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Rating the riders in Hell, April 12, 2008

Straight to Hell: Who will be first to Roubaix?

Who will rise from the dust in Hell tomorrow?
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The dangerous game of predicting the winner is here again. After getting it so spectacularly wrong in last week's Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Cyclingnews' resident psychic Ben Atkins raises his head above the parapet of prediction once again.

Okay, who out there managed to see Belgian champion Stijn Devolder winning Ronde Van Vlaanderen in a solo attack from 25km out coming? Anyway, at least I predicted Nick Nuyens and Juan Antonio Flecha doing well, kind of…

The Paris-Roubaix is an entirely different animal to the Vlaanderen. As well as the 28 secteurs of cobblestones, riders also have to cope with the weather in this race like no other. If it's dry, as it was last year, those secteurs become dustbowls choking the lungs and stinging the eyes; if it's wet the stones become glacial, the mud clogs the gears and sprays in the riders' faces making it almost impossible to see.

This week, the finger in the air technique is joined by a blindfold throw at a dartboard, and an assessment of how they got on in last weekend's Ronde. Place your bets now…on anyone but these ones we're just about to put a curse on.

Stuart O'Grady - Team CSC

Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC)
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P-R History: Last year's winner, and the South Australian has always had a thing for this race. Having said that though, his only previous classified finishes were two 18th places in 2005 and 2003.
RVV Performance: DNF. Didn't feature on the Cyclingnews radar at all last week.
Mud or Dust?? He'll tell you he doesn't mind either, but c'mon, this guys from South Australia so last year's freakishly hot and dry conditions suited him better than anyone else alive.
Pros: He's tough and his team has a lot of cards to play
Cons: This year promises to be wet and cold, which will suit him less well; may well have to put his energies behind Fabian Cancellara.
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Fabian Cancellara - Team CSC

Fabaina Cancellara (Team CSC)
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P-R History: Winner in 2006 by nearly two minutes, which by modern standards is an absolute age. Last year he finished pretty anonymously, but he'll have been relaxing a bit as team-mate O'Grady romped off to win solo. Consistent top 10s before this show that Cancellara is one of the men to beat in the Enfer du Nord.
RVV Performance: 23rd in the main group 21 seconds behind Devolder. Never looked to be put into real difficulty by the other favourites, but never showed his own hand either.
Mud or Dust?? It's difficult to say because he hasn't really had a really muddy one to contend with before, although his fourth place finish in 2004 wasn't exactly in a dry race. He won here in 2006 in a dusty one and recently won the Eroica, so we know he goes well in the dry, but only time will tell what he'll do on Sunday's predicted mud bath.
Pros: Cancellara is probably the strongest guy in the peloton; has been on fire in earlier races this season; super-team behind him.
Cons: He's going into the unknown here if it rains.
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Tom Boonen - Quick Step

Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
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P-R History: Boonen burst onto the scene back in 2002 with his third place behind Johan Museeuw and hasn't looked back. His quiet 2003 was followed by ninth in 2004, then victory in 2005 as part of a spectacular Flanders-Roubaix double. He was a controversial second behind Cancellara in 2006 (Peter Van Petegem, Vladimir Gusev and Leif Hoste were disqualified from in front of him after they crossed a closed railway crossing), and only last year's sixth place stands out as a disappointment.
RVV Performance: 17th in the main group 21 seconds behind Stijn Devolder, but Boonen was too busy celebrating the victory of his team-mate to sprint for himself. He was visibly marking a lot of attacks in the latter stages though, proving he has got some form and could have done something had his team-mate not been up the road. Maybe could have marked Nuyens and/or Flecha when they went and got second, but we're being really picky here.
Mud or Dust?? Both. 'Tornado Tom' can blow the rest away on either. He was second in the last real mudfest here in 2002, and has won in the dry.
Pros: Born for this race; the fastest sprinter likely to get to the track in the front group; super-team Quick Step is on a high after Devolder's Ronde victory.
Cons: After failing to win the Ronde again (even though his team-mate won) the pressure must be building on Boonen's young shoulders.
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Stijn Devolder - Quick Step

Stijn Devolder (Quick Step)
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P-R History: Not much history here. Has only finished inside the time limit once in a lowly 18th place last year. He's worth mentioning here though because anyone who can win the Ronde has a chance here.
RVV Performance: The winner. Rode a massive race in his country's flag. In truth, he was probably expecting Quick Step's opponents to drag Boonen up to him, but they didn't.
Mud or Dust?? No idea. He's a Belgian, so probably won't mind either. However, with ambitions of Grand Tour success later in the year he may not want to take too many risks in the wet.
Pros: If you can win the Ronde, you can win Roubaix; Part of super strong Quick Step team.
Cons: Will surely be working for Boonen; unproven in this race; how many beers did he have after last week's victory?
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Alessandro Ballan - Lampre

Alessandro Ballan (Lampre)
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P-R History: Second in 2006 stands out, but like the Ronde he's only ridden a few times and to good effect to boot.
RVV Performance: He finished fourth in the main group 21 seconds behind Devolder. As defending champion he looked isolated at times although he did have a team-mate, Simon Spilak, with him right to the end. An early crash knocked a bit of the wind out of his sails, but he went on to finish strongly.
Mud or Dust?? So far has only ridden in the dust, to good effect, but you get the feeling he could cope when it gets sloppy.
Pros: Last weekend shows he has good form
Cons: Unproven in the mud; doesn't have the strongest team around him
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Juan Antonio Flecha - Rabobank

Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank)
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P-R History: After an anonymous 23rd in 2002, the Spaniard has been right up there every year without actually managing to win it. His second place last year improves on his previous bests of third in 2005 and fourth in 2006, and you wouldn't put it past him to improve on that this year. His Achilles heel may be his sprint though - or lack of one - as he's generally last placed in the group he arrives at the velodrome with. The exception to this was his defeat of Steffen Wesemann last year, so he could be improving.
RVV Performance: He finished third, losing a two-up sprint to Nick Nuyens 15 seconds behind Devolder. Put in a great ride towards the end to escape the other favourites, but once again his sprint let him down at the finish.
Mud or Dust?? Once again it's difficult to tell, but this guy is hard and so should be able to cope. Was 13th the last time it wasn't dry (2004) when he was still new around here, which augurs well for this year.
Pros: In super form, as proved by late attack last week; has been on podium here twice before; Rabobank is very well organised this year.
Cons: That sprint.
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Leif Hoste - Silence-Lotto

Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto)
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P-R History: Not too bad, but nothing spectacular. His only real threat in the race came in 2006 when he was second across the line behind Fabian Cancellara, but was later disqualified (along with Peter Van Petegem and Vladimir Gusev) for going through a railway crossing when the gates were down. Otherwise he's just failed to get into the top 10.
RVV Performance: Did he ride? No, just kidding, he finished 19th in the main group 21 seconds behind Devolder. A mechanical problem in the race's latter stages may have held him back, but in truth he never really looked like doing anything much.
Mud or Dust?
? Has gone well in the dust, but this guy's from Flanders so the mud should be no problem.
Pros: Strong rider; has a lot to prove after uneventful Ronde.
Cons: 2006 (pre-disqualification) finish may be a blip.
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Nick Nuyens - Cofidis

Nick Nuyens (Cofidis)
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P-R History: Fairly unspectacular showing here, but until last year was always riding in the service of others, notably Tom Boonen. Having said that, last year he got to ride for himself and didn't finish.
RVV Performance: Finished second, beating Flecha in a two-up sprint 15 seconds behind Devolder. His attack in the closing stages was too powerful for all but Flecha to cope with, but not quite enough to catch Devolder.
Mud or Dust?? As a Belgian he prefers things a bit wet, has won rainy cobbled races before.
Pros: Good cobbles rider; showed he has form and class with second place in Ronde; has strong Cofidis team behind him.
Cons: May have spent too many bullets last week; still unproven as a captain in this one.
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Filippo Pozzato - Liquigas

Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas)
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P-R History: Pretty unspectacular, although like Nuyens he was working for Boonen until recently. Finished 15th in 2006 is his high point so far.
RVV Performance: Pippo finished sixth in the main group 21 seconds behind Devolder. He never really showed himself much, aside from a brief spell near the front on the Eikenmolen with 25km to go.
Mud or Dust?? Hmm, well…this is a toughie. The mud might mess up his pretty shoes, but then the dust could ruin his beautiful golden locks. Seriously though, despite appearances, Pippo isn't afraid of a bit of rain or dirt.
Pros: Harder than he looks; has had good form all spring.
Cons: As in Flanders, sometimes has trouble with the responsibility of leadership; Liquigas is not the strongest team.
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George Hincapie - High Road

George Hincapie (Team High Road)
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P-R History: You name it, George has done it here…except win that is. He's rarely outside the top 10, but has only been on the podium once: second behind an unstoppable Tom Boonen in 2005. Luck doesn't follow George to this race, and he's been cruelly denied on many occasions. The most memorable times have been his exhausted tumble into a ditch in the closing stages of the 2002 race, and a broken steerer tube causing him to fall and break his shoulder in 2006.
RVV Performance: After a pretty active race he finished fifth in the main group 21 seconds behind Devolder, beating all but Ballan in the sprint. He featured in a number of breaks including the penultimate one that was caught at the base of the Eikenmolen - just before Devolder put in his race-winning move.
Mud or Dust?? Either. Both. Whatever. George doesn't care; he'd race through boiling oil to get hold of that cobblestone trophy.
Pros: No one knows this race better than him; can go well in the predicted muddy conditions; High Road is super-strong and all for him.
Cons: Bad luck seems to follow him to this race every year; we've asked it before, but is George too nice to win in Hell?
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Steffen Wesemann - Cycle Collstrop

Steffen Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop)
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P-R History: Loads of top 10s going back to 2000, but his best results have been his second place in 2002 and his third last year. Despite riding for small teams in recent years he still manages to be there when it matters.
RVV Performance: DNF. Only lasted around 100km last weekend, which doesn't bode well for this.
Mud or Dust?? Doesn't matter to this East German; he was second in the mud in 2002 and third in the dust last year. He's as tough as they come so the worse the better, in either way.
Pros: A real Paris-Roubaix specialist.
Cons: Is he getting too old? What happened to him last week? Collstrop is not a strong team.
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Magnus Backstedt - Slipstream Chipotle Presented by H3O

Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream Chipotle Presented by H3O)
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P-R History: Victory in 2004 was followed by fourth in 2005 when he didn't have the legs to follow the acceleration of a storming Tom Boonen. In recent years he's been plagued by injuries that have affected his preparation, but he loves this race and still has all the qualities to win it.
RVV Performance: Pretty unspectacular performance form the big Swede, he came in 43rd, 9:14 down. However, as we mentioned in our Ronde predictions, Magnus is a big chap and not made for those Flemish hills - Roubaix cobbles are a different matter.
Mud or Dust?? Bring it on, Magnus can cope with both!
Pros: Big, strong Magnus has the experience and all the necessary attributes to win.
Cons: Has he had enough time to prepare after his broken collarbone in Qatar; Slipstream may not be able to support him against the Belgian super-teams.
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Wild Cards - the best of the rest

No review of the likely contenders would be complete without mentioning the last Frenchman to win in Roubaix: Frederic Guesdon (Française des Jeux). That win was way back in 1997, but Fred has been up there in the top 10 many times since. He may well be a bit too old for it now, but his experience will be invaluable for any challenge from his team-mates - but who they might be, we couldn't say.

Other names worth a mention include Tom Steels (Landbouwkrediet - Tönissteiner) who sadly is not the rider he once was but has had some great days here. Also, Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems) could be a name to watch out for, he seemingly knows no fear and is no respecter of reputations.

Finally, the most appropriate name in the race award goes to Agritubel's Benoit Sinner. Who better to do well in Hell?


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Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net

Images by AFP Photo

Images by Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com

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