Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
On Sunday riders line up for the race known as the ‘Queen of the Classics’ and ‘L’Enfer de Nord’ (The Hell of the North), the third of cycling’s Monuments for 2016, the 114th edition of Paris-Roubaix.
This year the race route will cover 257.5 kilometres from Compiègne to the finish at the outdoor velodrome in Roubaix near the Belgian border.
The route itself is mostly flat but the challenge of the race comes not from the terrain but the road surface itself. This is no yellow brick road, it’s 27 teeth-rattling cobblestone sectors (or pavé) 52.8 kilometres in length that’ll have riders checking how many fillings they have left after the race.
Depending on the weather the pavé can be miserably muddy or kick up choking dust and this year is looking like a mud-fest. A tour of the route by race organisers on Monday revealed that the first sector at Troisville is so bad that rumour has it when they tried to drive a tractor over it it sank into the mud never to be seen again.
The locals have scrambled to try and hose off the mud in time for the big race – and find that tractor.
At the time of writing a decision has yet to be made whether to exclude the sector all together, shortening the total distance on the cobbles to 50.6 kilometres.
In another nod to safety organisers are busily checking the SNCF timetable to ensure riders don’t encounter high speed trains at level crossings to avoid a repeat of last year’s incident that nearly ended in disaster.
This race really suits the one-day specialists who can survive the punishing cobbles, frequent crashes and mechanical issues with their bikes.
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step)
Last year’s runner up to John Degenkolb (Giant Alpecin) has had plenty of experience on the rough and in mud as three time world cyclo-cross champion. He came second in this year’s Strade Bianche and won stage two of Tirreno-Adriatico. He finished eighth in last Sunday’s cobbled classic Tour of Flanders.
Commentator Phil Liggett bafflingly noted during last year’s Tour de France that Stybar ‘likes roads with no surface’. Phil had me scratching my head wondering if he was referring to unsealed roads or a preference for sailing through the air.
Alexander Kristoff (Team Katusha)
Norwegian rider Alexander Kristoff has had a good start to the season winning the points competition and finishing second in the general classification in the Driedaagse De Panne. He finished fourth in the Tour of Flanders against the class of Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke.
He was the red hot favourite last year but managed tenth place in Paris-Roubaix 2015. His recent form makes him a strong contender.
Sep Vanmarcke (Team LottoNL – Jumbo)
The Belgian has had a number of solid Paris-Roubaix finishes over the years and finished in second place in 2013. He put on a strong show in last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to finish third and was runner up in Gent-Wevelgem.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo)
This is the final Paris-Roubaix for Spartacus, a race he’s conquered three times and last won in 2013.
The Swiss maestro of the cobbles missed out last year due to injury. He returns in blistering form with a second place finish in the Tour of Flanders.
Will he be showboating in his final Paris-Roubaix? No way, he’ll be going all out to equal the record of four wins each for Belgians Roger De Vlaeminck in the 1970s and Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick Step).
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)
Reigning world road race champion Peter Sagan has well and truly put last year’s disappointing Spring classics season behind him winning Gent-Wevelgem and a stirring solo victory in last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, the first Monument of his career.
He made his run to the finish look like a ‘ride to the shops’ in the words of the SBS commentary team, albeit a rather gruelling one.
He turned it on for the fans popping a wheelie after the finish and who can forget the ‘double rainbow’ on the podium as he stood with women’s world road race champion Lizzie Armitstead (Boels – Dolmans), winner of the women’s Tour of Flanders.
The lure of a second Monument and a prestigious Tour of Flanders Paris-Roubaix double will be hard to resist and with his current form and a bit of luck there’s a fair chance we’ll see Sagan heft the famous cobble trophy over the rainbow jersey.