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107th Paris-Roubaix - HIS

France, April 12, 2009

Ticket to torture in northern France

By Les Clarke

Tom Boonen is Roubaix favourite number one
Photo ©: Sirotti
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Torture has a number – 52.9km. That's the total distance riders will travel over bone-jarring cobbles in Sunday's Paris-Roubaix. The third of cycling's five monuments starts in Compiègne and ends in the Roubaix velodrome after 259 kilometres.

The Bersée sector is back on the menu after a two year absence and increases the Auchy-lez-Orchies - Bersée section to 2600 metres after 205 kilometres of racing. The overall distance of cobbled sectors remains almost identical to the 2008 edition.

And like last year, the weather forecast is for dry and sunny conditions, ensuring there's plenty of dust to line the throats of riders gasping for air as the hammer goes down.

Who will be dropping that hammer?

Tom Boonen is undoubtedly the man to watch on Sunday. The defending champion and double winner has remained injury-free and comes into this year's Roubaix with impeccable form after last weekend's Ronde van Vlaanderen.

The Belgian star indicated that another Roubaix crown is a major season objective, and given his record in the race – he has virtually owned a place on the podium during the past five seasons – the short odds lay with Quick Step's charismatic leader.

Michele Bartoli on Roubaix

"In Carrefour de l'Arbre, the last hard sector with 15 kilometres to go, we were in sixth. I blew first, then Museeuw... If I could have stayed in there then I could have gone for the win.

"It is hard for me to give advice on Roubaix because I only did it one time. Everyone says it is a massacre and you remain in pain for a week, but for me it was not that way.

"It is a race that only four or five guys can win due to natural selection, luck and strong legs. It is hard to say this early on, but there will be Boonen, Cancellara, Ballan, Juan Antonio Flecha. Of course, maybe there will be some guys going strong around that time; like Thor Hushovd.

"CSC tore it up in 2007 and delivered Stuart O'Grady to the win, though it is not typically a team race. I will be happy if Hincapie wins because he is a true professional – he would deserve it. He has been unfortunate in the race with incidents that have prohibited him from finishing."

For more read Spring Classics: Bartoli holds court

Less charisma but just as much grit as Boonen, countryman and teammate Stijn Devolder announced mid-week that he's looking at a Flanders-Roubaix double. Watch for the Belgian to make another gutsy move somewhere around the tough cobbled section at Le Carrefour de l'Arbre, with about 20 kilometres remaining.

Quick Step team boss Patrick Lefevere knows the difficulties of l'enfer du nord ('Hell of the north') intimately. "You have to have just enough stress on the team – but not too much – so that everybody is super motivated and concentrated. In Paris-Roubaix and Flanders it's war," he told Cyclingnews.

"You don't give presents to anybody. It's really important to show that you can come in with the team at the front of the bunch. It says, 'Come on guys, we are here – if you want to win you have to pursue us'."

Devolder to pull off Flanders/Roubaix double?
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The absence of Stuart O'Grady from Saxo Bank's lineup is a big loss for Bjarne Riis' squad, and Fabian Cancellara's form has been lukewarm at best in comparison to previous years, where he has performed at the highest level. The Flanders disappointment last weekend may provide the impetus for a great ride, however, so don't write off Switzerland's 'Spartacus'.

It's not the end of Saxo Bank's threat though, with Matti Breschel a name in the mix of those able to be a part of the winning moves late in the race.

A rider in a similar position last year was Martijn Maaskant. Garmin-Slipstream's slightly enigmatic Dutchman rode to fourth place in the 2008 edition and finished in the same position at last Sunday's Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

His toughness should serve him well in sectors of pavé such as the Trouée d’Arenberg or Mons-en-Pévèle, where only the elite make the cut and can hang on for the crazy ride.

Outside favourite: Heinrich Haussler
Photo ©: Gregor Brown
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One rider who has proven he can not only hang on, but animate proceedings is Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha. Rabobank's perennial Classics contender finished third in 2005, fourth in 2006, second in 2007, but a disappointing 12th last year. He's due for another podium appearance, although his teammate, Sebastian Langeveld, has moved into reckoning for that honour in recent times.

Not to be forgotten is Heinrich Haussler. Cervélo TestTeam's man-of-the-moment finished second in this year's edition of Flanders and has made it abundantly clear that a Roubaix title is within his grasp. The prevailing dry conditions will favour his chances, and with a quick sprint watch for him bursting out of the pack in the dying kilometres of this Sunday's showdown.