2012 Paris-Roubaix Preview: The Queen of the Classics

All eyes are turned on the rampaging Belgian, Tom Boonen. He’s captured all the Flandrian Classics, and now must win on French soil to complete the dream season for the former World Champion. It won’t be easy.

Sadly, the main theme of this edition of the Paris-Roubaix will be the absence of Fabian Cancellara. After a hard crash at Flanders, Spartacus is recovering from surgery to repair a quadruple fracture of the collarbone. The operation went swimmingly and RadioShack-Nissan-TREK announced that Cancellara will be back on the bike as early as today, but won’t race again until the end of May.

Cancellara’s absence creates a power vacuum for someone to force the hand of Tom Boonen and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team. In 2012, there is no fear of one rider being able to ride away from the entire peloton, a threat Cancellara embodied since 2007.

If any rider from recent events showed anything like Fabs’ style and power, it might be a necessary stretch to give credit to Alessandro Ballan. The BMC man hopped away on the last climb at Flanders, a ferocious attack that just Boonen and Pozatto could respond to. He isn’t as dominate as Cancellara, nor as capable of striking from distance, but he does have the advantage of a strong team. After his third place last week, followed closely by teammate Greg van Avermaet, he should get the full support of high-quality riders like George Hincapie, Thor Hushovd and Philipe Gilbert. That trio is ample support for GVA and Ballan, though OPQS has shown no signs of weakness beyond the final 15km, and inside 15km Boonen can take care of himself.

Filippo Pozzato took second at Flanders, but may have been the day’s revelation. The Italian was ridiculed for not attacking from further out in the style of Ballan, but Pippo trusted his sprint to duke it out with Boonen, a tactic he probably would not repeat at Paris-Roubaix. He looked the strongest on climbs, and though the Roubaix has less severe ascents, there are still places to put others in the hurt locker of the course in addition to the 27 cobble sectors.

Peter Sagan has ridden in two forms over the past two weeks. On one hand, he’s been consistently one of the strongest riders at races like de Panne, Dwars, E3, and Gent. On the other, he’s been listening to criticism perhaps a little too much; after being ridiculed as young and dumb for joining a Fabian Cancellara attack 30km out at Gent (which may have worked if Cancellara didn’t flat), only to be chided for missing Ballan’s move Sunday at Flanders. When Johan van Summeran crashed on the top of a climb, Sagan was stopped but was the first to get free and give chase. He never got on, but still had the gas to finish fifth overall, second in the field sprint. If he can stay out of trouble, he is probably faster than Boonen from within 500 meters.

The only other rider besides Sagan to give an honest chase after the crash was Luca Paolini of Katusha. He failed to even catch Sagan ahead of him on the road in decent time, but the move was an excellent show of force that highlights a return to form. He’s the quality rider capable of going with a decoy move, perhaps thrown up the road by OPQS or BMC, and make the best of it by sneaking away and taking a win. He will be very highly marked after his seventh place finish.

In the wake of Cancellara, RadioShack-Nissan-TREK has to be buoyed by strong rides from Greg Rast (11th), Hayden Roulston (21st), and Tony Gallopin (24th) after stopping for some time to wait for Cancellara. The threesome create a strong, multi-headed monster for teams to mark. It will be very interesting to see how much attention RSNT riders garner from teams like BMC and OPQS, who will have so many men to watch that a name like Roulston or Rast might be allowed to slip into breaks without too much of a fight.

Perhaps the dark horse is SKY’s Juan Antonio Flecha. He missed a lot of Spring racing trying to heal from a hand injury but still managed to take 20th at Flanders, one spot behind teammate Edvald Boasson-Hagan. Like BMC, SKY has two good options, with teams having to choose whether Flecha or EBH is more of a threat. Flecha should be even stronger with a Classic in his legs and an extra week of racing, and should draw serious attention if he puts in a dig in the last 20km.

Last year’s winner Johan van Summeran is not on the same form as last year, but will still be one of Garmin’s best threats, though Heinrich Haussler’s 30th place has to be encouraging. Sep Vanmarcke, the young gun of the squad, took a step back at Flanders, finishing in van Summeran’s group for 48th place. He’s a young rider that doesn’t have the legs to be super-super (as Andy Schleck would say) every race, but it would be no surprise to see him back in the mix this Sunday.

At the moment, the weather for the weekend is calling for copious amounts of rain, making the cobbles wet and treacherous. Certain secteurs of the race were professionally redone over last summer and fall, and the ASO assures that the riders will be safe. Wet editions of Paris-Roubaix are infamous for crashes, slick roads and mud pit thick enough to stop bikes in their tracks.

This might be the hardest Classics race to predict. Sure, Boonen is the favorite, but can OPQS fend off everyone? Last week, the field marked Cancellara heavily, and after his fall, seemed almost unsure of what to do with Boonen. They’ll all have a plan focused to defeat Tornado Tom. In somewhat of an upset, I’ll take Peter Sagan for the win, followed by Alessandro Ballan and Greg van Avermaet. Boonen is going to do too much, too soon after attacks finally leave him isolated from further out than he’ll enjoy. Watch for Sylvan Chavanel to bury himself for Boonen, and he may even finish ahead of his captain. But hey, it’s Paris-Roubaix: anything can happen.

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