, but like Lampaert, what are you really reading into that? Zdenek Stybar was second twice (most recently 2017) and seems like he should have a cobble on his shelf, but he too would have to find an extra gear, at age 36. So really, they are just a fistful of lottery tickets, and there is no rule that if you play the lottery long enough you will eventually win.
5. One of the Other Bigs
All the top guys have at least some level of support, and I don’t want to parse that out too much. Suffice to say that you could see a big name up there with a teammate, but it’s not a sure thing and it’s hard to say who it will be. Thus, I give you...
Jasper Stuyven: If Van Aert is in fact off his game, I’d take Stuyven, with his finishing kick and his history of top five finishes, as the single most dangerous individual opponent for van der Poel, if Stuyven can make the finale. He was fourth in Gent-Wevelgem, and not happy about it, but is there a better place to make amends than here?
Florian Vermeersch: Nothing much to speak of to his results, but Vermeersch the Younger was laying low last October too, before pulling off second place.
Dylan Teuns: Maybe this year’s sneaky-form guy. But he’s studiously avoided the pavé before now.
Alexander Kristoff: What is it about
Danes liking their cobbles only up to a certain size or state of chaos? [Update: he’s still Norwegian! I need more sleep.] Anyway, the dude is on form and has the build of someone who should thrive here.
Gouden Greg: Van Avermaet’s history here is well known, and if we keep saying his AG2R lineup is loaded, well, isn’t a stopped clock right twice a day?
6. Someone We Aren’t Thinking Of
Stefan Küng: He has been beastly strong all spring and has a few attempts under his belt here, topping out in 11th. Madouas can help as well, giving them a sneaky 1-2 in a bulkier peloton.
Ivan García: A Spaniard in France? What century is this again? Not sure but he seems primed in terms of age, experience and form for a stealth challenge.
Jonas Rutsch: I’d like him even more if Bissegger were on form after falling ill during Paris-Nice. Some hope there still? Anyway, he was 11th in his pro debut on the pavé last year. Not too shabby!
I think that covers it for me. Eyeing anyone else this Sunday? Let us know!