Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chasing the Gypsy: Preview of the 2012 Paris-Roubaix

It's hard to not have the image of Tom Boonen of OmegaPharma-QuickStep (OPQS) winning last Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen (RvV) in our minds as we consider the 2012 Paris-Roubaix (PR). In case there is any doubt, we think that Boonen is the best classics rider of his generation. Some argue that Fabian Cancellara of Radioshack-Nissan should be there, too, but we argue back that the ways with which Boonen has earned his multiple wins show that he is in a class of his own.

Tommeke's 2012 season may be historical for two reasons. First is that he joined the elite group who has won 3 editions of RvV, in the company of Johan Museeuw, Eric Leman, Achiel Buysee, and Fiorenzo Magni.

Second is that if he wins on Sunday, he will join Roger de Vlaeminck as winner of 4 editions of PR. Back in his heyday, De Vlaeminck's black hair and dark handsome look earned him the nickname The Gypsy. While it is true that De Vlaeminck competed in a different era, it is hard to not be awed by his collection of 4x Paris-Roubaix, 1x Ronde, 2x Lombardia, 3x Milan-Sanremo, 6x Tirreno-Adriatico and 1x Liège.

In two previous posts, we examined 10 years' worth of RvV and PR. If anything else, examining the many different ways that Boonen has won his three RvV and PR is a masters class in itself. With Cancellara now absent due to an unfortunate accident, we ponder how the 2012 Paris-Roubaix may play out.

Here are our thoughts on the coming 2012 edition, on how weather may play a big role, Boonen's chances, and why Juan-Antonio Flecha might pray for it to rain.

Weather may play a big role

Wednesday's Scheldeprijs was subjected to a drizzle in the last 40 km. Cobbled warriors are well aware that rain following a long period of dry means the dust coating over the cobbles will be very slick. A deluge removes the dust and exposes the cobbles, while a drizzle leaves the dust on the cobbles and it may form mud cake over the stones.

Which is worse? Well, it depends on the temperature and humidity on the day in question. If Sunday ends up being dry, mud cake will remain on the cobbles and we will see a sunny Roubaix with very little dust. If Sunday ends up being humid, mud cake may be more muddy than cakey and thus add extra slickness.

Forecast for the Nord-pas-Calais region of France where the secteurs pavés are call for a dry and sunny Thursday but clody Fridays and Saturdays.

Forecast from
It's hard to make a call at this time how the parcours will be. But we know for sure that most of the race course was subjected to significant rain last Wednesday just as rain fell on the Scheldeprijs.

Weather satellite image from
We await the traditional recon photos on Friday to reduce prediciton uncertainty.

It's hard to imagine a replay of 2011

Paris-Roubaix is truly a race of attrition, with each passing of the secteurs pave reducing the winning chance of contenders who are just slightly weaker than the pace demands. Thus, by nature upset wins are rare. Moreover, it is rare that a supporting rider from a strong squad wins, like in 2011.

To Boonen's credit as a team leader his squad seems completely dedicated to him. Thus, strong squad means Boonen will be in the finale, unlike how his 2011 race ended.

Despite Boonen's dominance, we don't think that a replay of 2011 is likely. Not to take away from Johan Van Summeren's accomplishment, but his was a team win by a strong Garmin-Cervelo. While QuickStep's anemic squad was eliminated in the Arenberg, all other top contenders watched Fabian Cancellara fearfully, and among those who were ahead Johan Van Summeren was clearly the strongest.

This time around OPQS has a very strong and deep squad: Niki Terpstra, Sylvain Chavanel, Gert Steegmans, Dries Devenyns are all in shape, and the first two are credible threats. Keep in mind that Boonen has done well regardless of weather conditions. His impressive first-year showing in 2002 was in treacherously muddy and wet Roubaix, his 2005 win was in very fine weather, and both 2008-09 were in dusty and hot conditions.

Team BMC might be the spoiler

We admit this freely: we were surprised by Alessandro Ballan. After a few seasons in the wilderness, he appears to be back to his 2007-2008 form and level of confidence, the two best seasons in his career capped by winning RvV, the world champs, and finishing on the Roubaix podium.

We were also impressed by teammates Greg Van Avermaet, and surprise surprise, Philippe Gilbert. The latter knows he's not quite in top shape, and appears to be willing to play supporting teammate instead. To contrast, we think that Thor Hushovd's form is still under expectation.

With little luck, BMC will have a few of their riders in the final part of the race, and with a little more luck, they may come home with at least a podium spot. The problem is guessing which BMC rider will be the top finisher.

Other contenders will be forced to take a huge risk

Given the strength of the favorite team OPQS, other contenders such as Filippo Pozzato (Farnese-Vini), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda), and Juan-Antonio Flecha (Sky) will be forced to take a huge risk. Whether that risk will pay off will depend once again on weather conditions. A treacherously slick condition may upset the race. The question is, who among these will be allowed off the front?

If it sounds as if we just turned about on our earlier assessment, allow us to clarify: we think that good condition will guarantee that OPQS keep a stranglehold on the race successfully. Bad weather may upset things. Now, if you were Juan-Antonion Flecha, wouldn't you be praying for wet conditions?

How do you think the race will play out this year and what do you look forward to?

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