A race like no other
On one hand, Paris-Roubaix is the culmination of a whole spring season of racing, the last of a series of Northern Europe-based Classics defined by their cobbled roads, temperamental weather and aggressive racing.
On the other hand, the so-called Queen of the Classics is also a totally unique entity not really comparable to any other race on the calendar. The cobblestones here are cruder, more dangerous, and there are a lot more of them – 29 stretches of them, amounting to over 50km in total, all crammed into the final 165km.
Neither are there any of the uphill ‘bergs’ that are everywhere in the Belgian Classics. The cobbled sections in Paris-Roubaix, and the entire parcours for that matter are pan flat, posing a very different challenge.
There is a lot of overlap between contenders for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but this is a race that favours the real heavyweights that can churn out huge watts over lengthy distances (257km in total), riders with the highest pain threshold who are best equipped to triumph in a war of attrition.
The key pavé sections
Paris-Roubaix is a race that can be won or lost almost anywhere – take last year when Peter Sagan lost his strong position in the race and any chance of winning after being hit with a puncture on an innocuous looking section 32km from the finish.
But there are three points on the route always singled out for being the most important.
The first is the Arenberg Forest, typically the first real sort out in the race. Even though it comes 95km from the finish, it is not to be missed – frighteningly jagged cobblestones and sunshine-blocking trees create the kind of eerie, nightmarish atmosphere that earns this race the nickname ‘Hell of the North’.
Those with ambitions of going for a long-range move often do so on the Mons-en-Pévèle 50km from the finish, to emulate the likes of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara whose attacks here remain some of the most memorable moments of recent Paris-Roubaix editions.
The last section to make a difference is the Carrefour de l’Arbre, another road with shockingly uneven paving and large crevices. Positioned at just 17km from the finish, this is the moment for the strongest riders in the race to lead from the front and drop any hangers on before the finish at the Roubaix velodrome.
Can anyone stop Quick-Step Floors?
At this moment, Quick-Step Floors look almost unbeatable in the Classics. Time and time again this spring they have dominated races this spring, winning eight Classics since late February.
By now the team has a significant psychological advantage as well as physical, with the sight of their four leaders – Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert and Niki Terpstra – making every selection enough to intimidate and dismay the rest of the field, who are running out of ideas and belief.
However, there are many variables in cycling, especially at Paris-Roubaix, so by no means do Quick-Step Floors have this one in the bag too.
Crashes and mechanicals pose an even greater threat here, either of which could puncture the numerical advantage the team has benefited from all spring.
With the severity of the parcours ruling out a bunch finish, they will have no sprinter to fall back on (which is how they have won three of those eight Classics wins this spring), meaning the team will plan to win from a solo attack (which is how they won the other five).
Though this has proven successful so far all spring, if the other favourites are more attentive and manage to cover any move to form a breakaway rather than let a Quick-Step Floors rider fly unmarked up the road, it won’t be such a procession for them.
The odds remain stacked in the Belgian’s teams favour, but Paris-Roubaix is a race where nothing is guaranteed.
Big names with one last chance to redeem their spring
With Quick-Step floors hoarding so much success this spring, there are plenty of big name riders who will currently be disappointed with how their campaigns have turned out.
Whereas this time last year everything Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) touched turned to gold, this season he has yet to win a single Classic.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has by contrast won Ghent-Wevelgem, but will still consider his results in the monuments (sixth at Milan-San Remo and sixth again at the Tour of Flanders) as underwhelming.
The likes of Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) won’t have carried with them the same weight of expectation, but will nonetheless feel their form merited more than the winless streaks they have suffered this spring.
And Team Sky as a whole have failed to make an impression. The usual suspects of Gianni Moscon, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Dylan van Baarle will all-line up in the hope of putting that to right, and will be joined by Geraint Thomas, making his return to the cobbles for the first time this season.
For any of these riders, all disappointments accrued during spring so far would be forgotten in a flash were they to win at Paris-Roubaix.
Mads Pedersen the centre of attention in a strong Trek-Segafredo team
Following his breakout performance at the Tour of Flanders, where he became the youngest rider in decades to make the podium, the cycling world will be fascinated to see how Mads Pedersen gets on at Paris-Roubaix.
Ominously, his powerful, heavy frame and status as a time trial specialist means he looks even better suited to Paris-Roubaix than the Ronde, suggesting that it would be wise not to rule the 22-year old out from even winning the race.
Even if that is too much to ask, his presence will strengthen a strong-looking Trek-Segafredo team. John Degenkolb won this race back in 2015 and, even if he has never reclaimed the form of that day, remains very well-suited to this race.
As does Jasper Stuyven, who was fourth last year, while domestiques like Irishman Ryan Mullen and Boy Van Poppel could take control of the race if required.
With so many specialists for this race on their roster, Trek-Segafredo might a convincing underdog candidate able to challenge the Quick-Step Floors dominance.