Five things to look out for at Paris-Roubaix 2021

After more than 900 days of waiting, the Hell of the North returns

The first wet Paris-Roubaix in nineteen years?

Paris-Roubaix

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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but we might be in for a wet Paris-Roubaix. It feels like every year the prospect of rainfall coinciding with the Queen of the Classics is hyped up, but this time predictions might genuinely come to fruition; with just two days to go, the forecast is indicating rain on Sunday.

The notion of a wet Paris-Roubaix has taken on an almost mythical status over the years. It’s now been almost twenty years since the last one, and images and footage of mud-splattered jerseys have become part of cycling folklore, becoming ever more exotic with every year that passes without another rain-affected edition. 

There are a lot of cycling fans now that are too young to remember that race, let alone the similarly wet editions of the past. For those who adore cycling for its toughness, and romanticize the grittier days of old, the prospect of a wet Paris-Roubaix would make up for the long, two-and-a-half year wait it’s been for the race to return. 

However, plenty of the cyclists competing won’t see it that way. Treacherous cobblestones already make Paris-Roubaix one of the most dangerous races on the calendar, and rainfall will only serve to intensify the jeopardy. No-one wants to see riders hurt in crashes and/or their hopes end with a fall, least of all the riders themselves. Can a balance be struck between the epic possibilities of a wet Paris-Roubaix and sufficient protection for the riders? We might be about to find out. 

This year’s Paris-Roubaix is already an atypical one, with its autumnal slot replacing its usual springtime character. If it rains as well, it really will live up to its moniker of ‘Hell of the North’. 

Deceuninck-Quick Step with multiple cards to play as they target Holy Week double

Deceuninck - Quick-Step

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It’s been ten years since Deceuninck-Quick Step failed to place a rider on the podium at Paris-Roubaix, and their brilliant historical record at this race, and their general dominance in all of the cobbled classics, mean they will be looked at to control the race. 

Even without the recently crowned world champion Julian Alaphilippe, who is set to save himself for next weekend’s Il Lombardia instead, the team certainly has the manpower to do so. 

They’ve already won the Tour of Flanders this year courtesy of Kasper Asgreen, so if they were to win on Sunday, this would be the first time they have achieved the ‘Holy Week’ double since 2012. Asgreen might just be their best option of doing so, given how strong he looked at the World Championships, plus the fact his riding style looks a perfect match for Paris-Roubaix.

Deceuninck-Quick Step’s approach won't be to rally behind one single leader, therefore we should expect attacks from many of their riders. Former double-runner-up Zdenek Štybar is certainly one to watch out for, especially considering his resurgent form; his ride for seventh place at the Worlds was arguably the best he has looked since before the pandemic. And Yves Lampaert is a very dangerous rider on these roads, having finished third the last time an edition of Paris-Roubaix took place in 2019. 

Even if attacks from these riders fail, the team has the sprint finish of Florian Sénéchal to fall back on. The Frenchman has quietly been one of the team’s best riders this season, and could be a great card to play in the finale, seeing as he is capable of beating most non-specialists in a sprint. 

However the race unfolds, Deceuninck-Quick Step will likely be in a position to win it come the endgame. 

Doubts about Van Aert’s form and past record

Wout van Aert

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Is Wout van Aert’s form on the wane? The Jumbo-Visma rider has enjoyed an electrifying season, playing a starring role in the spring classics before going on to win three remarkable stages at the Tour de France plus silver at the Olympics road race, and returned to racing earlier this autumn in similarly brilliant form to win the Tour of Britain and take another silver medal at the Worlds time trial.

But his performance at the Worlds road race, where he was unable to follow the decisive moves in the finale, was perhaps an indication that his legs are running out of steam. Although his struggles in that race were partly to do with being the top favourite everyone had their eyes on, it’s also true that he simply didn’t have the legs when it mattered.

Whether or not he is as strong as he was, Van Aert would certainly benefit from the perception that he is past his peak form. Like Peter Sagan for much of the past decade, he has found it difficult to race while burdened with the tag of favourite. Paris-Roubaix is generally a less tactical race than the Worlds, and sheer strength alone is more likely to succeed here than what are generally less selective World Championships courses, but even here a rider can be marked out of contention.

Another thing that might play against Van Aert is his past record at Paris-Roubaix. Finishes of 13th in 2018 and 22nd in 2019 are perfectly respectable, but underwhelming for a rider of his ability. It is true that he’s come on leaps and bounds since the latter appearance, having only registered a handful of podium finishes in the classics prior to it. But Van Aert’s comparable record at the Tour of Flanders in those same years (9th in 2018 and 14th in 2019) are notably better than at Paris-Roubaix, possibly hinting that he’s not quite so well suited to Paris-Roubaix. 

Having said all that, Van Aert is such a quality rider that you can’t really count him as anything other than a top favourite for the race. That he still has only one monument to his name (the 2020 Milan-San Remo) does him a disservice — could he add a second on Sunday?

Van der Poel in the ascendency? 

Mathieu van der Poel

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While evidence from the Worlds suggested that Van Aert’s form might be fading, his great rival Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) appeared to be in the ascendancy.

His presence in Flanders at the World Champs had been in serious doubt prior to the race, due to ongoing problems with a back injury, so the fact he managed to stay with the favourites for the most part and register a finish of eighth was a promising sign of improvement. 

While he certainly lacked his usual spark and didn’t mount even one of his trademark attacks, you sense that after an extra week of training he might be somewhere near his best once more.

A note of caution should be sounded, however. Of all the races to compete in while recovering from a back injury, Paris-Roubaix might just be the worst one, and although it did not appear to affect him significantly in Flanders, tackling over 50km of cobblestones will be a whole other test for his back. 

It’s also worth noting that Van der Poel has never before ridden Paris-Roubaix. Of course, lack of experience has hardly held him back in other races, and he managed to win each of Amstel Gold, Brabantse Pijl and Dwars door Vlaanderen on debut, plus the Tour of Flanders on his second attempt. But Paris-Roubaix requires a great deal of racing nous as well as pure strength, and Van der Poel’s tendency to slip towards the back of the bunch when he ought to be at the front, for instance, could seriously play against him here.

But Van der Poel is a fearless rider, and won’t be especially nervous about making his debut, even meeting the prospect of foul weather by saying it would be “quite cool if it rains”. For the good of the race, it would be fantastic to see him at his explosive, aggressive best. 

A select few other favourites 

Trek-Segafredo

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While good luck is essential at Paris-Roubaix in terms of avoiding crashes and mechanicals, it’s also true that good luck alone will only get you so far; in a race as specialised and selective as this, only a small few have a genuine chance of winning.

Aside from Van Aert, Van der Poel and the Deceuninck-Quick Step stars, Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) is certainly one such rider. The Belgian has already made the top five here on two occasions, broke his monument duck earlier this season at Milan-San Remo, and is in great form having only very narrowly missed out on a podium at the Worlds. 

Even without Tom Pidcock, who’s opted not to ride, Ineos Grenadiers have another top contender in Dylan van Baarle. The Dutchman was the rider who sprinted Stuyven out of the medals in Flanders to take a silver for himself, and goes great on the cobbles. Curiously, he has a much better record at the Tour of Flanders (where he has made the top ten on four occasions) than at Paris-Roubaix (where his highest finish remains sixteenth in 2016), but as a strong, heavyweight rouleur, he should, in theory, possess all the attributes necessary to win Paris-Roubaix.

Although they lack the big results of the aforementioned favourites, Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies) are both still young enough to be on upward trajectories in their careers, which could have ceilings high enough to potentially win Paris-Roubaix, especially considering the form they showed at the Worlds. 

There will be a total of five former winners lining up, in the shape of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroen), Niki Terpstra (TotalEnergies) and the Lotto-Soudal duo of John Degenkolb and Philippe Gilbert, the latter of whom remains defending champion having triumphed the last time the race took place way back in 2019. But none of these riders appears to have the form to be among the genuine contenders this time around.

In much better form are Worlds bronze medalist Michal Valgren (EF Education-Nippo) and the Bahrain-Victorious duo of Sonny Colbrelli and Matej Mohorič. But all of these riders lack any credentials at Paris-Roubaix, and it’s unclear whether their attributes are a good fit for this unique race. Others like Sep Vanmarcke (Israel StartUp Nation) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r Citroen) who have the opposite problem, of having a good record here, but a lack of form. Given that none of these riders won here when in peak form, victory this time around also looks unlikely.