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Roubaix’08: It Really Will Be Hell

It has been awhile since last we saw a wet Paris-Roubaix and enjoyed the delectable results. It’s that time again, this time for the 112th Anniversary of the first running, and interestingly enough, the cobbled sections are probably in exactly the same condition as they were over a century ago – perhaps worse. Indeed, Paris-Roubaix is the greatest anachronism in pro cycling, perhaps in all of sport – she’s also arguably the toughest, meanest, evilest beast in all of bike racing.

259.5 Km, 52.8 Km Of Stone
Paris-Roubaix will once again not start in Paris, but rather in a suburb north of the City of Light: Compiegne. From there, the course winds ever northward over dreary, some might call it desolate, northeastern France.

The race’s popular name, the Hell of the North (l’enfer Du Nord) was actually coined immediately following the First World War, as the race followed the front lines of the war going north from Paris through the craters, destruction, and ruin left behind after what was then deemed to be the War To End All Wars.

The Hell of the North still carries with it some kind of ominous remembrance of what happened nearly a century ago. There’s something about this part of northern France which does not fit in the normal pleasant countryside. Then again, how could it?

Not much to it – Compiegne to Roubaix – with a few cobbled sections in the way, nothing too tough, right?

The race should remain calm and pleasant for the first 100 km – giving you plenty of time to get yourself signed up for Cycling.TV’s premium coverage and tuned into the race when the cobbles hit. And will they hit…the race slams oh so unpleasantly into Sector 28 in Troisville after a couple of hours on their march northward to Roubaix. After the first three star section, the floodgates open and it’s sector after sector of cobbles – 28 sectors in all – nearly 1 out of every 3 km after the first sector will be on some sort of awful impersonation of road, some worse than others, but none worse than…

The Foret D’Arenberg
The infamous sector of pave, which some would argue is a euphemism for the ridiculous nature of the path took a year off a few years back due to her slovenly state – but there’s no sign of being rid of the brute. The Arenberg Trench has historically caused the first real selection in the race, as it occurs about 100 km from the finish. Interestingly enough, another fearsome section in Spring Classic lore occurs around this point at the Tour of Flanders: the Koppenberg.

The Forest Of Arenberg presents a nasty obstacle and one that stands out even above some other heinous excuses for roads. Arenberg is above and beyond all others. If you’ve ever watched the race on video or DVD, you can attest to it as well. The riders appear as if they have very nearly run into a brick wall, the bike bucks and runs as if no one is attached.

If you listen to the people that have ridden it, it’s described as nearly unrideable. In short: it’s a damn fine stretch of road, and any edition of the race without it is missing a little something.

This year’s edition probably won’t see too much dust.

Only The Strong (And Lucky) Will Survive
Paris-Roubaix presents an interesting task for the hopeful starter. As Rolf Sorensen mentioned in an intriguing discussion with Edmond Hood – the winner of Paris-Roubaix is undoubtedly the strongest. There is not too terribly much going on over the business end of the race – the game is to go hard, then harder, and at some point, be there when all hell breaks loose, and then go over the top of THAT and ride away to glorious victory and a big, ugly, painfully heavy cobblestone for your efforts.

Of course, some luck is involved. The cobbles are absolute flat inducers, and it is a fortunate rider who can manage to avoid flatting during the all-important finishing stages of the race. Everyone remembers Johan Museeuw’s untimely flat four years ago when he had made the winning break in his final Paris-Roubaix…but then we found out that Museeuw was most likely doped out of his mind, and well…

When NOT To Flat
That same year, the story that has been rarely told was that of Peter Van Petegem. De Peet flatted well before that, and showed afterwards that he was the strongest rider in the race, by far, as he made up gobs of ground on everyone and very nearly came back to join the leading group. Flats won’t kill a race for the most part, but coming in the closing stages – it’s game over.

Try To Avoid That Wreck, Ok?
The cobbles will do their work on the field, as hordes of riders will be dispatched as the race nears Roubaix. The eventual winner will not only have the cobbles and flats to contend with, but the eventual wreck, which will happen, and often takes riders down on numerous occasions throughout the race (especially when it’s wet), but somehow, it always seems that the winner manages to avoid these snafus.

This wreck in 2005 is a good example of what NOT to do if you have any hopes of winning. Van Petegem got caught behind it and his race was over.

What Does The Weatherman Say?
Along with the awful cobbles and the blowing winds of the flatlands of northern France as they reach toward the sea, the weather is king at the Queen. If it’s wet, the mud and slippery stones will rule, whilst a hot and dry day like last year presents a completely different foe.

A lot depends on the weather day of, but also leading up to the race. This year, it looks like the weather will promise sun for Friday and Saturday, but Sunday has the potential to be nasty:

High: 47
Low: 40
Chance of Rain: 60%

If it rains, we will be treated to the first muddy edition of Paris-Roubaix in a long while. It’ll also be the second consecutive miserable Monument in the span of a week. But hey, at least there won’t be snow.

Remember Museeuw’s epic solo in the horrendous conditions of 2002?

Without Further Ado: The Contendahs
Just like last weekend in Flanders, two names stand tall above all others: Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. Cancellara is a one-time winner (two years ago) and Boonen is a double winner (2004, 2005). Boonen looked superb at Flanders, but of course didn’t get a chance to show his stuff: he had Devolder up the road doing the ride of his life. Boonen has been bad here from the very beginning, just as Cancellara has. Both seem bred for the race.

Boonen en route to his first podium at Paris-Roubaix at the ripe old age of 22.

Cancellara in the winning move with Backstedt en route to 4th at the ripe old age of 23.

If Boonen and Cancellara can manage to get through the race without any rotten luck, I think we can expect some sort of showdown – a showdown that has been a’brewin for a long while now. Problem is, it seems that Boonen’s form is hitting spectacular at just the right moment, whilst there is talk that Cancellara’s is on the tail end. That could just be idle journo talk, but Cancellara did not look like a steamrolling, cobble chewing machine at Flanders last weekend…then again, Cancellara wasn’t born on the Muur, he was born somewhere along the Carrefour de l’Arbre of course.

Cancellara, O’Grady, Breschel, Arvesen, et al have proven more than enough of a foil for Boonen’s QuickStep boys in the past…the past two years to be exact.

Either way, we can be assured that both QuickStep and CSC will govern the goings on in the race. QuickStep was fantastic last weekend, and we can expect more of the same this go around. CSC wasn’t quite the unbeatable juggernaut that they can be, but methinks they’ll get it right somewhere between Compiegne and the Roubaix Velodrome.

Our next rung of favorites I see as a group of four: Leif Hoste, Juan Antonio Flecha, Alessandro Ballan, and Stijn Devolder.

Leif Hoste was crazy quiet the entire season until last weekend. He didn’t win, but he showed that he’s here to play for real for Flanders Week. He has come close and ridden superbly here in the past, so I think we can be mildly assured that Hoste will factor in the finale in some way – don’t forget he is pretty much THE guy for the Silence-Lotto team, and they definitely could use a big result on Sunday.

Juan Antonio Flecha will win on the hallowed concrete of the Roubaix Velodrome someday. The question is of course, when? Flecha’s Rabobank squad looked great on Wednesday en route to leading Freire to victory, but as much as we like to think G-W is a tough race, Oscar Freire just won, and there’s won thing I do know: Oscar Freire will never ever ever win Paris-Roubaix. Flecha is on form, he’s on fire actually, and if he can somehow deal with being completely isolated (as will be the case), he might be able to pull something special off. It’s just hard to do that when you’re not on a team without the initials QS or CSC.

Alessandro Ballan falls in the same boat as the previous two: obviously on great form, the question is whether he’ll be able to thwart the two dueling superpowers.

Stijn Devolder is apparently on some kind of ridiculously good form. Devolder has always been labeled as too aggressive, but hey, nobody was complaining on Sunday. The thing about his ride on Sunday though: yeah, he was aggressive, but he had the ungodly power necessary to make it happen. He’s not a hugely experienced racer at Paris-Roubaix, but he’s Belgian for godssakes, they’re given cobbles instead of pacifiers.

My true hope for this Sunday? Steffen Wesemann. Very few people in the modern age of cycling can attest to a palmares at Paris-Roubaix anywhere NEAR to what Wesemann has managed. How many top 10s and podiums does this guy have? Oh wait, thank you Chris over at PodiumCafe.com: he has a 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 9th, and 16th twice. If it weren’t honestly for horrendously bad luck (remember those pedal problems?), he’d probably have a cobblestone in his living room by now. He is in the twilight of his career and on a rather lowly team, but Wesemann has shown over and over again that if Boonen and Cancellara can call this race home, he sure as the moon is round when its full can too.

QuickStep’s band of cobble smashers will be strong, but there are more than a few contenders waiting in the wings.

Roger Hammond and a rejuvenated George Hincapie look to form a solid 1-2 for High Road. In fact, I might go so far as to say that a podium is in the cards. I’d like to say that I think Hincapie can win, and I do, but I’m afraid to put my heart in such a precarious position anymore. Just like Wesemann, Hincapie has made this race his own, but his results are all over the top 10, and never really a shot at winning – don’t mention the Boonen year. He played it right in that group, but he had no chance. Maybe this year he’ll get it and we’ll all rejoice.

Pippo Pozzato and Manuel Quinziato should form another good duo. Both are on fire form at the moment and both are at home on the cobbles. Why not?

Bernhard Eisel, however, is my sleeper. Love the guy. He suffers, gets dropped, grits his teeth, digs even deeper, and manages to get back on. He’s a fighter and a good one at that. I don’t think he’ll win, but he’ll put on a good race for his FdJ team, which will be without their top guy, Philippe Gilbert, who is most likely recharging the batteries a bit in hopes of a bid at Ardennes Classic glory later this month. Frederic Guesdon is another capable cobbled man from FdJ, you might recall that he won this race ELEVEN years ago. He also took the 2006 Paris-Tours. Guesdon is always around at Paris-Roubaix, expect it again.

Don’t Take My Word For It
The lovely bookies over at Unibet.com are in business due to their likely successful oddsmaking, so check em out:

Cancellara 3.25
Boonen 4.00
Hoste 10.00
Flecha 10.00
Hincapie 11.00
Ballan 13.00
Devolder 16.00
Pozzato 18.00
O’Grady 20.00
Hushovd 22.00
Nuyens 25.00
Gusev 25.00
Backstedt 30.00
Steegmans 35.00
Klier 35.00
Hammond 35.00
Langeveld 35.00
Zabel 40.00
Vaitkus 40.00
Eisel 50.00
Guesdon 60.00
Van Avermaet 60.00

Make sure to keep it PEZ all weekend, as we’ll have stories from the front lines, pictures, reports, anything and everything.

Watch It Live:
Cycling.TV will broadcast the race live on the internet Sunday – so check it out!

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