Can anyone beat Boonen at Paris-Roubaix?

Tim Renowden Columnist

By Tim Renowden, Tim Renowden is a Roar Expert

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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
    Tim Renowden

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (6)

    • April 3rd 2012 @ 10:09am
      Justin Curran said | April 3rd 2012 @ 10:09am | ! Report

      Boonan never looked like losing Flanders. He just looked so strong and in control, and when he got into that 3 man break away towards the finish it was goodnight nurse for the rest of the field. For the sake of variety it would be nice to see someone else get up for the win. I find it amazing that amongst the whole peloton there can be one rider that is so dominant. But like you say TIm, the cobbles can chew you up and spit you out regardless of your form.

    • April 3rd 2012 @ 11:09am
      HardcorePrawn said | April 3rd 2012 @ 11:09am | ! Report

      “caught in no-man’s land on the attack in Flanders…”
      I like that, very evocative!

    • April 3rd 2012 @ 12:30pm
      Bob said | April 3rd 2012 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

      Boonen said that he struggled all day in Flanders. That was why he followed wheels for most of the day, and was gapped on the last ascent of the Paterberg. He rode incredibly well to hold onto Pippo and Ballan in the last twenty or so km before his inevitably classy finish. He credited the headwind for helping him – it certainly dissuaded Pozzatto from attacking before the sprint. I think Sagan, Pozzatto and Ballan were all stronger than Boonen on Sunday, but the two Italians weren’t strong enough to dislodge Boonen before Oudenaarde, and Sagan had earlier panicked and burnt his matches.

      So while Boonen’s win was historic and well deserved, I think his competitors will sniff a chance. After winning E3, G-W and RvV, Boonen may well be struggling to hold his peak for another week.

      But if anyone can, Boonen can. What a stud.

      • Columnist

        April 3rd 2012 @ 5:34pm
        Tim Renowden said | April 3rd 2012 @ 5:34pm | ! Report

        If he can win like that when he’s having a bad day, what hope is there of beating him when he’s feeling good? 😉

        • April 4th 2012 @ 9:36pm
          Dimi said | April 4th 2012 @ 9:36pm | ! Report

          And to add insult to injury, his bike was giving him trouble too. It got better after his team put some oil on his gears (which is why Boonen was all the way in the back around the time Cancellara fell), but he still couldn’t use his 23 & 25 gears. So he had to go up the hills on his 21 gear, which is why he was struggling to keep up with the other two on the final hill.

          As a Boonen fan i’ll be rooting for him, but it won’t be easy. I was very impressed by Pozzato, Balan and Sagan last week. I wouldn’t be all the surprised if one of the wins.

    • April 4th 2012 @ 8:06am
      Rodolpho Arruda said | April 4th 2012 @ 8:06am | ! Report

      Watch ‘A Sunday in Hell’ in YouTube here:

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