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106th Paris-Roubaix - 1.HC

France, April 13, 2008

Hell's pavé strike its rhythm

Hard-men line-up this Sunday for the 106th 'Hell of the North'

By Gregor Brown

Australian Stuart O'Grady wins the 2007 Paris-Roubaix – this Sunday the weather is expected to be a lot colder than last year's summer-like conditions.
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
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The 'Hell of the North' arrives this Sunday, April 13, with a pavé-thumping rhythm that will draw in cycling enthusiasts by the thousands. Riders will line-up in Compiègne (north of Paris), cheered in the Place du Palais as they start their 259.5-kilometre march to Roubaix. A journey of tight and precarious roads – including 52.8 kilometres in 28 leg-snapping pavé sectors – that comprise the 106th edition of the Paris-Roubaix.

Paris-Roubaix draws its Monumental status from over 100 years of hosting racing over the treacherous roads that are rarely seen in modern-day cycling. Past cycling heroes like Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser and Johan Museeuw, and modern day warriors like Magnus Backstedt, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, have fought back the pain of the pavé to conquer this 'Queen of the Classics' and etch their names in the annals of cycling history. (Paris-Roubaix is one of cycling's five 'Monuments' in a list that also includes Milano-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Giro di Lombardia.)

A close up of the Trouée d'Arenberg three days before the 2008 Paris-Roubaix
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The road conditions are such that only the specialists even bother showing up to contest the event, organised by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO). There are sectors of pavé rutted so deep and that present so many hazards that they risk ruining a rider's season or even career – just ask Museeuw about his run through the Trouée d'Arenberg in 1998. And with so many dangers it is luck, not only skill, that comes into play to reach the finale in Roubaix – case in point is USA's George Hincapie, who has battled the roads so many times only to be thrown off into the ditch while his team-mates zoom ahead (2002) or have his bike crumble under the pavé's pressure in the key moment (2006). (A full break-down of the pavé sectors will appear shortly.)

The tail-end of Paris-Roubaix comes with a strange bit of irony; after battling all day over the gapped and rutted pavé, the riders enter the smooth concrete surface of Roubaix's velodrome. The final one-kilometre (or lap and a half) in the outdoor venue is the perfect place for the fans to gather to see the last act of the race played out. If a rider is in a small group of escapees he had better know how to use the banking to sprint to the win; Swede Magnus Backstedt did this to perfection in 2004, but many riders have botched up the sprint to see their one chance of Roubaix glory go up in smoke (Ask Viatcheslav Ekimov about his near-miss in 2003).

Paris-Roubaix is one of those races where the outcome is always affected by the weather. If it is rainy the course turns into a mud-fest where keeping your machine upright is a challenging; however, if it is a dry day the dust that is kicked up by support vehicles and leading cyclists makes breathing very difficult. Whichever way it goes, riders will show up in Roubaix with their faces caked in French dirt that is highlighted around the nose and eyes where snot and tears have streamed aside during the day. Sunday's forecast is expected to include light rain with a high of 11°C and a low of 4°C.

The day's pain shows on the faces of Roubaix's warriors
Photo ©: Régis Garnier
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The day's pain and grime is washed away in the strangest of ways: concrete half-open showers. The shower room inside the velodrome's facilities has become so famous and synonymous with the Paris-Roubaix that organisers have tacked medal plates with the names of past winners in each stall. What name appears the most? Belgian De Vlaeminck, thanks to his four wins.

Fabian Cancellara wants to continue the Sanremo celebrations by winning again the Roubaix velodrome
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The favourites are hard to predict for a race that involves so many hoops of fire. Swiss hard-man Cancellara should be put at the top of the list of contenders given his results to date and that he is a past winner, 2006. The 27 year-old CSC rider won Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo so far this season, and although he did not take the Ronde van Vlaanderen like he had hoped, he has the muscle to forge a successful attack in Roubaix's finale.

Team CSC will utilise Stuart O'Grady, the 2007 winner, in its tactics. The Australian is not on the same form as last year when he flew solo to victory in the final 20 kilometres, but rival teams cannot let him loose either. Look for E3 Prijs winner Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Matti Breschel to play the role of key henchmen.

2005 winner Tom Boonen of Quick Step will strike to make amends for Ronde van Vlaanderen. He has stated that he is saving himself for one big punch ("It seems that Sunday, or in Roubaix, will decide if my spring season was good or not, and I hope it will be judged as good."), so why not in Roubaix? His Belgium-based team has the muscle to support him, with Ronde winner Stijn Devolder, Steven De Jongh and Gert Steegmans. In fact, Devolder may be boosted by the confidence of his win last Sunday to have another go, flaying the colours of the Belgian champion driekleur jersey in France.

Leif Hoste of Silence-Lotto could get his revenge of Ronde's bad luck. The tall Belgian was struck down with a mechanical last Sunday and will be full of piss and vinegar after seven days of reflection. He will have strong support from new kid on the block, Greg Van Avermaet, and Wim Vansevenant.

Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) would like to erase the painful memories with a win
Photo ©: Régis Garnier
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If Rabobank continues to run its Dutch engine strongly like they did in Ronde and Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem, then the race may end in the favour of Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha. Second in 2007's Roubaix, Flecha was supported all the way to the line in Ronde van Vlaanderen and he then turned around three days later to help the team put on an amazing show in Wevelgem, which was won by its leader, Oscar Freire. (Read "Trusting that the victory comes".)

Italians Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato may be training partners at home in Veneto, but they will spar amongst themselves for the victory in Roubaix. Ballan will lead Team Lampre with confidence as he fought hard in both Classics this last week – third in Ronde and in the final attack of Gent-Wevelgem. 'Pippo' Pozzato will captain Team Liquigas with supporting roles played by super domestiques Manuel Quinziato and Frederik Willems. New recruit Enrico Franzoi is suffering from a crash in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but he should start and will be of use.

USA's George Hincapie is showing promising form for 2008
Photo ©: Brecht Decaluwé
(Click for larger image)

USA's Hincapie will be at it again to see if lady luck will dance with him until the song's end. The experienced rider will captain Team High Road, who can also draw upon the likes of Austrian Bernhard Eisel and Brit Roger Hammond, not to mention 2001 winner, Servais Knaven. These boys are no clowns on the cobbles, and expect to see Eisel and Hammond working their tails off for 'Mister No Chain.' (Read Another shot for glory.)

Honourable mentions go to Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Belgian Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream Chipotle - H30) and 1997 winner, Frenchman Frédéric Guesdon (Française des Jeux). Finally, who would not be delighted to see Hervé Duclos-Lassalle (Cofidis) win, 15 years after his father ruled with two wins.

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