The cobbled Classics season comes to a close with the most hallowed, feared, and desired of them all: Paris-Roubaix.
Now 128 years old, the race has attained mythic status for the unrelenting brutality of its cobblestones, which make up a whole third of the decisive final 150km of this 257km epic. Victory here for a rider immediately will make up for even the worst possible spring, while failure to go well here can leave a sour taste regardless of how many wins have been picked up in the prior weeks.
This is a race that rewards pure strength, often coming down to attritional slugfests between the most powerful engines in the peloton. The stars of the Classics over the past decade, such as Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert, have all won here while in their prime, while before that one of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara used to virtually win every year.
Yet it can also be a very unpredictable race. Victories from riders who made it in the early breakaway of the day have occurred multiple times, with Matthew Hayman (2016), Johan Vansummeren (2011) and Stuart O’Grady (2006) all pulling off surprises that way over the last 15 editions. And, surprisingly, there hasn’t been a single repeat winner since Cancellara’s third and final triumph 10 years ago.
With only one former winner riding with the form to triumph again this year, 2023 is likely to see yet another different winner. Here’s our picks for who looks best positioned to do so.
Mathieu van der Poel
First at Milan-Sanremo and second at the Tour of Flanders, Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) has so far this spring enjoyed the best run of Monument results of his career so far, but can he win Paris-Roubaix? For a race that seems so perfectly suited to a rider of his raw power and bike handling, he’s had a surprisingly tough time in previous editions, lacking the legs to follow the decisive moves at the end of last year’s edition, and finishing last in a three-up sprint he might have been expected to win on debut in 2021.
As a race that, compared to most others, is so often won by long-range solo attacks, Van der Poel’s instincts to race on the front-foot could be rewarded here, especially as he’ll want to neutralise the threat posed by Jumbo-Visma and their strength in numbers. Brace yourselves: he’s liable to attack at any moment from the Arenberg Forest onwards.
Wout van Aert
Finishing first (E3 Saxo Classic), second (Gent-Wevelgem), third (Milan-Sanremo) and fourth (Tour of Flanders) in your four Classics appearances in spring would be a phenomenal return for virtually every other rider in the world, but in the case of a rider as talented as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), the consensus is that he’s underachieving and is short of his best.
The Belgian hasn’t quite been at the level of Van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar this spring, and has consequently missed out on both Monuments already completed this season while they picked up one each. In fact, it’s now been nine Monument appearances and over three years since his only win. He’s long overdue one, and, in the absence of Pogačar, Sunday provides one of his best opportunities yet if he can just find that extra 1% of form.
While it’s difficult to see any other rider matching Van Aert and Van der Poel without tactical manoeuvres and crash and mechanical-related contrasting luck playing a role, there is one joker in the pack who could feasibly mix it up with them: Filippo Ganna. After all, it was he who disturbed the usual Big Three at Milan-Sanremo by placing second behind Van der Poel and ahead of Van Aert and Pogačar.
Though his form hasn’t been so good in the cobbled Classics that followed, with a DNF at Gent-Wevelgem followed by a distant 91st at Dwars door Vlaanderen, he has been preparing specifically for Paris-Roubaix, where the lack of climbing should suit the heavyweight much better. The main question will be how well he can handle the cobblestones in a race he’s only finished once in three attempts (and was then a modest 35th), but as a former winner of the under-23 race he might be more accomplished than we realise.
Dylan van Baarle
Having been so superior to every other team this spring yet failed to win either of Milan-Sanremo or the Tour of Flanders, Jumbo-Visma will be desperate not to squander this opportunity, and build upon the many Classics wins they’ve picked up by winning their first Monument since 2020.
Sixth-place finisher from 2021 Christophe Laporte and the ever-reliable Nathan Van Hooydonck are among the strongest riders in Wout van Aert’s supporting cast, but as defending champion, Dylan van Baarle is the name that stands out. There are question marks concerning his fitness after crashing out of E3 Saxo Classic and missing the Tour of Flanders through illness, but he’s the kind of rider who thrives when underestimated, and should not be allowed to slip clear like he did to win last year’s edition.
If Stefan Küng is eventually going to win the major Classic he’s been getting close to in the last few years, you sense it will be Paris-Roubaix. Its parcours suits his diesel, time trialling engine better than the puncheur rhythm of the Flanders Classics, as evidenced by the excellent third-place he managed here last year.
The Groupama-FDJ rider goes into this year’s edition in similar form to last year, having placed sixth at both the Tour of Flanders and E3 Saxo Classic, but will likely need a large dosage of luck and/or the kind of tactically astute perfectly timed attack he’s struggled in the past to produce if he’s going to defeat the stars.
The longer the race, the better Matej Mohorič tends to perform, so even though Paris-Roubaix isn’t the kind of race you’d expect a rider of his credentials to excel at (especially considering there are no downhills for him to deploy his notorious descending skills), he’s still a contender. That became clear last year, where he finished fifth having boldly attacked before even the arrival into the Arenberg Forest, over 100km from the finish. It’s unclear if he’ll be negatively affected by his crash at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, but, if fully fit, he could follow in the footsteps of his former Bahrain-Victorious teammate Sonny Colbrelli and become a surprise winner of the Hell of the North.
It seems remiss not to include any Soudal - Quick-Step riders among the top favourites for a race the team has won five of the last 14 editions of, but the form of, for instance, Florian Sénéchal and Yves Lampaert remains well short of that which has seen the former finish sixth here in 2019 and the latter make the top 10 on four separate occasions. Kasper Asgreen has looked in better shape, but does have a bad record at Paris-Roubaix, with a career-high finish here of just 44th.
Trek-Segafredo look to have better prospects, with Mads Pedersen greatly impressing to take third at the Tour of Flanders, although he too has found Paris-Roubaix tough going, having not even made the top 50 in any of his previous five appearances. By contrast, teammate Jasper Stuyven is a specialist in this race, and might be a better bet having made the top ten three times already in his career.
As well as Van Baarle, Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies), Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën) and John Degenkolb (DSM) are the other former winners set to compete, though all now appear well past their peak years. Instead, riders who have finished second in the past have better prospects: Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Dstny) might not have built upon his runner-up finish two years ago, but that ride still proves he has the talent, while Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech) — second in 2019 and 2013 respectively — have shown flashes of form this spring.
Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny) is a debutant that will attract lots of attention, though his form has tailed off since finishing second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, while young riders Fred Wright (Bahrain-Victorious) and Magnus Sheffield (Ineos Grenadiers) are both capable of breakthrough rides. And in the competitive scramble to get into the break of the day, look out for Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty) and Dwars door Vlaanderen runner-up Oier Lazkano (Movistar), who are exactly the kind of riders who could spring a surprise from an early breakaway.
Men's Paris-Roubaix 2023 prediction
Jumbo-Visma were unable to use their strength in numbers at the Tour of Flanders, as they failed to get many numbers in the early breaks and were scuppered by Tadej Pogačar’s unstoppable attacks. This time, however, with no Pogačar to worry about, and with Dylan van Baarle further bolstering their line-up, they really ought to dominate the race.
In these circumstances, surely the time has come for Wout van Aert to end his drought in Monuments and win Paris-Roubaix for the first time in his career.