How Soudal–Quick-Step can end their cobbled hoodoo and win Paris-Roubaix

Soudal–Quick-Step aren’t the cobbled Classic kings they once were. Everyone is also well-versed in the question: can they return to their former glory?

At this weekend’s Paris-Roubaix, they are seeking to win their first major cobbled race since Kasper Asgreen triumphed at the 2021 Tour of Flanders. Before, a barren run stretching across three seasons was unthinkable. Now it’s been normalised to the extent that very few of their Roubaix starters are expected to even trouble the top-10.

But this is the Hell of the North. The race in which Quick-Step legends Tom Boonen, Johan Museeuw, Philippe Gilbert and Niki Terpstra have triumphed at. Some, multiple times over. Can history repeat itself in the 121st edition of Roubaix? They might not have the preeminent cobbled stars of the current generation on their books but they do have, team manager Patrick Lefevere points out, a “heritage” and “knowledge”. “We have a lot of experience in the car as well,” Lefevere adds. Asgreen sings from the same page. “Our strength is our experience,” the Dane says. “We have a lot of riders who have done Roubaix several times. With that experience, we know how to win the race.”

Yet can Quick-Step really spring a surprise this weekend and win a coveted cobble for the first time since Gilbert did in 2019? “We have seven cards to play,” Asgreen says, singling out himself, Yves Lampaert, Gianni Moscon and Tim Merlier as the guarded quartet in their select hand. “The key is to open up the race earlier. We won’t be the only ones doing that, and there will be strong collectives in other teams who have the same interest in doing that.”

So go from far out, and go long - that’s been a tactic that has won many a Roubaix down the years. Having numbers in the break has also been fruitious in the past. “I think that [getting in the break] could definitely be a good option,” Asgreen goes on. “It’s happened before that the breakaway went all the way. We’re going to keep an eye out in the beginning - almost everybody will be – and especially with the tailwind that’s going to be there.”

His paymaster, Lefevere, concurs. “I have always said in the past that if you can be in the breakaway you never have to fight in the cobbles and you arrive at the finale with less fatigue.” That’s where the veteran Belgian spots an opportunity for his countryman sprinter, Merlier. “Tim is an ex-cyclocross racer, he has a very young career on the road, is in very good shape, and he can do very well. He rode a very intelligent Tour of Flanders and he can do the same in Roubaix.”

On Wednesday, Merlier triumphed in the spring’s main sprint showdown: Scheldeprijs, a result that at least alleviates the pressure a tiny bit. “I am thinking if Jasper Philipsen finished second last year [at Roubaix], Tim must be able to do the same,” Lefevere adds. “It’s a race you have to race very smart. You can’t wait until the world champion goes - that doesn't seem a smart move.”

There is no naivety and denial that Quick-Step are not the force of yesteryear, but they are bullish about their prospects. “Our role has changed a lot,” Asgreen admits. “We are not the big favourites, and if you're not the big favourite you are the underdog. The size of our Classics roster is a bit smaller, but we still have a lot of quality names.” They believe, but does anyone else?

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