Rivals of Quick Step, whose Belgian star Tom Boonen was victorious last year, expect them to lead from the front along the road to “hell” in today’s grueling Paris-Roubaix one-day classic race.
Even without the forecast of rain, the “Hell of the North,” one of the year’s most prestigious races, would be challenging enough as the 259km race includes a bone-shaking 52.6km of cobblestones.
This being the 107th edition organizers have had to tweak certain stages of the race because of the state of the cobbles, with this year’s even missing out the 1.6km-long Wallers-Helesmes cobbled section, which is in less than raceable condition.
Another section that links Auchy-les-Orchies to Bersee, which has been shortened the past two years, goes back to its original length of 2.5km thanks to work that has been carried out to improve the cobbles by local communes.
Boonen triumphed 12 months ago, edging out Fabian Cancellara in just 1 minute, 18 seconds shy of six hours — less than half the 12 hour, 15 minute winning time of Henri Pelissier, who struggled to victory in 1919 over a course ravaged by the carnage of the just-ended Great War.
The grueling nature of the race prompted one-time editor of French sports daily L’Equipe, Jacques Goddet, to dub the course “the last great madness of cycling.”
And with the heavens expected to open on cue that will bring to mind two-time Irish champion Sean Kelly’s observation that “a Paris-Roubaix without rain is not a true Paris-Roubaix. Throw in a little snow as well, it’s not serious.”
Dirk Demol, who bagged a surprise 1988 win, says Quick Step — who he recently left to join the technical staff at Astana — “are going to dictate the pace again.”
“They have got a number of wins under their belt, their morale is good and that will make the difference come Sunday,” Demol said. “We will have to put them on the defensive. Otherwise we will be riding behind them and that quickly makes things difficult. You can never say so with certainty, but I am pretty sure it’ll be a Quick Step rider who wins.”
But for another former champion, Marc Madiot, sporting director of Francaise des Jeux, “there’s nothing to say that they [Quick Step] will be as strong as in the Tour of Flanders. Sure, they are hard to beat, but not invincible.”
But with nine wins since 1995 Patrick Lefevere’s men are certainly the team to beat, with Boonen and Tour of Flanders double champion Stijn Devolder having carried off six wins between them in the cobbled classics of Paris-Roubaix and Flanders.
But Dominique Arnould, team manager of Bouygues Telecom, notes that, favorites or not, there is always the chance that some external factor may come into play.
“There’s that luck factor which could keep out many teams. And then, if Boonen and Chavanel find themselves alongside one another, who will give his wheel to the other in the event of a puncture?”