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105th Paris-Roubaix - PT
France, April 15, 2007
A Monument in modern cycling
By Gregor Brown in Gent, Belgium
The Paris-Roubaix is a race that stands out in modern day cycling and one that sends shivers down the spines of the riders who line up in Compiègne for the cobbled Classic. The fifty-some kilometres of pavé make a hellish run, also referred to as the The Hell of the North, an icon in the sport that is often dominated by asphalt roads. This Sunday, April 15, in France, fans will see the running of the 105th edition.
For over 100 years, riders have pounded over the pavé in northern France from Compiègne to Roubaix, just next to the border of Belgium. Its parcours makes the race one of cycling's five Monuments (the others being Milano-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Giro di Lombardia). Looking down the annals you can see such champions' names as Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Francesco Moser, riders who have won the race multiple times, or Bernard Hinault, who lined up only once at the event and now occupies the 1981 winner's slot.
Many modern champions will not dare put their rubber on Roubaix's pavé. World and Olympic Champion Paolo Bettini had thought about making the 259.5 kilometre run from to Roubaix but deemed it as too risky in the Ardennes Classics' run-up. Even three-times World Champion Oscar Freire dismissed the race. "I prefer to watch it on TV," the Spaniard said after coming third, on Wednesday, in Gent-Wevelgem. "It true that if you don't go, you don't win. But I prefer to do other races because if you crash you're out for a while."
Riders like Johann Museeuw and George Hincapie have learned this lesson the hard way in their quest for glory at the Roubaix Velodrome. In 1998, the Lion of Flanders crashed in the famed Arenberg Forest sector, an incident that caused him to question his cycling career, spend many months in recovery and almost lose his leg to gangrene. American Hincapie, a perennial favourite who has yet to make the top step of the podium, wound up in a muddy ditch in 2002 and last year, after his bike broke, suffered a fracture between his collarbone and shoulder blade. This is just a small reminder of Hell that can come from Paris-Roubaix's cobbles.
The 2007 route will contain 28 pavé sectors, including the never-before-race sector between Beuvry-la-Forêt and Orchies. The 1400 metre stretch (number 13, at km 194) consists of 800 metres of cobbles and a 600 metre segment of 'non-tarmac' road. Other famous sectors will once again dot the parcours, like the Tranchée d'Arenberg (sector 18) and Camphin-en-Pévè (sector 5). The sector in the Arenberg forest, which often starts shaping the race, will come at kilometre 163.5 and last for a demanding 2400 metres. Camphin-en-Pévè, a 1800 metre sector that saw Fabian Cancellara ride free to his race win in 2006, will rear its ugly head at kilometre 239.
Finally, after the riders hammer over the day's pavé, the race will be concluded with one and half laps of the Roubaix velodrome. Again, there is no other race like Paris-Roubaix, it really is the Queen of the Classics. Having the riders run on a smooth velodrome after battling over fifty kilometres of pavé seems insane, but it is a race formula that works and one that saw Magnus Backstedt sprint to glory in 2004. The giant Swede is not a top favourite this year after he has had to deal with early season injuries, but he will line up with a strong Liquigas squad. In its ranks include Omloop Het Volk winner Filippo Pozzato and Luca Paolini.
Top favourites are Boonen, Ballan and Cancellara. Belgian Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic) won the event in 2005 after staking claim to his first Ronde van Vlaanderen and will be eager to make it two wins in Roubaix, although some pundits worry of his form after he faded in last week's Ronde van Vlaanderen. Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) took the 2006 version by the reins; he attacked his rivals with 19 kilometres remaining and then rode into the velodrome solo So far this season, he's shown good form in Ronde van Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem.
Finally, Italian Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) is a hot prospect. He was an underdog in 2006 but proved his strength by finishing third, and then, this year, he won a big one, the Ronde. Winning Belgium's biggest race gave him instant star status and will allow him to approach Sunday morning with a sense of calmness, knowing he has money in the bank.
Defending champion Cancellara will keep an eye on Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel). The Russian was the last man to remain with the Swiss rider in 2006 and has proved this year to be in form with a fifth in Ronde. In the absence of George Hincapie, Gusev will likely lead the team with Stijn Devolder.
In addition to Boonen, Belgians can cheer on Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto) and 2003 winner Peter Van Petegem (Quickstep-Innergetic). Hoste was very disappointed to come so close to winning the Ronde that he should be full of enough anger to fuel him over the pavé and on to a possible win. Meanwhile, Van Petegem will support teammate Tom Boonen but has the experience to take control of and win the race if he is given the chance.
T-Mobile will also play its cards, with Roger Hammond in excellent shape after his second place in Gent-Wevelgem, the semi-classic slotted in between the Ronde and Roubaix, won by spring classics revelation Marcus Burghardt. Hammond already achieved a third place on the podium in the grass oval of the Roubaix velodrome in 2004, and together with Burghardt, the pair could be a serious threat to T-Mobile's rivals. "Second in Gent-Wevelgem is okay, but there's nothing as impressive as entering the velodrome in a group that is fighting for the victory. Being on the podium in Roubaix will always remain my biggest performance, although that might change on Sunday," Hammond said, while hoping for the highest possible spot.
Finally, fans should expect to see something from Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt), Leon Van Bon and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Andreas Klier (T-Mobile), Cancellara's teammates Karsten Kroon and Stuart O'Grady, Bernhard Eisel (T-Mobile) and Tomas Vaitkus (Discovery Channel).
This Sunday Cyclingnews will be covering the 105th Paris-Roubaix live. Coverage begins around 10:30 local European time (CEST)/ 4:30 (USA East)/ 19:30 Australia (EST) - also on WAP-enabled mobile devices at http://live.cyclingnews.com/wap/