Can anyone beat Boonen at Paris-Roubaix?

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Tom Boonen (centre) wins the Tour of Flanders ahead of Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan. (AFP)

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Tom Boonen displayed sensational form to win the Tour of Flanders this weekend. With a mere week’s break before cycling’s next monument, Paris-Roubaix, he looks the red-hot favourite to repeat the dose and win his fourth Hell of the North.

Roger De Vlaemink is the only man to have won Paris-Roubaix four times (1972, 1974, 1975, 1977), so a win to Boonen would be an historic event for the cycling world.

For those unfamiliar with the race’s long and romantic history of inflicting suffering on riders, Paris Roubaix is a race for the real hard men of cycling. It’s so hard, the winner’s trophy is a block of granite lifted from the race’s pavé roads. That’s hard.

The numerous sections of roughly paved roads require specific skills (these sections favour strong riders who can maintain their momentum over the uneven surface) and a strong helping of luck. Mechanical failures are a constant threat: just ask George Hincapie, whose steerer tube snapped spectacularly in the 2006 edition, sending him over the handlebars.

Most riders use specially designed bikes at Paris-Roubaix; the course is just as punishing on the bicycles as on the riders.

And if the weather turns bad, it becomes a 257km slog through mud, rain and icy winds.

For newcomers hoping to understand the race, I recommend you go and watch ‘A Sunday In Hell’, the famous documentary of the 1976 edition of the race, for a taste.

My former clubmate at Rollapaluza CC, Paul ‘Winston’ Churchill, recently visited the Arenberg forest and rode on the cobbles. You can read his thoughts here.

The race won’t be won in the Arenberg forest, but it can easily be lost there, and positioning in the first 20 or so riders is vital given the high likelihood of crashes, punctures and general mayhem.

With Fabian Cancellara out, recovering from a broken collarbone obtained in Flanders, the field of potential challengers to Boonen’s dominance appears significantly weakened. However, this may have a perverse effect whereby the rest of field focuses even more attentively on Boonen.

One less threat to mark means more resources can be poured into attacking the Belgian.

So, where will the threats come from?

Team BMC should have plenty of weapons: Alessandro Ballan’s strong third place in Flanders shows he is back in the kind of form that won him the rainbow jersey in 2008, but if it comes down to a sprint finish he is unlikely to win. His team-mate Greg Van Avermaet won the sprint for fourth place in Flanders (ahead of Peter Sagan), and should perhaps be considered a more realistic threat.

With Philippe Gilbert’s 2011 form seemingly left behind at his old team (or being saved for the Ardennes Classics, which he single-handedly destroyed last year), and Thor Hushovd also looking out of sorts, these two stars may instead be used in support roles or to attack opportunistically.

Garmin-Barracuda will attack through 2011 winner Johan Vansummeren, Sep Vanmarcke and Heinrich Haussler.

Sky will have high hopes for Edvald Boasson Hagen (who was caught in no-man’s land on the attack in Flanders, but nevertheless looked strong) and Juan Antonio Flecha, who also seems to be coming into form.

Liquigas’s prodigy Peter Sagan will be another threat, if he can apply some tactical awareness to his strength, speed and aggressive urges.

It would be great to see GreenEDGE do well, but Matt Goss or Baden Cooke would be doing well to stay with the cobble specialists until the Roubaix velodrome.

Boonen will count on the support of Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel to disrupt his rivals and hunt down attacks, a role they performed beautifully in Flanders.

However, despite all of these rivals’ talents and ambitions, in an incident-free race it’s difficult to see past Boonen’s strength, experience, technique and ability to outsprint nearly anyone at the end of a long, hard race.

He can ride others off his wheel, or he can beat them in a straight-up sprint. It will take a combination of brilliant teamwork and race tactics to beat him. Or perhaps just some luck.

We are, after all, talking about a race where anything can, and does, happen.

Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. An ex-runner, now a club grade bike racer, Tim tweets about sport at @megabicicleta.