By David Hunter
Compiègne – Roubaix 257km
The hell of the north.
Quick on the heels of the Tour of Flanders, we have our second monument in a week. This one is all about the cobbles.
This is a race which is a mental test, as much as a physical one. Such a long and demanding race usually means the strongest rider takes the spoils, something which is always good.
Sunny, but quite cold. The bunch will set off in almost freezing conditions, but it will warm up and get to 11 degrees. That still isn’t very warm. The riders will also have to deal with a crosswind for the vast majority of the day, around 13mph. Given the right conditions, that is enough to split the race.
Almost impossible to predict when the main moves go, but you want me to try. Mons-en-Pévèle is the beginning of the finale of the race; from this point onwards the winning move can go on the cobbles, or the normal road. People sometimes forget that this race isn’t just about the cobble sectors, the normal road is hugely important too. If riders go too deep on the cobbles, they don’t have anything left to respond to the other attacks.
Carrefour de l’Arbre is the last of the five-star sectors. If the front group is still together, this horrible sector can be used to drop any weaker riders. We’ve seen some spectacular action here before, but will the big move already have escaped?
It’s a bit weird, but this race is more about strength than tactics; to even survive into the final 30km, you need to be an exceptional rider. If teams have multiple riders left, of course this puts them into a strong position, but there is no easy ride in Roubaix. Plenty of riders will want to anticipate the big moves by getting up the road a little early. With many having the same tactic, they stand a strong chance of cancelling each other out, but someone will escape. The strength of QuickStep seems to have been depleted by illness, something that the other teams will be happy to hear, as I think it makes the race wide open.
Greg Van Avermaet – winner here in 2017 and has looked strong throughout the whole classics campaign. Despite this strength, GVA doesn’t have a win to his name, his best finish was 2nd in Het Nieuwsblad, something he won’t be too happy about. Winning here will turn his season into a success and it looks like his form is still good. His team aren’t overly strong, but this is a race that suits them best out of all the big ones, they are much better on the flat than the climbs. They should be able to support Greg deep into the race and then it’s over to him to deliver a big result.
Peter Sagan – the form just isn’t there. I can’t remember a time when he was unable to properly compete in the closing stages of races, but that is exactly what is happening this season. It would take a miracle to reverse this trend in Roubaix, but you can never discount him.
Trek – they could be strongest team in the race. Lining up with Degenkolb, Stuyven, Pedersen and Theuns, they have a huge amount of strength in depth. The problem is that the form hasn’t been as good as previous seasons, but this is the best race for their captains. Without hills to worry about, this is when they should be stepping up and rescuing a poor season, but how will they approach it? Trek need to get riders up the road, there is no point wasting their resources by chasing down breaks. Degenkolb should be held back for any possible sprint, allowing the others to attack.
Oli Naesen – another campaign draws to a close with bad luck stopping him from achieving a big win. After getting through Flanders despite not feeling great, he finished 7th (you try doing that on antibiotics), how his body reacts to this will determine whether or not he can challenge for this win. Given his sprint in recent races, he’ll be confident if he enters the velodrome in the front group.
Wout Van Aert – this has been his first season riding all the classics for a top team, I wonder if the signs of fatigue are there. He said he was good in Flanders, but didn’t have the legs to follow Bettiol, something that is a concern for me. This is a hugely demanding period for a team leader, given his relative lack of road experience, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was now getting tired. If he can manage to find energy from somewhere, Jumbo-Visma have a strong team to support him, especially Van Poppel and Teunissen.
QuickStep – recent illnesses to Štybar and Gilbert have taken their toll. Getting sick during this period, and continuing to ride, always leaves riders feeling empty, it also makes it very difficult to predict what will happen. If both riders are unable to make the finale, that leaves Yves Lampaert as the team leader. He was 7th here back in 2015 and provides the team with a great option, but he will struggle without support, who else can step up and deliver a huge ride? Asgreen was outstanding in Flanders, but it’s a huge ask for him to do something similar in this race. I rider I do like is Florian Sénéchal, someone who often flies under the radar. The French rider is brilliant on cobbles, don’t be surprised to see him challenging in the closing stages.
Sebastian Langeveld – one of those riders who just quietly gets on with their business. The Dutchman was a key part of Bettiol’s win in Flanders, he was able to police any moves from the chasing group. Langeveld has enjoyed a tremendous season and we now approach the race that suits him best. He was 3rd here back in 2017 and starts with a real chance of winning this race, imagine if EF won both Flanders and Roubaix! He will be determined to move before the team captains, in a similar move to Bettiol. His sprint isn’t the fastest, winning certainly won’t be easy, but it could happen.
Tiesj Benoot – both appearances here have been hampered by punctures, he’ll hope this year brings better luck. His classics campaign has been consistently good, but a win has escaped him. Given a relative lack of experience in this race, he will be given some freedom, as he’s not viewed as one of the big favourites. The cold weather is good news for him, he’s one of the few team leaders who’ll be looking forward to the tough conditions. Don’t expect him to hang about in the front group, Tiesj will look to attack before the others and try to remove himself from any tactical battles.
Of course there are other riders who could be challenging near the end of the race, but I’m not going to mention every team leader in this section. These are the riders I think will have a big say in the race.
With Sagan off form and QuickStep picking up illnesses, the planets seem to be aligning for Greg Van Avermaet. I think we’ll see a dominant performance and a second title for the hugely talented Belgian.
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