AFP / Yuzuru Sunada
A week ago the pre-Tour of Flanders talk was about how open the race would be but ahead of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix that has turned to questions about how to stop Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss 33-year-old won his third Flanders crown last Sunday in a sprint finish, upsetting the hopes of a trio of Belgians on their home soil. And now he comes into the ‘Hell of the North’ race on the French cobbles as the overwhelming favorite to complete a second successive Flanders-Roubaix double, and third in total.
Already a double winner of the northern cobbled classics in 2010 and last year, Cancellara’s victory in Oudenaarde last week was deflating for his opponents because he did so in a sprint finish. “Spartacus” –as Cancellara is known in the peloton – is revered for his sheer power and ability to ride away from the pack and time-trial his way to victory. That he now has another weapon in his armory – the ability to kick away from other riders in the final few hundred meters – makes him an even greater favorite than he would otherwise have been at the ‘Queen of the Classics’.
“He’s obviously the strongest guy here and to be able to follow him you’ve got to be good,” said British rider Geraint Thomas after Flanders.
A three time winner (his other success was in 2006), Cancellara could join Belgians Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen as a record four-time champion if he crosses the line first at the velodrome in Roubaix. Boonen — the winner in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 20012 — will line up as one of his major rivals, although the Omega-Pharmna rider has struggled to produce his best form so far during the Spring Classics season. He did the Flanders-Roubaix double for the second time in 2012 before his 2013 season was ruined by a rib injury. But a seventh placed finish in Flanders and fifth at Gent-Wevelgem the week before shows he is not far away in 2014, if still perhaps just shy of the top form needed to beat Cancellara.
Boonen’s Trump Card
Boonen’s trump card, though, is that he has by far the best classics team around him — three Omega Pharma riders finished in the top seven in Flanders. Cancellara may be favorite but this being Paris-Roubaix, anything could happen. There are 28 different cobbled sections totalling 51.1km meaning a huge amount of potential pitfalls.
Crashes were aplenty already on the cobbles in Flanders last week and there is no reason to suspect they won’t play a major role on Sunday too. Double Flanders winner and Cancellara’s Trek team-mate Stijn Devolder saw his hopes of success on home soil last week wrecked by three crashes and trailed home in 86th place almost 10 minutes behind. But if the main favorites do successfully negotiate the cobbles then we can expect to see Belgians Greg Van Avermaet, who was the main attacking protagonist in Flanders and finished second, and Sep Vanmarcke, the only man to follow Cancellara’s acceleration on the Kwaremont before coming home third, to be challenging once again.
Dutchman Niki Terpstra, Milan-San Remo winner Alexander Kristoff and Sky’s Thomas might also be expected to feature prominently. But there is also growing belief that 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins – Thomas’s Sky team-mate – could be a good outside bet. Everyone in the peloton acknowledges Wiggins has the power to win, but the question marks are over his ability to match the likes of Boonen and Cancellara tactically.
“I had really good legs on Sunday (at the Tour of Flanders). I’d be lethal if I could ride positions,” he joked. “It’s a bit more on having the legs in Roubaix, so as the race wears on, fewer guys can keep fighting, and I think that’s where I’ll certainly come to the fore is in the final 50km because I’ll have the legs and the length.”