• Paris-Roubaix is all about the cobbles, these ones in the Arenberg forest. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Paris-Roubaix is finally here. For many, it's Christmas; for Tour of Flanders fans, it's New Year's Eve. Jamie Finch-Penninger reviews the riders hoping to conquer the cobbles.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
9 Apr 2016 - 10:32 AM 

Staged over pan flat terrain, Paris-Roubaix presents as one of the more boring profiles, and to the newly initiated, there may appear to be little of interest.

But there’s always drama when it comes to Paris-Roubaix. 

257.4 kilometres of racing over 27 sections of cobbles - a total of 52.8 kilometres - is never boring. 

Take the pavé sectors for instance. Chunks of uneven stone better suited to horse-drawn carts treacherously slippery with mud churned up as the riders fly past at speeds of over 50 km/hr. Crashes and punctures are a regular sight throughout and it's rare a rider makes it through the whole race without an issue.

It’s set to countryside not out of place in a Brothers Grimm tale as the peloton plunges into the Forest of Arenberg and winds through roads used regularly only by a handful of farmers on the way to the famous velodrome in Roubaix.

With rain threatening to make this edition of Paris-Roubaix the first wet race since 2005, most of the riders will be going into the pavé of northern France with little to no idea of what to expect from the race. What is already a wildly unpredictable race to predict will be doubly so if the rain comes down on Sunday.

The contenders

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) will be attempting a historic double and treble. 10 riders have managed the Tour of Flanders-Roubaix double in a season, but only Rik Van Looy in 1962 managed it while World Champion. Sagan lives in the moment though, his focus will be entirely on winning the event for the challenge and prestige rather than any tilt at history. 

He played it smart in the Ronde (Tour of Flanders), stealing a march on Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) by following a bold move with plenty of distance still to race. He then dropped the power to surge away from Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and solo to the finish.

He’s got the form, the bike-handling skills and the mentality to take the win here as well, but Roubaix is a more tactical affair, and Tinkoff hasn’t got riders that can go deep into the final with Sagan.

Cancellara is looking to retire on top, and with his results so far, he looks set to do just that. His form is arguably stronger than his results this year show with mechanical problems and bad luck in several races preventing him from winning. A three-time winner of Roubaix, he’s got the experience to go with his legs, and will be a very popular champion if he can manage it.

His old rival for the cobbled classics and four-time winner here, Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quickstep), had a shortened preparation after a nasty crash at Abu Dhabi last season, and has been off the pace in the cobbled races where he would normally excel. Is he past it these days? He has been building form gradually, so maybe ‘Tommeke’ will prove everyone wrong with one last, great victory.

Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo) looked the heir apparent for the classics when he was a close second behind Cancellara in 2013 and then backed it up with fourth the following year. He has struggled to really break through following those performances, with only one win in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to his name.

He's taken a different approach this season, skipping the early cobbled races, presumably with a view to peaking later and giving himself a better shot at the win. Vanmarcke specialises in these tough events and it would be a big surprise if he wasn’t near the front of the race to have a go at taking a win which has been a long time coming.

Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quickstep) is another ‘nearly man’ at Roubaix, second last year, fifth the year prior and sixth in 2013 when he was in the winning move but was taken out by a spectator. The former cyclocross world champion will relish the wet conditions, and has been the best of the Etixx-Quickstep riders this season. If they can organise themselves behind him, perhaps the Belgian team can save its Classics campaign with a win.

Ian Stannard (Team Sky) is the perfect type of rider to contest in ‘The Hell of the North’. A big hulking frame, who seems to muscle his way over obstacles, the Brit is one of the strongest riders in the peloton. Third in E3 Harelbeke shows his form is good, but he often misapplies his efforts. for example, his performance in the Ronde and Milan San Remo, he was spent by the time the crucial moves go. His partnership with teammate Luke Rowe will be important, and if they are both in a small group at the end they will have the advantage.

Giant-Alpecin’s horrific start to the season with the car crashing into their team at training camp meaning that a big portion of their squad and their star rider, John Degenkolb, are on the couch watching the races they would love to be a part of. The race has lost something without the reigning champion returning but it does open the door for the fairytale story of the race.

Bert de Backer turned himself inside out for Degenkolb in the last two editions of Roubaix, doing important work for the big German in the finale, when all the other team’s domestiques faded away. It would be a great moment for the battered and beleaguered squad if de Backer could manage a result, and certainly a feel-good moment for everyone in the sport.

Whilst the winner is far from guaranteed, what is certain is the thrills and spills of Paris-Roubaix will offer compelling viewing as the riders look to take one of the biggest wins of their career.