• Mat Hayman leads the big hitters through a cobbled section at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. (Getty)Source: Getty
Pain, hardship and cobbles. Dust… dust that sticks to your face, your jersey, your chain and gets down your throat as you take an ill-advised gulp of air. 55 kilometres of riding over loose-fitting chunks of rock that have seen countless generations of tractors rumbling over them from nearby farming communities. Yes, it's time for Paris-Roubaix.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

7 Apr 2017 - 11:40 AM  UPDATED 7 Apr 2017 - 11:45 AM

Not the longest race on the calendar, nor is it a race that contains the most common obstacle in cycling, hills. The profile is as flat as a pool table and the biggest climb the winner will do is to the top of the podium in the Roubaix velodrome.

Instead, the challenge of the race arises from navigating the big chunks of rock which are roughly configured into a set up resembling a road. Some bigger riders simply slog their way over the cobbles, keeping their weight forward as they maintain an inexorable momentum towards Roubaix. Others seemingly float over the obstacles, adjusting to each section of the road. The unlucky ones seem to hit every leading edge, find every rut and look like they’re working the jackhammer at a construction site.

This year the race will be run over 257 kilometres in dry conditions. Whilst a wet edition would ensure mud and carnage, a dry one spells the problem of the suffocating dust being kicked by riders and team cars. The wind may be a little disappointing to those looking for an especially hard edition of Roubaix, only a light southerly is predicted at present which will be a tailwind for most of the day. That’s better news than a headwind though and the race route turns at points so that the wind will change to a crosswind that has the potential to cause major splits in a tired peloton.

It is a different type of rider wins here, one with almost endless reserves of stamina that can go with the ninth acceleration of the day over the hardest cobbled sectors and still have enough in the tank to drop the rest before the finish. It need not be a favourite, or even a rider that has won much before. Consider past winners Mat Hayman (2016), Johan Van Summeren (2011) and Stuart O’Grady (2007). Hayman has only had three professional wins in his entire career, the same was true of Johan van Summeren (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Stuart O’Grady was well past the stage where he was one of the best sprinters around, he was thoroughly a domestique at that stage of his career.

It is a race where the men lumped with the hard work in the peloton day-in and day-out get their one shot in the year to win. Their dour styles help them stick in over the rough cobbles of the farm roads of Northern France, they bump the prima donnas of the sport out of their way as they get a rare sniff of victory. So who fits the bill as a workhorse that can take down the big names?

Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott) will be on very few people’s favourites list despite winning last year, certainly the other teams won’t let him go in the break this time. Nonetheless, he showed that he could be as strong as anyone at the end of 250 kilometres and the Aussie veteran isn’t going there to make up the numbers. After famously doing all of his preparation on the home trainer last season, Hayman has had a more conventional racing approach this time and is one of the most experienced riders at the race. At very least his responsibility will be to combine with fellow Australian Luke Durbridge, Magnus Cort Nielsen and Jens Keukeliere in what is a dangerous Orica-Scott line-up.

Other outsiders like Bert de Backer (Sunweb), Martin Wynants (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and Luke Rowe (Team Sky) will look to take advantage of their relative anonymity as well to sneak up the road, they’re the sort of riders that other teams can’t afford to give too much leeway to if they don’t want to see their chances of victory evaporate.

It’s hard to say who the out-and-out favourite will be for the race this year. Flamboyant world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is of course a favourite in any race he enters, but his hard fall in the Tour of Flanders seemed to shake him up and he was a bit more timid than normal at the mid-week Scheldeprijs. It is also one of the few races where Sagan doesn’t have a great history. His best finish is sixth, his only top ten placing and he’s come off a long, tiring block of racing to get to this point. If the Slovak is ever vulnerable, this is the race where he might be exploited.

Greg van Avermaet (BMC) is clearly in career-best form at the moment. After completed an unprecedented triple at E3, Omloop and Gent-Wevelgem, the Belgian was an extremely strong second at the Tour of Flanders. Picking himself up quickly from the crash that ensured that there would be no catching runaway winner Philippe Gilbert, van Avermaet then had to do the lion’s share of the pace-making to try and catch the leader. That he had enough to beat Niki Terpstra (QuickStep Floors), who had been sitting on for 11 kilometres, in the sprint for second shows the other level that van Avermaet is currently occupying. His team will be a lot better suited to Paris-Roubaix than Flanders and there should be less chance of a repeat of last weekend.

QuickStep Floors come into the race with their normal smorgasbord of options for the win. Heading the list is Tom Boonen, who will be aiming for a record fifth win at the ‘Hell of the North’. It would cap off what has been a stellar career for the hard man from Belgium and certainly a ‘Tommeke’ win will please a lot of fans. He’s in the form to do it as well, he’s been present at the front in recent racing and no one is better than him at negotiating the pave in Roubaix.

His ‘support’ cast includes 2014 winner Niki Terpstra, former second place finisher Zdenek Stybar, Dwars dor Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert and Matteo Trentin. Each would lead almost any other team, but they will use their numbers to their advantage here, as they did successfully at Flanders. Look for the team in blue to consistently be at the front when the whips are cracking and trying to exploit their numbers to force others onto the back foot.

Whilst many paint Boonen’s story as the fairytale win to see him walk off into the sunset, the real uplifting winner would be John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo). A horrific accident at a 2016 training camp in Spain saw him and a large portion of his team taken out by a head-on collision with a car, with Degenkolb suffering multiple injuries and almost losing a finger in the process. He was a shadow of himself when he returned on the bike much later in the year but he has rebuilt his form and now looks at the top of his game again.

His 2015 win was memorable for its strength, he powered solo across a gap to a dangerous attack and then looked assured as he countered all the moves before convincingly winning the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome. The harder the race is, the better the big German stands a chance of winning and he’ll back himself in a sprint against anyone else likely to make the finish.

The Katusha pair of Alexander Kristoff and Tony Martin will be the jokers in the race. Nobody doubts Kristoff’s ability in these tough races, but the fact remains that he has a poor history at Paris-Roubaix despite seeming well-suited. Martin announced at the start of the season that he would be targeting the cobbled races this year but not much has eventuated from that focus yet. He definitely has the motor but is yet to showcase the technique or stamina over the really long races to challenge for the win.

Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) is the last name to raise as a potential winner. The second year World Tour pro has come on leaps and bounds in his short career, taking it to the established favourites. He’s arguably the revelation of the season to this point. His performances in recent races in particular has been superb, he has only been outside the top ten twice in his six cobbled races this year and at Flanders he was just as strong as Sagan and van Avermaet. 13th last year at Paris-Roubaix is just an appetiser what the talented Belgian rider will achieve at this race, though he will need to arrive solo as his sprint is nothing to write home about.

The fact is, the field of potential winners is so large that, for the sake of brevity, there’s quite a few names worthy of mention that didn’t make the cut here. The beauty of Paris-Roubaix is that there will always be surprises. For anyone who marvelled over Hayman’s heroics last year, you’ll know that Paris-Roubaix is just that little bit more special than most races and a new chapter will enter the history books this Sunday.