It’s my annual “I’ve Hit the Cobbles Blogging Wall” Paris-Roubaix preview!! Are you excited now? I sure am, even though my excitement for Paris-Roubaix always feels less intellectual and more like a nerve reaction. I blog and tweet and obsess over the Belgian events starting in late February, and lionize the Ronde van Vlaanderen to the point where when it ends, it feels kind of empty. Even the final few KM, once the leaders are off the Paterberg, it’s like a miniature existential crisis. Then we know who won, and like every race the shouting at the line slowly gives way to the crowds of people going home, leaving behind some trash and half-dismantled scaffolding and the memory of the season that won’t be back for 11 months.
But by the next morning the circus reopens just a bit to the south, for a finale that is as grand as every act that came before it, and the effect on me is always a kind of delirium. I don’t even know what is happening. All connection to the races on the other side of the border melt away, and Paris-Roubaix stands alone magnificently. That’s where I am today. I can’t think of much to say about it. I just want to revel in its proximity.
Are There Two Favorites?
Today Wout Van Aert and his Jumbo-Visma mates could be seen reconnoitering the heaviest part of the course, gliding over the most infernal pavé France has to offer, and afterwards he gave an interview to Sporza where he threw a big fat bag of sand all over the expectations for him. Van Aert suggested that both his knee and ribs were still sore from the crash he suffered in Flanders (valpartij is an all time Dutch word), and that he didn’t feel good on the bike today, hoping that his fitness will elevate him Sunday nonetheless.
Not great for the people who bet on him at +350 to win, whereas Mathieu van der Poel is at something like +410 or +450, depending on who you ask (in some cases co-favorite with Van Aert). His dad Adrie points out in the same Sporza piece that anyone who picks Wout over his son is a terrible, terrible person. As the Dude once said, “you’re not wrong, Walter....”
Mads Pedersen comes in the third favorite at +750 and Filippo Ganna at +1500. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
The real question right now is, who will be the mystery guest in the Vélodrome André-Pétrieux as the favorites come to the line?
There probably will be one. And by “mystery guest,” let me be clear, I do not mean interloper. With apologies to the next big individual time trial, the final hour of Paris-Roubaix is the ultimate “race of truth.” There are no flukes, just commendable performances that we didn’t fully anticipate coming into the race. And they happen... not a lot. But they happen.
2022: Intermarché’s Tom Devriendt came into the velodrome with the quartet of riders who had vainly been chasing Dylan van Baarle, slipping ahead of Matej Mohorič for fourth place. Devriendt had been 37th in Paris-Roubaix in 2019, and at age 30, well, dad-strength is a thing in this race. [I don’t know if he has kids, but you take my point.] So it wasn’t completely insane to see him up there, but surprising nonetheless.
2021: 22-year-old Belgian Florian Vermeersch takes second place in the only (recent) autumn edition of l’Enfer du Nord, confirming his future as a serious contender there and a highly regarded prospect in the sport. Had he got round Sonny Colbrelli in the four-man sprint for the win, he would not have been the youngest winner ever, more like 7th or 8th, but he would have been about the same age as Merckx at the Cannibal’s breakthrough success. The race was led for a while by Gianni Moscon, who wasn’t a huge surprise based on one prior performance and his large engine, but wasn’t on too many betting slips beforehand. [Colbrelli himself was a surprise, riding for the first and only time, albeit after years of great success, so he can’t be called a “mystery” anything.
2019: Skipping the 2020 race that didn’t happen, we dial back to pre-covid where Nils Politt was the unlikely podium finisher, second on the day, but after 7th the year before he was no mystery here. So I will go with Delko-Marseilles’ Evaldas Šiškevičius, who took ninth in his fifth try, which included three DNFs.
2018: Accompanying World Champion Peter Sagan into the velodrome to sprint for the win was Sylvan Dillier, the Swiss rider who had once DNF’d there and then hadn’t been seen at the race in four years since. Sagan won, but Dillier took his career to a new level (for a day). He will be van der Poel’s key lieutenant this weekend.
That’s four straight editions with an undisputed surprise result high up the standings. Before that, such surprises were few, so we might be on to some new ideas about how people you aren’t thinking of can break through. Certainly the lack of a dominant team helps — Jumbo Visma is the one squad who you’d expect to be everywhere, but after Flanders it doesn’t seem like they have anyone peaking for the race. Going back a few years, Quick Step used to have a firm grip on the peloton, and routinely put guys on one or more steps of the podium, even if the main guy you were thinking of missed out. From Gilbert’s victory in 2019 you’d have to go back to 2011 before you get a podium with no Steppers on it.
And in an odd twist, Soudal-Quick Step might end up being the It-team once more, if the Jumbo vacuum materializes like I suspect. They bring riders like Lampaert and Sénéchal who are always more P-R guys, along with an improving Asgreen, a guy in Davide Ballerini whose own profile is more than just that guy who isn’t actually related to former winner Franco, plus Tim Merlier and the Tractor, Tim Declerq. I honestly don’t think Bert Van Lerberghe has a chance to win, but that’s about it for these guys.
OK, so possible mystery guests? I know, naming them isn’t entirely consistent with the whole “mystery” thing, but here goes.
- Nathan Van Hooydonck
- Mikkel Bjerg
- Ivan García
- Jonas Rutsch
- Marijn van den Berg
- Yevgeniy Fedorov
- Piet Allegaert
- Frederik Frison
OK, that’s enough wild guesses. I’d keep a close eye on Alexander Kristoff, Sep Vanmarcke, Devriendt again, and Fred Wright too. Here’s hoping for a wild, action-packed edition, like we seemingly always get. Enjoy!