Another thrilling chapter in cycling’s hardest one-day classic will be played out Sunday when Belgian Tom Boonen puts his pedigree up against defending Paris-Roubaix champion Fabian Cancellara. Cancellara’s 2010 triumph, a week after an equally crushing victory at the Tour of Flanders, prompted one of the biggest cycling controversies of 2010, the Swiss being accused of using a hidden engine to power his way to the top step of the podium.
A year on, and those claims are all but forgotten. But for all the fear he strikes into the peloton, Cancellara has recently shown signs he is not an unbeatable machine. He finished third in Flanders last week when, after a long, two-up ride towards the finish with Boonen’s teammate Sylvain Chavanel, he was ousted in a sprint by Belgian Nick Nuyens. Yet for most, the Leopard-Trek team’s one-day specialist remains the man to beat in the 258 km epic.
“Fabian Cancellara is quite rightly the favorite, but last week proved he’s not unbeatable so it’s all to race for and hopefully it’ll be just as exciting as Flanders was,” Welsh hopeful Geraint Thomas told teamsky.com.
There are multiple difficulties in the race known ominously as the ‘Hell of the North’, notably the brutal succession of the 27 sectors of cobblestones which, combined, total 51.5 km. And where there’s cobbles, there are usually crashes. Although the fine weather predicted is likely to limit the carnage, the road from Compiegne to Roubaix’s legendary velodrome will exact a costly toll on the peloton. Last year in similar conditions only 74 of the 193 starters made it to the finish.
Humbled by Cancellara last year, Boonen has more than one reason to believe he can turn the tables on the Swiss. The former world champion is a three-time winner of Paris-Roubaix and has a chance to equal the long-standing record of four victories held by countryman Roger De Vlaeminck. Rumors suggest Boonen and De Vlaeminck don’t see eye to eye. And while the 30-year-old is desperate to equal his peer’s record, beating Cancellara is Boonen’s biggest motivation.
“I’m certainly not afraid of Cancellara,” the Belgian d earlier this week. We saw last Sunday that Fabian won’t be allowed to do the same thing every year, whether it’s at the Tour of Flanders or in Paris-Roubaix.”
Tactics-wise, the Cancellara-Boonen rivalry could play into the hands of Thor Hushovd, Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha and several other contenders. Hushovd came closest to winning his “dream” race last year when he finished runner-up to Cancellara, albeit two minutes in arrears. Seven months after being crowned the world road race champion, the Norwegian is as focused as ever. He wisely did not contend victory midweek at the Scheldeprijs semi-classic in Belgium, which ended in carnage and took out his American teammate Tyler Farrar.
Sky will aim to get Flecha, one of the few Spaniards who likes the cobbled classics, onto the top step of the podium. Thomas, a former winner of the junior version (2004), could play a decisive role but warned: “We’ve got a lot of cards to play, but there’s so many other good guys here who are going to make things tough for us.”
HTC-Highroad’s Matt Goss will make his Roubaix debut less than a month after claiming his biggest career win at Milan-SanRemo. “Matt wasn’t a favorite at Milan-SanRemo and he won it, and in the Tour of Flanders last week two outsiders came first and second, so who knows if that couldn’t happen again on Sunday,” said the Australian’s team boss Allan Peiper.
American veteran George Hincapie, who rides for BMC, meanwhile lines up for his 16th participation in the hope of edging closer to an elusive victory. Belgian Raymond Impanis and Dutchman Servais Knaven hold the record for having finished the race 16 times.