The 2008 Paris-Roubaix will be ridden tomorrow. As always, the cobbles will be the star. There will be 28 sections of pave, which will define the race. The winner will conquer the pave as much as his competition.
For the first two and a half hours of this 259.5-km classic, the race will be like any other. An early break will detach itself from the field and will establish a lead, perhaps a substantial one. The break or the field will not reach the first section of pave (Sector No. 28) until 98 km, when the first riders reach Troisvilles.
By the standards of Paris-Roubaix, the sector is not particularly difficult. It is a three. (The race organizers grade the sectors from one to five, with one being easy and five being hard.) Troisvilles, however, is a harbinger.
Of the following nine sectors, only one, Sector No. 26 at Quievy, is harder than a three. (It is a four.) The three that follow those nine, however, will break the race open.
Sector No. 19 at Haveluy is a four, and Sector No. 18, the most infamous sector in the race, is the Arenberg Trench. Sector No 17 is at Wallers. These three sectors will leave bikes, riders, and hopes scattered along the road.
After Wallers, only two of the next nine sectors are harder than a three. Those sectors--Warlaing-Brillon (a four at 184 km) and Mons-en-Pevele (a five at 210.5 km) are nonconsecutive, which might allow riders who are dropped in Sectors Nos. 17 to 19 or who suffer mechanicals or punctures to get back on. The following four sectors, however, will have a determining influence on the race.
Sectors Nos. 7 to 5 are all fours, and the punishment will culminate with the last hard sectors of the race. Sector No. 4, Carrefour de l'Arbre, is a five and is a 2.4-km sector that begins at 242 km. Look for an attack by a single rider or by a small group.
After the Carrefour de l'Arbre, Sectors Nos 3, 2, and 1 are a two, one, and one, respectively. Then, the leading rider or riders go to the Roubaix Velodrome. Who is likely to go into the velodrome as victor or with a chance to win?
If the race has a single leader on the velodrome, it will be Fabian Cancellara (CSC). The 2006 winner is in outstanding form, having won Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, and he knows how to win the Queen of the Classics. Look for him to ride away from a small group on the Carrefour de l'Arbre, as he did two years ago.
If the race winds up with a small group battling it out in the final km and in the velodrome, look for Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder (both from Quick Step). Last Sunday, Devolder took the Tour of Flanders. On the other hand, Boonen has been inconspicuous during the classics season, but his teammates say that he is ready. Besides, no former winner of Paris-Roubaix can be ruled out. Look for the Quick Step duo to make a mark on the race.
Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream Chipotle) is another rider to watch in a small group. The Swede won Paris-Roubaix in a sprint in 2004. In recent seasons, Backstedt has struggled, but he is said to have his 2004 form back. If that is so, Backstedt is a favorite in a sprint finish.
Stuart O'Grady (CSC), the defending champion, seems to lack last year's form. However, working for Cancellara could give him opportunities. George Hincapie (High Road) has four top ten finishes in Paris-Roubaix, so he knows his way around the race and can win if the right situation develops. Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) has three top ten finishes and can also win if he gets the right opportunities.
Several riders are dark horses. One of these is Leif Hoste (Lotto). The Belgian has had high finishes in the classics, but he has not broken through for a major victory, and perhaps too much has been expected of him. Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) won the 2006 Tour of Flanders and finished third in that year's Paris-Roubaix. Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) has shown classics promise with victories in the 2005 Het Volk and the 2006 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but he might need more experience riding the Hell of the North.
Tomorrow's Paris-Roubaix will be an epic battle. Read about it at www.roadcycling.com!